Code Red: Safety and Security Issues at Meetings

Originally published in Successful Meetings magazine, June 2006


Guests in black-tie attire waiting in the metal detector line for an hour, ID in hand? For veterans of the high-end fundraising circuit, it's not an unusual occurrence. For the planners of such events, replete with high-security attendees, the list of additional things to consider can seem overwhelming. When meetings or events involve a high-security executive, political figure, or politically oriented theme, planners' closest allies are the property's director of security and general manager; these are people for whom such issues are routine.

"There are two types of security issues: a normal event with a high-security guest attending, and an event that has a high security need," explains Coen Masselink, general manager of the Steigenberger Kurhaus Hotel in The Hague, the Netherlands, where high-security political guests and events are commonplace. In an increasingly global, post-9/11 world, there is a heightened interest in security, so if you have not yet dealt much with security issues, chances are high that you will soon.

To Protect and Serve

Security coordination is "always managed through an advance person to sort through physical security issues, access-control requirements for an event, guest list, itinerary during visits, providing exclusive elevator service for arrivals and departures, etc.," says Steven Liesveld, director of security and risk management for the Millennium UN Plaza Hotel in New York City.

Who that point person is depends primarily on whether the high-security guest is a political figure or a private citizen. When political figures attend an event, protection is handled through the government, so planners need not concern themselves with security details.

"For current heads of state, security in the United States is managed by the Secret Service. For foreign ministers, the U.S. Department of State handles security. Foreign security agents filter their security requests through the Secret Service or Department of State to avoid confusion. This practice is a matter of U.S. policy and, I believe, an international one as well. The host country is responsible for providing local assets that supplement security initiatives for the visiting security team supporting heads of state," explains Liesveld.

Nicole Emard, with the American Association of Attorney-Certified Public Accountants, in Fairfax, VA, who is a wedding planner on the side, believes planners can initially feel out of the loop when working with the Secret Service. Emard planned a wedding last year at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for which the Secret Service was involved; in the end she felt she had necessary control over the high-profile attendee and the event, and found it "incredibly seamless" to work with the Secret Service.

"[The Secret Service] exert a lot of input on what time the attendee will show up and what path they will take to enter. They tell you, you don't tell them—it's not a negotiable thing with the Secret Service," says Bob Estrin, senior consultant with b.e. creative LLC, an event and meeting infrastructure firm in Orange, CA. "If it changes your timeline, it changes your timeline."

He concedes that it can be difficult for planners to relinquish control over elements of the meeting: "If you're new to planning with the Secret Service, it's difficult to come to terms with. If you're not new to it, you understand that this is how they're going to do it, and there's nothing you can do to change it because they do know what's best for their protectee." Estrin advises planners to be aware that security may have to sweep a room ahead of time, which requires the room to be ready earlier than it otherwise would be, and that security leaves when the attendee leaves, so planners may have to make alternate security arrangements.

Properties in major metropolitan areas are usually adept at working with government agencies, and while contending with government operations may seem complicated, the properties we spoke with often prefer to deal with them than with private security.

Although authorities can provide security for events as well as specific individuals, it is at their discretion, and planners should be aware that their own security concerns for an event may not be shared by the government. In that case, an experienced private security team is the best option.

"In The Hague there are so many buildings that need to be protected that there is a very careful risk assessment of the event. [The government] might say there is not a lot of risk as far as we can tell; then it's up to the organization to set up private security," explains Masselink. "Based on the risk assessment, a program is developed, and there are always contingencies. Sometimes we start six or 12 months ahead of a program, but we all know that risk can change in a single day."

Liesveld concurs: "It all depends upon intelligence and the threat classification assigned by the U.S. government."

Privacy Please

If a planner expects high-security individuals with private security, planners must take room blocks and assignments into consideration. "We have a lot of guests who come with their own security," says Ellen Gale, director of communications for the Mandarin Oriental, Washington D.C. "Sometimes they request a suite of rooms or that X number of rooms are blocked off, and depending on our capacity, we can accommodate that."

Both the Millennium's Liesveld and John Stokes, director of security at the Mandarin Oriental, Washington D.C., also extol the importance of the individual's security team speaking with the hotel's security team so that each understands the other's role. "I would help [the security team] understand the building layout, where the fire exits are, how the fire system works, and how to evacuate in the event of an emergency," says Liesveld.

"The people I deal with are usually well-versed in the security field," he continues. "If a meeting planner would like to set up a meeting here and they are in contact with the security personnel [for a high-security individual], they would do well to introduce the security team to me."

When guests employ private security, Masselink has found that they have little interest in pomp and ceremony. "We have had some high-risk individuals who prefer to enter through the side of the building and don't care much for a welcome from the GM; they just want to get in and out safely," he says. "They all have their own systems and protocol."

But they must still operate within the bounds of the local policies, particularly regarding armed security personnel. "The regulations here in Washington D.C. are very, very strict; for example, each and every security organization that needs their people to carry weapons must be licensed," explains Stokes. "I really see it as essential for me to know who has a weapon and who does not."

Across the board, security professionals agree that the sooner they know a meeting or event has a security need the better, although Stokes acknowledges, "These issues have a habit of cropping up at the last minute."

Advance notice allows the property to conduct a thorough assessment, plan for contingencies, respond properly should a situation arise, and ensure that as much security as possible remains behind-the-scenes. "If we can have a security detail in operation and our other guests are not even aware of it, then that is a very successful operation, in my opinion," says Stokes.

Liesveld also recommends that planners read security surveys that insurance companies prepare for properties. Frequent meeting customers "typically want to know that a hotel is safe in terms of security and fire safety. A meeting planner's general liability carrier or insurance broker may be able to assist in providing a hospitality type survey for gathering this information," he says. He warns that though planners should be prepared and knowledgeable, "security should be left to professionals."

Which is precisely what these men and women are. "While it might be new to the planner, it's not new to us," says Stokes. "It's our job and we take pride in it."

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Security is a different animal from the perspective of the personal protection specialist. Learn more by reading Private Guy: Attendee Protection from the Personal Security Side.