A critical step in the event planning process is to evaluate and prepare for potential security incidents. Event coordinators are skilled in taking every detail into consideration, with one exception–safety.
Often emergency situations are left out of the planning process. Security is a necessity that should never be over looked. Oftentimes event management professionals put the emphasis is on the decor, food, lighting, speakers and visual details–however overall safety is often disregarded.
Location, Location, Location
It’s one of the first decisions a meeting organizer makes, and potentially the most important. You likely have plenty of options, from your home city to another country and everywhere in between. Regardless of where you go, the security of the venue and the training of the staff should be your top concerns. Look for a venue that has any physical security you might need, such as fences or walls around the perimeter. After that, determine how comfortable you feel with the security staff. Ask questions.
“Who’s your contact? What’s their plan? They won’t show you the whole plan, and they shouldn’t,” Bob Mellinger, owner of Attainium says. “On the other hand, they shouldn’t just say, ‘Trust us, we have a plan.’ If you’re not comfortable with their answers, I would not go there.”
Depending on the sensitivity of your event, you might even make some more formal requests, Alan Kleinfeld, an event professional says.
“Put in a clause about the hotel providing an emergency evacuation plan or a security liaison,” he says. “All they can do is say no.”
Mac Segal, head of hotel and site security consulting at AS Solution advises choosing a venue with conference doors that can lock from the inside in case you need to keep someone out. Even for smaller, low-profile events, Segal suggests considering only venues that have their own security department, good alternative exits, tight access control and emergency response protocols already in place. He says it’s wise to prepare a security questionnaire outlining your requirements and send that to potential locations before choosing.
If you’ve chosen a venue but don’t feel totally comfortable with the security staff, Kleinfeld suggests hiring off-duty police officers or, at a minimum, notifying local law enforcement of your event.
“If a planner calls the police and says, ‘We will have 600 attendees and want to work with you to keep our people safe,’ most police departments will say, ‘Thanks for being proactive, and let us know how we can help,’” he says.
If the venue already has a relationship with local law enforcement, so much the better.
“For large-scale events like conventions, we work closely with hotels and they give us a heads up,” says Ashley Savage, public information officer at the Arlington County Police Department in Virginia. “We make sure that our patrol staff is aware and we have the resources available should we be needed.”
Plan for communication
After physical safety, the single most important concern in a violent situation and its aftermath is communication. Some things to consider:
- How will you communicate with staff? Via text? Does everyone have everyone else’s number stored in their phones?
- Where will you meet once it’s safe to do so? Where is your “command center?”
- Who’s in charge? When the venue or media asks to speak to the person in charge, is that the CEO? The head meeting planner? A media affairs professional? “That has to be figured out, because the wrong people giving the wrong message can create a secondary crisis,” Mellinger says.
- How will you communicate with attendees and their guests? Do you have emergency contact info for everyone?
- Who is your point of contact on the venue staff?
- How will you deal with injuries?
- How does this plan differ for the various incidents that could take place? Riots and shooters aren’t the only concerns; there are bombs, biological threats, suspicious packages and more.
Invest in training
Segal suggests that venues train all staff, from housekeeping to the general manager. Meeting professionals also need training, but it needs to be in the right areas. While everyone should be briefed on how to handle an active-shooter situation, for example, the focus of their training should not be on skills such as hand-to-hand combat or target shooting. Instead, invest in awareness and preparedness training. Those are the tools that will help your staff keep its cool when everything goes wrong.
“Good training would be things like how to stay calm in a crisis, and how not to faint at the sight of blood. Also, what are the first steps you take when you hear a shooting? Do you call 9-9-9? Tell the hotel? Find your CEO?” Kleinfeld says. “Meeting planners are good in a crisis in general, and if they just know what steps to take, they’d be able to take them fairly calmly.”
Once you have a plan and adequate training, you should hope you’ll never need to use them. But if you do, act calmly. Your fight-or-flight instinct will kick in, and your rational brain will need to override it.
“The kneejerk reaction to run is not always the best idea,” Segal says. “Only run if you’re certain the place you’re running to is safer than the place you already are. If I’m in the conference room and I hear shots fired in the hotel, I should probably not run. I should lock the door, stay away from the windows and stay close to the floor. If I run into the lobby, I may run straight into trouble.”
Fight only as a last resort. In that case, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommends acting aggressively against a shooter, for instance, using improvised weapons and yelling. If you do any of those things, only do so with absolute conviction.
A plan is insurance
Mellinger, whose company trains between 3,000 and 5,000 people each year—many of those meeting professionals—says he’s happy to see that more and more planners are spending time planning for disaster. In the past, when he asked training attendees whether they had contingency plans, only about 10 percent did. Today, he says, it’s about 50 percent. Whether that’s because of the prevalence of active-shooter situations that seem to frequently dominate news headlines or high-profile terrorist attacks around the world, Mellinger says people are finally starting to internalize what’s at stake.
Unfortunately, some of the people in his trainings say they finally developed contingency plans because they were previously caught without one when they needed it. He advises meeting organizers to not learn the hard way.
“Now, you can’t say you didn’t know. You’re on the hook,” he says. “If you’re responsible for a meeting, whether you’re the CEO or the meeting planner, you’ll all be held accountable. Do you want to be able to say you did your best? That you planned and did some training? Or that you just said, ‘Probably will never happen to us?’”
Terms and resources to help your staff prepare for outbreaks of violence
EAP: Emergency Action Plan
Active Shooter: An individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.
Neutralized: A perpetrator or threat that has been disarmed or rendered harmless.
Shelter in Place: Staying in a small interior room with no or few windows and taking refuge there.
Lockdown: A situation in which no one is allowed to exit or enter buildings near a threat area.
All Clear: A signal, usually from law enforcement, that danger has passed.