Planners More Focused On Managing Risk

This year's outbreak of swine flu and recent terrorist attacks on hotels in Jakarta and elsewhere have re-focused a spotlight on the importance of pre-event risk management. Meanwhile, some planners are weighing the viability of developing enterprise-wide meeting risk management standards.

Such a standardization effort could provide planners accurate data to know who is in a particular location at a given time and assess threat exposure, often a complex undertaking during an emergency because of the number of attendees involved, the duration of their stays and the variety of their travel patterns.

"People need to have the data as to what and where are all the meetings," said Maritz Travel president and CEO Christine Duffy. "If something bad happens, where are our people?"

Duffy said one of the key tenets of strategic meetings management is developing an organization-wide policy and procedures for risk management. However, unlike the many transient corporate travel programs managed through a small number of service providers, meetings often remain fragmented, which can make the development of such a policy challenging.

"From a safety and security standpoint, unlike corporate travel, where for the most part you do have a single source on the transient side, there is not an enterprise view of meetings, where people are able to pull every part of all their meetings to see where they have people today," said Carlson Wagonlit Travel vice president of meetings and events in North America Tony Wagner.

Risk management also has become increasingly important as organizations expand their footprints. Although safety and security management has become widely integrated into requests for proposals and site-selection processes, there still is a level of pre-event preparedness, including local conflicts, weather patterns and local law enforcement infrastructure, that needs to take place in order to handle unexpected situations.

"If I've got 400 people assembled in a ballroom, I have to vet and ensure that the property has the safety and security mechanisms that I assume are in place, especially if you look at it on a global scale," said Hilton Hotels director of global travel management and incoming National Business Travel Association president Craig Banikowski. "If you have travelers in the four corners of the world, you have to help ensure that as part of your deliverable in managed meetings."

Banikowski, a former chair of NBTA's risk management committee, pointed out the need to take a granular look at event safety and security. For example, he said, planners should evaluate the safety of ground transportation providers, including driver safety records, and limit the number of executives who can ride in one car.

Third-party planning firm Global Conference Associates, which concentrates on international meetings, conducts a risk assessment in every site-selection process. It uses resources including the U.S. State Department's travel warnings and reports and local destination management companies and consultants to evaluate the safety of a city and venue, according to company president Jim Fausel Jr.

Before and during the event, Fausel said attendees should receive electronic or paper handouts about health requirements, emergency preparedness and nearby medical facilities.

Association and event management company MCI Group always conducts security audits on special event venues in the site-selection process, which include recording the number and placement of exits and assessing room capacity, the flow of people and available onsite emergency services, said MCI Group corporate division CEO Sebastien Tondeur. "There always is the potential for risk," he said. "It is how you go about handling it."

The Association Management Center uses a standard safety and security checklist that is reviewed by its meeting planners with the facility to ensure that safety and security measures and procedures are acceptable. The Glenview, Ill.-based association management company also has communicated with attendees about such issues as fire safety and evacuation measures by including informational packets with their welcome conference materials, said account executive and director of meetings and conventions Kay Granath.

Risk management firm Ijet Intelligent Risk Systems president Bruce McIndoe said that although risk-related questions often are included in requests for proposals, many planners still have a distance to go before meeting programs reach maturity in ensuring security.

"The planner and organization putting on the meeting has to take ownership and know the protocols in the event of a particular incident," McIndoe said. "That is where I see 90 percent of the gap. It's not the venue, local responders or availability of tools. It's that the planner doesn't have a process and hasn't trained the staff on basic emergency management processes."

Originally published Aug. 10, 2009