Communicate, communicate, and communicate again. That's the message, loud and clear, from international meeting experts. We have a moral obligation to give attendees as much information as possible before they leave their homes for a meeting or incentive outside of our borders — and there are also legal ramifications. That's according to security expert Richard Werth (formerly president, Event & Meeting Security Services, Franklin, Tenn., and now a corporate security director).

Planners must keep tabs on events that might have an impact on attendance, travel, or safety — and be prepared to act accordingly and swiftly. And with world events so accessible to anyone with a television or a computer, the need to share responses and alternative plans has become even more critical.

It's impossible to predict what the next crisis will be or where it might happen. Before SARS, who would have guessed that travelers would be afraid to visit Toronto? Certainly not the American Association for Cancer Research, which decided to pull the plug on its 16,000-person annual conference in Toronto last April at the 11th hour after it became obvious that many expected attendees would be staying home.

SARS offered the perfect example of how bad news can snowball and result in a near panic. CNN, the Internet, and other instant information sources have given people a front-row seat to wars, disease outbreaks, and other calamities. “It's critical to understand that all your attendees and their families are seeing the same information,” said Werth. He spoke during a session at last fall's Beyond Borders Conference at the Motivation Show in Chicago.

Why is communication so important? As an attendee, “I cannot blame you for bad news, but I can blame you for not telling me,” opined Beyond Borders Conference panelist Jonathan Howe, president and senior partner, Howe & Hutton, a law firm with offices in Chicago, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.

Added Werth: “The more we tell our attendees and their families what to anticipate and what's going on, the more we raise their comfort level.”

Keeping Tabs on World Events

How can you keep one step ahead of the news media? You should have a good relationship with an on-site destination management company and rely on that contact for current information should a crisis arise. If you know trusted professional colleagues who are doing business in the area, ask their opinion. Check out any advisories from the U.S. Department of State.

Once you have the information, you must be equipped to interpret its impact. A State Department travel warning, for example, is more serious than a travel advisory. “If it's a warning, you're probably at risk from a liability standpoint,” Werth noted. And be sure to check the date on a warning — it could have been issued more than a year earlier and mistakenly left intact.

On the other hand, it's probably unwise to depend entirely on a State Department opinion. “I think travel advisories are a real minefield,” said Beyond Borders Conference panelist Bob Guy, managing director of Pacific World, Singapore. The U.S. Department of State has more than 100 travel advisories in effect at any given time. “You have to take it with a grain of salt and realize that a civil servant put it there,” he said.

Also open to interpretation is the potential for anti-American sentiment. When negative feelings are subtle, as was the case in parts of Western Europe during 2003, you're probably not putting attendees at risk. More overt signs such as public demonstrations are more difficult to ignore, however.

Sometimes moves by the U.S. government cause friction with overseas authorities, and travelers need to be aware that they might be subject to an attitude problem. In recent months, some countries have retaliated for heightened security measures the United States is imposing on many visitors. Earlier this year, Brazil, for example, decided to require photographs and fingerprinting for visitors from the United States shortly after the new U.S. requirements were implemented. One American Airlines pilot who groused about the procedures and held up his middle finger for the photo (he claims it was a misunderstanding) was jailed and fined $12,750.

War and terrorist threats have heightened anxiety among customs officials as well. A retired U.S. State Department employee was jailed in India recently for suspicion of arms smuggling when he was merely transiting through New Delhi and was forced to claim his baggage and go through security. The Indian authorities did not buy his explanation that the antique pistols and muskets he had purchased were intended as gifts for friends and family at home. He ended up spending a month in India and $10,000 in legal bills to have the charges dropped.

It's a mistake to wait until attendees are on site before giving them basic safety information, Werth said. Anything can happen en route. Before program participants leave home, he suggested providing at least the following basic tools: how to make a phone call; how to get a taxi at the international destination; location, phone numbers, and hours of the U.S. embassy; and emergency contact numbers.

Safety Tips for Attendees

  • Stay alert and apply pro-security measures at all times.

  • Do not assume a “nothing can happen to me” attitude.

  • Be prepared for airport security and leave ample time.

  • Maintain a low profile while traveling. Blend your clothing with that of the destination. Do not wear or display corporate/U.S. logos on clothing, luggage tags, etc.

  • Know whom to contact in an emergency.

  • Stay alert to the surrounding environment and monitor changes.

  • Make sure someone knows your schedule and how to contact you.

  • Photocopy the personal information pages of your passport and keep it separate from your passport in a safe place.

  • Pay attention to who is hanging around your hotel or facility, both inside and outside, and report suspicious people or situations to the management. Avoid lingering in a hotel lobby or bar.

  • Use all door-locking devices in your hotel room. Know where emergency exits are. Use the hotel safe-deposit box for valuables.

  • When possible, avoid U.S. and foreign government facilities and high-profile businesses.

  • Maintain possession of your carry-on baggage, including laptop computers, at all times.

  • Use good common sense, follow appropriate security precautions at all times, and be prepared for changes.