In The Vault

Last summer, the government announced that it had received several credible terrorist threats against specific financial institutions. Immediately, the institutions targeted, as well as many that weren't, stepped up security in and around their offices—and wherever their employees met.

"We're now much more deliberate about learning the hotel's security systems and procedures. It's a new era," says Margie Blue, first VP of marketing for St. Petersburg, FL-based Raymond James Financial Services. Although Raymond James was not one of the targeted institutions, Blue says security is still a top concern. "I dig in with the hotel and really learn the plan for emergencies—how higher-ups would communicate to us, the staff, and to the hotel guests—and the quality of that plan absolutely impacts how we choose the hotel. If I see a property without a well-considered and well-established emergency plan, I will not meet there."

But while physical security is essential, it's not terrorist bogeymen who keep many meeting planners awake at night. Their real nightmare: the corporate moles.

Successful Meetings asked both planners and hotel staff who specialize in financial-firm meetings what it takes to keep meeting content safe from prying eyes.

Because financial institutions deal with such sensitive data, security of the information shared is of the highest priority. "The number-one concern is confidentiality and not having their competitors around," says Jim Dale, director of catering at New York City's Grand Hyatt, who estimates his hotel hosts about four finance-industry meetings per month. Dale says financial clients regularly request contractual clauses that ensure no competing institutions will be meeting on the same floor—and often even at the entire property—on the same day.

Some financial companies go so far as to reserve all the suites in the hotel, in an effort to prevent corporate spies from sneaking into a private event. "They hold all of the suites, and then if someone calls to reserve one, we inform them that another company has reserved the right to assign those rooms," says William Fong, director of sales at San Francisco's Westin St. Francis hotel, who estimates that his hotel hosts up to three financial industry meetings every month. Fong says that the company reserving the suites then determines whether or not the prospective guest is a corporate spy, and adds that this is a common way for organizations to monitor access. "The financial companies like to have absolute control of the space," he says. "They bring in extensive security teams to control access to their floors." Jim Eagen, director of conferences for Florham Park, NJ-based Financial Executives Institute (FEI), says he writes his need for privacy into the contract. "We include language to specify that the meeting is not open to the public, and we hire a company to do security on site and confirm that only invited people are admitted," he says.

Similarly, planners in the financial industry must make certain that their attendees' data is secure while at the meeting. While planners insist on wireless Internet access ("I won't even consider properties that don't have wireless access," says FEI's Eagen), the security of those networks is of paramount importance. "Banks are very conscious about being on an open wireless network," says David Montgomery, director of sales and marketing at the Westin in Charlotte, NC. "They make sure we're able to configure special firewalls and IP addresses for each laptop to ensure secure data transmission." The data are so sensitive that sometimes planners request that nothing be thrown out as rooms are cleared. Says Montgomery, "All the documents must be accounted for at the end of the day, so they can later be shredded."

As far as presentation is concerned, "Financial meetings are very high-tech," says Westin's Fong. As a result, some financial meeting planners travel with their own technology support team. "I don't use the AV within the hotels," says FEI's Eagen. "Instead, I contract with a national AV company and keep it on retainer." Eagen says this strategy is not only a "huge savings," but also that it ensures excellent service. "It's ten times better," he says. "I don't have to worry about AV, and I don't have to put a staff member on it. Further, the AV company has a vested interest in keeping my contract, so the service is very good. I'm not sure that happens at hotels where I'm considered just transient business." Eagen warns, however, that bringing his own AV staff can be problematic at properties that use union labor. In such cases, he has a union worker shadow his technician.

Because financial executives can afford very little time out of the office, programs tend to be longer and include more information. "As a result," Eagen says, "we have to give them more space because they'll be next to each other all day. For example, if we have theater-style seating, they'll sit every other chair, without fail." Volume of space is not the only requirement; layout plays a large part, too. "The 'flow' of the day is very important, in the transitions from the general session to the concurrent ones to the breakouts and one-on-ones," says Jim Dale, director of catering for the Grand Hyatt in New York City. "Flow and functionality are critical because attendees are on a very tight schedule and they disseminate sensitive information in a context where timing is very important, so they need to be able to move between rooms very efficiently." Dale says the financial meetings require so many meeting rooms that his hotel recently added 22 more breakout rooms (for a total of 45), "just to accommodate the financial conferences." Hotels with fewer meeting rooms, like San Francisco's Westin St. Francis, convert guest rooms into breakout rooms. "They need a lot of smaller rooms for the one-on-one time they use to book deals," Fong says.