by Alex Palmer | March 22, 2016
Incidents like the Brussels and Paris terrorist attacks, the shooting in San Bernardino, CA, and the spread of the Zika virus have highlighted the need for meeting planners to review their organizations' risk management plans. "We live in a world where anything can happen, anywhere," says Paul Viollis, a security specialist and president of Viollis Group International, a media consultant to CNN, Fox, CBS, BBC, and others. Rather than simply plan to cancel an event at the first sign of trouble, Viollis says, "A better strategy is for planners and suppliers to add a deeper level of due diligence to their risk management protocols."

Events including terrorist attacks and disease epidemics have started to occur in places that had usually been considered "safe." That means a strong and up-to-date plan should be in place to ensure the safety and security of attendees regardless of where a meeting is held.

"When it comes to security awareness, it should be understood that, essentially, there is danger around every corner, no matter where you are," says Robert Siciliano, a security consultant who speaks about event and personal safety at more than 50 meetings a year.  But, he quickly adds, while one must be aware of potential dangers, "that does not mean that you live in or function in fear."

Striking this balance -- maintaining calm while exercising caution -- takes a combination of information gathering, education, and flexibility.

Do Your Homework

In Successful Meetings' forthcoming "2016 Risk Management Survey," a little over half of respondents admitted they currently have no risk management plan in place for their meetings; 26 percent said they plan to develop one, and 24 percent had no such plans. Clearly, there is room for improvement.

"As you're planning an event, you have to do a risk assessment based on the venue you've selected and all the dynamics that go into planning a meeting," says Milton Rivera, vice president of global business development for American Express Meetings & Events. This includes issues such as personal safety, finances, and liability.

A good place to begin is to collect the names of key people who would need to be contacted -- security, compliance, and local office contacts -- should an unexpected event occur, and to create a communications plan for getting the word to attendees about what they should do. A crisis plan also includes information that goes out to attendees ahead of the event, a business continuation plan, and rules for when event modification (removing items from the itinerary or changing location), evacuation, or cancellation might be necessary.

Rivera recommends consulting with the existing crisis management team at the hosting organization's home office (usually the planner's own company, or their client's), including security officials and HR representatives, to ensure that any risk management plan follows established safety best practices. 

According to Andy Williams, vice president, quality assurance and business development of Safehotels, an independent hotel security certification company based in Gothenberg, Sweden, a priority for a planner concerned about the risk of a given destination is to "educate yourself." In the case of international destinations where there might be potential threats to a particular city or region, that means using the media as a guide but not the sole source of information.

Instead of taking the latest reports on the evening news at face value, Williams suggests planners dig deeper by going to more even-handed, thorough outlets, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. State Department's Travel Alerts, the United Nations, and the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC).

Such organizations "offer a much more objective and dispassionate view of what you're dealing with," says Williams, who also is co-author of the "Crisis Management Guidelines" report recently released by the International Congress and Convention Association. "There's so much disinformation out there that things can get blown out of all proportion."

For example, if there is a threat of an outbreak of a communicable disease or pandemic, the WHO tracks its development over several stages, stating whether said outbreak is expected to impact travel, and so on. If possible, part of this education process should include a personal site inspection of the destination.

"I've been living in Istanbul for 10 years, and yes, there are some issues, from the war on terrorism perspective and from earthquakes -- we had one in 1998," says Williams. "But it's a city of 20 million people, and one of the safest cities in the world. Can something happen now and again? Of course. But it can also happen in Copenhagen or Salt Lake City or any other place."

Another key move is to partner with organizations on the ground who understand a destination. Steve Pottle, board director of the Risk and Insurance Management Society (RIMS) and director of risk management services at Toronto's York University, is in the midst of planning an academic conference focused on women refugees for between 50 and 100 people in the Republic of Congo -- not a place the average meeting planner would feel comfortable bringing a group. But Pottle is approaching it with the same thoroughness he does any other destination.

"We partner with NGOs, transportation companies, hotels and conference centers, and the local business-development branch of the government to look at everything from personal safety risks to how to carry your money and blend in without seeming like a target," says Pottle. "You've got to do your homework."

Educate Attendees 


Communicating with attendees about potential risks means striking a balance between providing information that will keep participants aware and avoiding an alarmist tone that might detract from an event experience.

Siciliano illustrates this by pointing to the many events he has attended where members of the audience have headed to a session while leaving their laptops sitting on a table.
 
While in most cases the laptop will still be there when the attendee returns, the risk of having it stolen and, worse, one's professional and personal data compromised, could be mitigated simply by attendees taking their machines with them when they leave the room. This lesson can be applied to many other aspects of a gathering, a destination, and the risks associated with them.

"When you have that situational awareness -- awareness of your belongings, of the exits, of suspicious people -- you significantly reduce the risk of something bad happening," says Siciliano. This includes simply giving attendees a heads-up to be aware of their possessions and their surroundings in email marketing materials and at the event itself.

"In your communications, say, 'Due to civil unrest,' or 'Due to the spread of the Zika virus…we want to make sure our attendees take these precautions,'" says Siciliano. "It's a matter of education."

Rivera adds that this information can be delivered to attendees with their welcome packets, in the same formal but friendly way a flight attendant points out emergency exits or cruise director points to life jackets.

"Say, 'Here's the closest hospital, here are the emergency contacts should you need them, and please await instruction,'" Rivera says. "If you don't give them these directions up front, and if there is an incident, you have at most about an hour to communicate a plan to your attendees before everyone starts going rogue." (See sidebar for a list of must-haves in the event of a genuine crisis.)

Stay Flexible

Should a crisis actually occur or become a significant enough threat to require action, a plan should be flexible enough to allow for a wide range of changes to the event itinerary, short of actually having to cancel the event.   

If planners conduct a feasibility study on a destination and find that there are significant risks in certain areas, they should plan events that avoid those areas, perhaps pulling functions in closer to the headquarters hotel. It might mean being less adventurous for the evening events or other outings. Williams points to his home town of Istanbul, when there were civil demonstrations in Taksim Square (and which has faced several terrorist bombings in recent months).

"Normally we would take people out on a Bosphorus cruise, which logistically means busing them down to the harborside, but since that area was prone to public demonstrations, we said, 'Okay, we're going to take a more conservative approach and just have to be more creative on the event that we do,'" says Williams. "Inherently they will be pretty safe at the venue itself, and transferring from the airport will be efficient."

Williams adds that there are "always low-, medium-, and high-risk places. You've got to accept the fact that within the 12-18 months you'll be planning, you'll have to have a contingency budget. , 'For this we won't go so far afield, so if something does happen we can communicate more quickly, and move them out," he says. "That's where your risk management comes into play."  

This article appears in the April 2016 issue of Successful Meetings.

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