“Meeting planners have a legal obligation to provide a reasonable standard of care while performing any acts that could cause foreseeable harm to others,” says Susan Goldberg, CMP, principal of risk assessment consultancy Segue Consulting Inc., Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

“That doesn’t mean you’re expected to be a security expert or that you are necessarily going to be able to prevent a crisis at your event. But as the meeting planner, you have to be able to turn to your delegates and say, ‘Yes, we encountered a security issue but we had provisions in place to handle it and minimize the impact.’”

That means taking some critical steps to assess the safety and security of all aspects of your meeting and minimize risk for every off-site event you plan—both domestically and internationally. In fact, crisis preparedness and risk management are becoming increasingly important aspects of the planning process, and for good reason.

According to a recent report conducted by Austin, Texas–based consultancy Stratfor Global Intelligence, attacks against lower-profile facilities or “soft targets” like hotels are on the rise: “Since September 11, [2001,] the trend of attacking softer targets (and specifically hotels) is unmistakable,” notes the report.

You Name It, It Can Happen

Safety and security issues are not limited to terrorist attacks. In fact, most are much less dramatic, says Rick Werth, CPP, director, physical security and enterprise business continuity, for Des Moines, Iowa–based Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield. “We have had situations where people have tried to get into a meeting using fake credentials,” says Werth, who, prior to joining Wellmark, spent 12 years as founder and president of Event & Meeting Security Services, an international security consulting firm that specialized in security, health, staff communications, and emergency planning for events and meetings.

He recalls one incident where an employee who had been laid off by the company showed up at a meeting and attempted to get in. “Once you have been let go, you can’t just show up to a corporate event unannounced,” says Werth.

It turned out the ex-employee didn’t have any violent intentions; he was tryin to talk to some of the executives about getting his job back. But the situation could easily have been much more dangerous. The individual was quickly identified and removed from the venue by Werth and his team.

Start With a Meeting Assessment

Assessing the potential risks at your meeting involves looking at a multitude of factors, such as the public perception of your company, the VIPs in attendance, and the current situation in the city you are meeting in, among others. That means conducting a risk assessment for every event you plan.

The format of your assessment should be one that works for you, says Goldberg, who was previously a full-time conference planner for Hadassah, a Jewish Women’s organization, prior to starting her own consulting firm. “I recommend approaching it with a checklist, in the same way you would approach a site inspection,” she says. Once you do it for one event, you can modify it and customize it for each meeting.”

Managing safety and security preparedness is another way meeting planners are becoming more strategic. “You shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about being invited to the table and taking on risk preparedness,” Goldberg says. “This is a way you can increase your value to the company.”

Do It Yourself—Or Not

Some companies choose to hire a security contractor as a result of their risk assessment. But buyer beware: All companies who provide this service are not alike.

Segue Consulting recommends that you look at the resumes and past event assignments of each prospective security vendor. Ask about the backgrounds of the people who will be leading the charge at your event. Inquire as to how they have worked with local emergency responders. Select a vendor that can accommodate all the security needs of your event, such as providing onsite officers, protecting executives, performing access screening, and crisis management. Find out how many of these services will be performed by the vendor’s own employees and ask for references.

It’s also important to understand the training the vendor has given its employees. For example, security personnel should be trained on legal guidelines, operational procedures, fire prevention, first aid, communication skills, confrontation management, emergency preparedness, and physical intervention skills. To be safe, you can ask vendor to provide you with documentation of training for its staff members.

Most important is to have a plan in place, whether you handle the security internally or hire an expert. “You’re not expected to be a security expert or to necessarily be able to prevent a crisis at your event,” says Segue’s Goldberg. “But as the meeting planner, you have to be able to turn to your delegates and say, ‘Yes, we encountered a security issue but we had provisions in place to handle it and minimize the impact.’”

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