To most association meeting planners, the threat of protesters at the annual convention would cause sleepless nights. But for Robbi Lycett, vice president, conventions and conferences at Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization, which produced the BIO International Convention, protesters are par for the course. “It's something the industry lives with everyday,” she says. “The attendees who have been coming to our show for a while are kind of used to it.”

But that doesn't mean Lycett and her staff don't take the threat seriously. They hired a consultant to develop a security plan a few years ago and have become expert at preparing for the worst. Here's how they handled security at the 2007 BIO International Convention held in May at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Police Presence

Protesters show up at the BIO convention every year, many of them demonstrating against what they believe are the dangers of genetic engineering, and some years, the demonstrations are larger than others. The last time BIO came to Boston, in 2000, there were thousands of protesters.

History would not repeat itself when BIO returned to Boston this year. The event was tame by comparison, attracting about 60 protesters on the most active day, and far less on other days. In fact, the numbers have been low in recent years compared to previous conventions. Lycett isn't sure why that's the case, but the trend won't change the approach that the planning staff has developed over the years.

Security preparations begin a year in advance. The meeting-planning team invites police officers from the site of the next year's conference to the current show to observe their counterparts, see how security is handled, and get an idea of what to expect. Last year, Boston police officers traveled to Chicago and this year, San Diego cops were in Boston.

Then, a few months before the event takes place, planning staff has a series of meetings with local, state, and federal law enforcement officials, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to let them know that protesters are expected and to coordinate how security should be handled both inside and outside the building. Law enforcement officials also check the registration lists to make sure no one's on the list who shouldn't be. There was a great deal of intelligence gathering and sharing among federal, state, and local law enforcement officials on groups or individuals that might protest the event, says James Rooney, president and chief executive officer at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which runs the BCEC.

Right to Protest

On site at the event, BIO took care of security inside the building, while state and local law enforcement officials were responsible for policing activities outside the convention center. Inside the center, BIO hired a security company to check badges and stationed its own band of “security captains” — 10 to 15 former police officers and security professionals who travel with the event each year — around the building. They also hired a few off-duty, uniformed police officers, to patrol the center for added security.

Outside the building, an enlarged “first amendment rights” area was designated for the protesters. It was bigger than normal because of the number of protesters that were anticipated.

“We set up a protest area directly across the street from the main entrance to the convention center, where they weren't disrupting people from coming and going into the building, but you could see them,” says Rooney. “They couldn't have asked for a better location in terms of being able to be heard and be seen,” he says. “To the extent that they wanted to be heard, they were heard. It wasn't a situation where we tried to hide the fact that there were protesters. People have a right to voice their opinion.”

Police and convention center officials met with some of the protest groups in advance to let them know where they would be able to go and what they would be able to do. There were signs, parades, and megaphone protests, but the numbers were relatively low. One day there were about 60 protesters outside, but for the majority of the event, there were fewer than 10.

“Having a plan in which people don't feel like their freedom of speech is being trampled on is significant,” says Rooney. “When people are penned in a place where they are not going to be seen and heard, that's when they get angry and that's when bad things start to happen. It only takes one knucklehead to do something wrong and thankfully, it didn't happen.”

Over the course of the four-day event, there were two situations where people without the proper credentials got into the building, but they were quickly identified and escorted off the premises without incident.

Record-Setting Attendance

While security was the major concern, it was not the only one. The lack of hotel rooms close to the center presented a bit of a logistical challenge, says Lycett. The group had to use 34 hotels, some located outside the city, which made it essential to come up with a transportation plan. “We probably doubled our bus routes, tripled the number of buses, and had individualized transportation schedules from each hotel to the convention center,” she says. Through careful planning, staff were able to make a less than ideal situation work for attendees.

Logistical and security challenges aside, in the end, the convention was a great success for both Boston and BIO. BIO 2007, which featured actor Michael J. Fox and Queen Noor of Jordan as keynote speakers, attracted 22,336 people, a record for the conference as well as for the BCEC. Attendance was 15 percent higher than it was the previous year in Chicago.

Boston's status as one of the major cities for biotechnology companies made the city a huge draw, says Lycett. “There are a lot of biotech companies within driving distance of the convention center and that certainly helped,” says Lycett.

BIO by the Numbers

Attendance: 22,336

Exhibitors: 2,000

Hotel room nights: 31,100

Hotels: 34

Taxi rides: 13,373

Economic Impact: $31 million

Percentage of international attendees: 33 percent

U.S. states represented: 48

Countries represented: 64

Crab cakes produced: 5,400