by Matt Alderton | April 06, 2018

By nature, meeting planners are proactive people. They don't order food for an event without first tasting it, they don't select a destination for a convention without first visiting it, and they don't hire a keynote speaker for a conference without first hearing what he or she has to say. In other words, meeting planners don't spitball; they strategize.

That is, except when it comes to emergencies. On the subject of safety and security, meeting planners who spend their days trying to avoid a crisis too often invite one by assuming that their event is immune to risks. Unfortunately, no meeting is, according to Marty MacKay, president of Global Alliance at Hosts Global, an international alliance of destination management companies (DMCs); as well as board member of the Association of Destination Management Executives, which offers an emergency preparedness certificate program for organizations and planners, which she helped to develop. From mass shootings to medical emergencies, technology failures to terrorism, hurricanes to hazardous spills, the modern world is full of threats that can easily derail meetings and harm meeting attendees. Now more than ever, MacKay says, meeting professionals must therefore be as proactive about planning for emergencies as they are about planning for every other aspect of their meetings.

That requires preparing for the worst instead of hoping for the best. To help meeting professionals make the transition, Successful Meetings spoke with MacKay about security-planning needs, benefits, and techniques. By helping you incorporate emergency preparation into your standard operating procedures, her advice could save time, money, and perhaps even lives.

First of all, how did we get here? Meetings are supposed to be about helping attendees achieve their business objectives. When did meeting planning become about protecting those same attendees, too?

There was a time four or five years ago that there was a lot of unrest, if you will, in the meetings industry. People were avoiding certain destinations because they thought they were high-risk. A lot of people were asking, "Will the meetings industry even continue, given everything that's going on in the world today that can threaten the safety of our participants?" The outcome of this was that the meetings industry as a whole decided, "Yes, we're going to continue to meet." That's not going to change, because we've now seen enough and learned enough to know that anything can happen, anywhere. Even in the destination that you think is the safest destination in the world, something could still happen. So as an industry we decided, "We're going to continue to meet," but we also has to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a safe destination. Knowing that, it's important that we all think about how we can be prepared to handle and react in any situation.

And what role do DMCs play with meeting planners as they begin to think about this?

We play a huge role because the clients that are working with DMCs expect us to be local experts. They expect us to know what's going on in our destination. And that has now extended beyond just knowing what are the coolest and hippest places to go in town. It also means knowing what's going on in terms of: Are there any marches planned? Is there something going on in my hotel that I should be worried about that might cause a disruption? If something happens, generally speaking it's the DMC that has boots on the ground that meeting planners are going to be looking to in order to help them mitigate whatever it is that's going on. 

Just to be clear, what kinds of threats do meeting planners need to consider when they're planning for emergencies?

Well, first they need to look at their destination. If you're going to be in Oklahoma City, for example, are you prepared for the possibility of tornadoes? If you're on the coast of Florida during hurricane season, are you prepared for hurricanes? They also need to look at the demographics of their group. Will you have a controversial speaker, for instance? Or is your organization controversial? If so, you might need to consider outside threats like protesters. Start by taking a look at things that are likely to happen. Then, think about things that could happen but are less likely. It requires a whole lot of asking, "What if …?" 

So, step one is identifying potential threats. Then what? How do planners proceed with planning from there?

The basic thing -- and if you do nothing more than this, at least it's a good start -- is to have a clear communications plan that involves all the appropriate parties who are part of your conference and establishes who ultimately is the communications lead. Because if, in fact, a quick decision has to be made at the time of an emergency, you won't necessarily have time to go through a phone tree to figure out who's in charge. You need to know who is the one person to go to who will be making decisions.

Also, you need to have a conversation with your venue, because they likely have an emergency preparedness plan in place already. Whether that involves sheltering in place or evacuating, you need to know what their plan is and who at the venue is in charge of executing it in the event of an emergency.

Whether you follow the venue's plan or establish your own, the key is making sure everybody knows who to listen to. Having all of the appropriate parties come together to discuss things ahead of time will get your plan three-quarters of the way there.

What about the remaining quarter? What else do you advise planners do to make their planning complete?

I think training is a huge part of it. From a DMC's perspective, we need to train both our full-time staff as well as our part-time staff so they're all familiar with what our processes and procedures are in different situations. The same thing is true if you're an incentive house and you've got a group of travel directors who you work with. Are they trained, and do they understand the processes and procedures to go through? You never really know how you're going to act in certain situations, but if you talk about them, train on them, and think about them in advance, you're more likely to act in the desired way should something happen. Think about something as simple as an attendee having to go to the hospital for some reason. As a DMC, is my expectation that we send somebody with them? You don't necessarily have the time to make several phone calls to ask someone, "Should I go? Should I stay? What should I do?" You need to know ahead of time, and that takes training. 

What, exactly, should training look like? Do you recommend doing drills or rehearsals, for instance?

Drills are tough because there's only so much you can physically do to create a [realistic] drill. One idea, though, is "scenario drills," which can help ensure your team is confident in the decisions they're making. We've got a couple of DMCs, for example, that put out a scenario every Monday at their staff meeting. Someone has to say what they would do if they were in that situation, and then it's discussed a little bit to determine whether their reaction was spot-on or whether there are some other things that should be considered. That kind of training will help you when you're in an actual situation. 

What are the most common emergency planning mistakes you see meeting planners making?

The biggest mistake I see is planners saying, "My group is only 10 people, so we don't need to bother with this." Or, "Our meeting is too little. This couldn't happen to us." They honestly just don't want to have the conversation. They don't want to talk about it. But you know what? If your 10 people had landed in Fort Lauderdale the day of the school shooting in Parkland, FL, you would have cared.

Going forward, are you seeing any new trends that might impact safety and security for meetings and events? 

I think the next stage of emergency preparedness is going to touch on technology -- specifically around data security and cybersecurity for your events. We're not there yet, but I think that's what's coming down the pike in terms of things planners should be thinking about and planning for.

The last thing I want to say is that I am on the board of the Association of Destination Management Executives, and we have a great emergency preparedness certificate program that we offer. It's a 10-hour course that really helps you think about all these things. It will help you create a plan if you don't have a plan in place, and it will help you improve your plan if you have a plan and you're not sure how good it is. There are so many things out there for you to think about, but in terms of training it's going to give you actual tools to walk away with so you can start putting a plan in place.