This past February a powerful car bomb exploded outside a convention center in Madrid, wounding dozens of people and reminding the citizens of that city that the risk of a terrorist attack is omnipresent.

It also served notice to Mary Keough-Anderson, manager of conference and meeting management at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. in Boston, that an event she was responsible for planning could be at risk. The bomb blast actually occurred 100 yards away from her company's Madrid office, and with a high-level meeting for company executives scheduled for Madrid seven months later — in October — Keough-Anderson didn't wait for the dust to clear before calling a meeting with her CEO and chief of security.

With a risk as severe as a terrorist attack, Keough-Anderson needed to take immediate action to ensure it was safe to proceed. But whether dealing with the chance of a terrorist event, a state funeral, or something as innocuous as whether meeting handouts will make it through customs, planners have to make sure they are managing risks.

Establish a Framework

In a Web/audiocast sponsored by Meeting Professionals International early this year, both Keough-Anderson and Florine Edwards, vice president of corporate programs and exhibit management at FM Global Insurance Co., spoke about risk. They said that a strategic risk management framework as an essential tool for any planner of both domestic and international meetings.

For Keough-Anderson, risk management for international meetings has been a “by-the-seat-of-my-pants” kind of experience as she has learned the nuances that come with international travel. Anti-American sentiment, infectious diseases, power outages, and terrorism are just some of the risks that a planner must factor in when planning an overseas event, she says.

Here are 11 steps Keough-Anderson and Edwards suggest you take to manage risks while planning and implementing international meetings:

  • Keep track of world events so you can react to possible problems before it's too late. The Madrid bombing is just one example of a foreign event that can impact your group's travel plans.

  • Develop a risk management checklist for overseas hotels. For example, in the United States it's a given that you can rely on a hotel to be completely up-to-date with fire codes. But overseas hotels, particularly older ones, may or may not have sprinklers, even if they have smoke detectors. Meeting planners will have to decide what they can and cannot accept in situations like these. For example, Keough-Anderson suggests hiring extra security guards in cases where planners are uncomfortable with the local fire codes.

  • Adjust your risk management plans based on the cultural and language differences that your attendees will encounter. For example, what will the operable word be for “exit?” Will emergency alarms have the same sound as those heard in American facilities?

  • Accommodate your disabled attendees. There is no Americans with Disabilities Act overseas. Check with hotels in advance to determine the potential impact on your attendees so that you can be proactive in accommodating them.

  • Work with the hotels to develop emergency plans. Take into account the response times for emergency medical personnel, distance to hospitals, and the availability of trauma units. A site inspection can go a long way in determining whether a hotel can provide enough timely medical care. For example, a recent site visit to a Puerto Rico property convinced Keough-Anderson that she needed to hire an ambulance and have it on site full time “because the hospital was too far away to leave us comfortable with the emergency response time.”

  • Brief meeting attendees about emergency situations. They should know emergency phone numbers, for example, well in advance of the meeting, and have an absolute understanding of what they are to do and where they are supposed to go in case hotels or venues have to be evacuated.

  • Contact the State Department. You should call or go to its Web site ( for the latest travel advisories or news about the area in which you are planning a meeting. For example, in the aftermath of the Madrid bombing, a State Department alert provided Keough-Anderson with some key information about what was happening there.

  • Consider using a local DMC. A destination management company can be useful in helping you navigate differences and avoid security and other problems that might be encountered in travel to the DMC's city.

  • Advise your attendees to maintain a low profile while traveling — they should avoid wearing any corporate or national logos that will readily identify them as American citizens, for example.

  • Have attendees bring copies of all of their important travel documents, particularly their passports, with them on their travels. Copies will expedite the replacement process in case of loss or theft. Identity theft is becoming as much of a problem internationally as it is within the United States. While in the Bahamas, a colleague of Keough-Anderson received a call from her company's disbursement office asking whether she had charged $2,500 in the previous few days. She hadn't.

  • Know the holiday schedules in countries your group is visiting. Certain holidays might mean parades or other events are taking place that could present risk factors. But this is important information in general. For example, if you send a group from North America to France during the month of August and invite French colleagues and guests to a function, the chances are the event will have a disappointing turnout — all of your French invitees will have headed for the beach.

How to Create a Contingency Plan

Bob Guy, managing director of Pacific World, a Singapore-based destination management company, advises that you create more than a risk management checklist: Create a contingency plan. “Since 9/11, we have widened our contingency and emergency [plans],” he says. “Our contingency plan notebooks now are about 120 pages long and contain a variety of scenarios. They are not specific to operations, sites, or people.” That way, anyone can pick up the manual and run with it, regardless of the situation.

Also, because not everyone responds to a crisis in the same way, Guy recommends that organizations develop hypothetical scenarios and design role-playing exercises around those situations as a way to prepare for the real thing.

It's never too early to begin anticipating potential glitches in an international meeting or incentive program, says Rick Werth, formerly president of Event & Meeting Security Services, who is now director of security for a Midwest corporation. “Sit down with a plain piece of paper and think about the what, when, why, where, and how: What are the worst things that can happen to your organization or to this event?” He finds it handy to divide events into three phases — planning, travel, and on site — and to examine each phase.

Guy recommends starting close to home if you have no plan. “Make a list of 10 things that can happen in the office,” he suggests. Consider what would happen if the phone service went out or the power failed. Then make a simple three- or four-step plan for dealing with each scenario. Next move on to bigger issues, such as hotels and convention centers.

For corporate planners or independents dealing with corporate clients, a written framework for crisis management often exists, Werth says. Three other sources to mine for ideas: an Internet search using the term crisis management, association white papers, and vendors. “It's going to take some effort, and there's no easy way around it, but the payoff here is incredibly beneficial,” Werth says.