Expect the Unexpected

An accident or crime can cast gloom over an entire event and, if litigation results, can cost a company millions of dollars. If the worst-case scenario happens at your next meeting or event, are you prepared?

One of your most important, if not the most important, responsibilities is ensuring the safety and well-being of your attendees. And you can significantly reduce the likelihood of an attendee becoming a victim of crime by providing some simple pieces of information.

Your attendees should not have the attitude: "It can't happen to me." At the same time, it is important to provide information to the group in such a way that it doesn't instill fear.

The bottom line is that in any metropolitan area, crime is possible, so it is important to be aware of your surroundings and use common sense. Bad guys can be lurking just about anywhere. Never let your guard down, not even in the lobby of your hotel.

Curtis Sliwa, a radio talk show host and founder and CEO of the Guardian Angels, the non-profit, international, volunteer organization of unarmed citizen crime patrollers, proudly wears a red beret that has become an icon for "safety"—the singular goal of the organization. Today, there are Guardian Angels chapters in 140 cities and 13 countries. Sliwa started the group in 1979, patrolling the streets and subways of New York City. He also gives tours of the South Bronx to groups. Called, "The Underbelly Tour," go to www.nycunderbelly.com for more information on the tours.

How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Automatic teller machines (ATMs) are a haven for criminals, says Sliwa. "The periscope is up for any kind of criminal or thug at an ATM. Remember, cash is king on the street. Thieves put you through an electron microscope without you knowing. They are trying to determine where you're from, how disconnected you are, how oblivious you are to your surroundings," explains Sliwa, wearing his red beret and signature red jacket emblazoned with the Guardian Angels logo, as he sits in the WABC Radio Studios in New York City, where he spoke with SM.

"Many people get cash as they listen to their iPods or use their cell phones. They don't pay attention to who's around them and who may be watching. They are setting themselves up as potential victims," he says.

Another threat in big cities is a jostle, or pickpocket. "A jostle is a bump and run. These are professional thieves who practice all day long. They can bump and run and you'll have no idea you're missing your pocketbook, your wallet, or other items of value," Sliwa elaborates. If you are ever bumped or jostled, immediately hold on to your valuables. Cameras, pocketbooks, anything that is hanging or swinging, should be kept up front. Wallets should be carried in your front pocket or consider a passport holder or wallet that can be worn around the neck and under the shirt. Keep only the bare essentials in your wallet and don't carry any more credit cards than you need. Leave your Social Security card behind, in addition to any fancy jewelry.

Cell phones, BlackBerry devices, and other handheld devices are targets as well. "From a distance, a criminal can spot if it's a phone with all the amenities. They'll know exactly how it is stacked. They are not looking to steal just any phone, they know makes and models from a distance. Be aware every time you pull it out, especially if it's high end with all the bells and whistles," Sliwa explains.

Subway platforms are notorious for cell phone snatches. Often in cell phone robberies, the device is simply resold on the street or the crook will use it himself. According to New York Police Department Transit Bureau records, in 37 percent of the 823 robberies committed in the subway system last year, cell phones were the prime targets.

This May, actor Kevin Bacon, had his BlackBerry swiped in a New York City subway station. He didn't give up so easily though. Bacon reportedly chased the alleged thief but lost him in the crowd. This is unusual as these criminals normally take something without you even realizing the item is gone.

"These predators are not violent criminals. They are very efficient at taking what they want without alarming, harming, or hurting you," says Sliwa. "The bottom line is if you don't need to carry something, don't. Utilize the safe in your hotel room."

A Gathering of Angels

Sliwa is familiar with all that goes into coordinating and executing meetings and conferences as he is involved with planning the Guardian Angels' annual meeting and is also popular on the corporate speaking circuit.

"With the nature of the flow of traffic in New York, people who look like they could be part of your culture can latch on. Although you want your people to have freedom, to have a good time, it's important to constantly do headcounts," says Sliwa. He recommends assigning this task to one specific person who will also be responsible for accounting for those who are not where they are supposed to be.

"I've been at Guardian Angels conferences where someone doesn't show up in the morning. It throws everything off. Everyone starts worrying. They start thinking the worst. The person has been beaten, raped, robbed, is in the hospital. I think as an event planner, my biggest concern would be what happens at night when people cut loose. You don't want to be a jailer and put GPS ankle bracelets on them, but you need to keep track of them."

Crisis Plans are Key

Having a crisis plan in place is imperative. Then, in the rare instance a situation does arise, the meeting professional will be a pillar of strength, comfort, and knowledge. Where are the closest hospitals? In the case of a medical emergency, does the hotel have on-site doctors or emergency medical technicians? Is there someone on staff who knows CPR? If there is a crisis, who will be in charge of communications? What are the contact numbers for the local fire and police departments, Red Cross, and local and state government officials?

Emergency information for each attendee is also vital. Some companies put emergency contact information on the back of each name badge. The more numbers and contacts you are able to amass, the better.

When selecting a location for your meeting or incentive program, be sure to learn about the venue's evacuation plans, the location of all emergency exits, access points for paramedics, and contingency plans in case of bomb threats or power outages.

In many cases, the concierge can be of great help. If there are unsafe areas near the hotel, the property will usually have written material highlighting the "right" places and the "wrong" places.

The safety of those attending your program is not necessarily the only security consideration. The security of proprietary information being disseminated is also important. Business leaders understand there is always a risk of data-theft, of high-tech spying.

Some companies that are especially sensitive aren't branding their meetings at all. They avoid projecting the name of the company, or the meeting, in bright lights in the hotel lobby.

When managing safety and security it's best to plan ahead and expect the unexpected. As the old adage goes, "Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst."


Another way to protect your company, as well as your attendees, is to be sure you have the correct insurance in place. Event cancellation insurance protects event expenses or revenues against cancellation or abandonment caused by reasons beyond your control. Special event liability insurance provides protection for third-party bodily injury and property damage.

To be sure you have the proper insurance in place and an adequate amount of coverage, consult with an insurance brokerage firm. If something goes awry, you'll be happy you did.

Consult with an attorney and insurance broker before signing the contract, recommends Steve Pincus, a managing director at DeWitt Stern, one of the oldest risk assessor/insurance brokerage firms in New York City. "Clients will come to us after the contract has been signed and there are so many changes we wished we could have made," explains Pincus. "You don't want to take on any more liability than you have to."

DeWitt Stern is insuring the Los Angeles Art Show, presented by the Fine Art Dealers Association January 27-31, 2010. A group of 150 fine arts galleries will be exhibiting. "If a gallery can't make it to the show they will be able to recoup some of their expenses," Pincus says. "Any time there are upfront expenses and there is a chance of the event not happening, it is best to transfer the risk onto an insurance company. The insurance will protect individual gallery owners and the organizer of the show from financial loss."

A clause some hotels and convention centers include, one that Pincus is not fond of, is "the four walls clause contract." This means that whatever happens in the confines of the four walls you're having your meeting or event in—if someone falls, gets food poisoning, has a medical emergency—you are responsible. Again, he reiterates, don't take on any more liability responsibility than you have to.

Another liability that must be seriously considered has to do with liquor. Insurance brokers can help with a liquor legal liability policy. But remember, each state has its own laws pertaining to liquor that must be obeyed.

Originally published July 1, 2009

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