Richard Marcus, President of American Woolen Co., Miami, recently scrapped plans for a pair of meetings for about 200 distributors and their spouses in Indonesia this spring. “It would be reckless to go there right now,” says Marcus, who has visited Indonesia but never brought a group there.

American Woolen has held overseas events for years without incident, including successful gatherings in Russia — in Moscow and St. Petersburg. This is the first time the firm has been forced to change plans.

“Event safety is a major factor that no organization takes lightly these days,” comments Norman Hope, vice president, industry relations/purchasing, Carlson Marketing Group, Minneapolis.

“To assess a situation,” he says, “you need to use all the contacts you can get your hands on, but the bottom line comes down to your own good sense and judgment.” In Marcus' case, that meant moving his meeting.

Call in the Experts

“Security should be a meeting planner's top priority when preparing for an event anywhere, but you need a longer, more detailed checklist when outside your own country. You need to know what to prepare for and be able to react quickly and effectively in a foreign environment,” says Carol Krugman, CMP, a 17-year meeting planning veteran and president of Fort Lauderdale-based Krugman Group International.

Krugman speaks fluent Spanish, Portuguese, and French, and has a working knowledge of Italian. She has traveled the globe, handling everything from small, high-level board meetings to huge conventions. Yet she's the first to bring in a professional when a location presents special security concerns. “I'm acutely aware of what I do and do not know,” she says.

Firms such as Franklin, Tenn.-based Meeting Security Services specialize in assessing sites and security risks for clients. Founded by Richard Werth, a former meeting executive and past speaker at RCMA, the company plans 10 to 15 meeting programs per year, three out of four of them at international sites.

“I'm not in business to advise people to stay locked in their offices,” Werth says. “Travelers can see a lot and do a lot at some very exciting locations, as long as they take prudent precautions.” By precautions, he means many things: He once brought along a native doctor who thoroughly understood the country's health concerns for an event in Kenya.

Much of Werth's focus is on having a contingency plan in place. “Security normally isn't about one overriding issue. It's a combination of many things and requires great attention to detail.” Details, for example, such as installing portable smoke detectors in hotel rooms. “That may seem extreme,” he says, “but in the 1970s, all of one company's top executives except one were killed in a flash fire in a New York hotel. In addition to the personal tragedy for the victims and their families, the company was virtually crippled by the loss of its entire top management.”

Perception Problems

Not all decisions to move international meetings are a reaction to obvious danger. Sometimes, they are more a matter of perception — attendee perception — than reality. For instance, Alexander Granaada, an independent meeting executive from the Netherlands, had to move a meeting of Renault's top Dutch sales executives from Bali because of wildfires in Borneo.

There was, of course, no way the fires could get from Borneo to Bali across large expanses of ocean, and Granaada was confident that there was no smoke danger, either. After studying prevailing winds, he was ready to guarantee blue skies in Bali. Nevertheless, some potential attendees were nervous.

“Although there was no real danger,” he says, “attendees aren't going to relax and enjoy themselves if they're anxious about a natural disaster nearby.” The company ended up moving the meeting to Sri Lanka, but it was forced to move it again because of a terrorist bombing in the Dominican Republic.

As Werth points out, companies might change event locations because of security concerns or natural catastrophes, but international meetings continue to grow.

10 tips to get you started:

  1. Identify a security firm with the appropriate experience, knowledge, and credentials to manage your specific needs. The best time to choose a consultant is before you require his or her services.

  2. Review the consultant's credentials, experience, education, training, professional affiliations, licenses, and insurance.

  3. Obtain references and contact them.

  4. Determine if the specific work or investigation should be protected by attorney-client privilege, work product doctrine, or client self-analysis privilege.

  5. Obtain a nondisclosure agreement.

  6. Identify the security consultant's role/assignment and review all the details of the assignment with him or her.

  7. Obtain a written proposal clearly outlining the project's objectives, fees, and deliverables.

  8. Ensure that the consultant provides progress/status reports on the assignment.

  9. Obtain a final written copy of the report and keep it secure.

  10. Work closely with the consultant to implement and manage recommendations.

What do security experts cost? Fees can vary widely. Daily rates may run between $600 and $1,000 per person and $75 to $100 per hour per person.

A security firm should provide:

  • Security management — Evaluate destinations and facilities to identify risk, as well as develop and implement measures to protect attendees and property.

  • Health/emergency planning — Establish an emergency contact procedure and an event contact list for medical, security, police, fire, hotel, airport, embassy/consulate, and weather personnel.

  • Staff communications — Select and manage the use of rental radios, cellular telephones, and pagers for staff communication. Develop an event staff contact list.

  • Contingency planning — Develop a plan to reduce the impact any incident would have on the event or its attendees.