The Secret to Security

For years, our company has planned events where we work with the U.S. Secret Service. Dignitaries who require Secret Service protection represent the highest levels of government and include the President and Vice President and their immediate families; the President's cabinet, five-star generals, past presidents, presidential candidates, and even certain dignitaries from overseas.

The Secret Service has scores of rules to help ensure the safety of a dignitary. Removal of garbage cans along a motorcade route is just one of them (bombs could be hidden inside). Manhole covers must be welded shut, and rooftop access is severely restricted. Air traffic near the event site usually must be diverted -- especially if the President is attending. The Secret Service uses local bomb squads to check out sewers and do sweeps of the event site. Since 9/11, the use of bomb-sniffing dogs to comb the event site has become the standard.

Working successfully with the Secret Service requires knowledge, stamina, a tough hide, and the ability to be flexible. In the wake of 9/11, the task is even more daunting. But as you can imagine, I've learned a great deal, both professionally and personally, from these experiences.

Even if your duties as an event planner never involve working directly with the Secret Service, here are some suggestions that may make your event security plan more effective.

Make sure that a professional, comprehensive security plan is in place. Most clients don't want to know every detail of the security plan, so they hire professionals they trust to ensure that all security details have been handled. The plan must be very clear, yet seem unobtrusive and an almost invisible part of your overall event plan to the guests. These days, extra security and last-minute security-related changes are often needed. Your client needs to know that these can cause large last- minute expenses.

Play by the (security) rules. Even when we aren't working with the Secret Service on a job, there is such a heightened sense of security for all events today that we don't take any chances. Your own events may sometimes require that you work with city departments -- or possibly just hotel security. These experts may make demands in the interest of public security. You may be inclined to resist some of their requests, but think twice. Is their request really out of line, given the currently elevated security environment?

My unwavering commitment to put security first comes from unequivocally responding to every request made by the Service Service. Your boss or client may be the president of a Fortune 500 company or a heavyweight in the industry, but the guys with the earpieces should get their way, if you want your VIP to be safe.

Plan for any conceivable type of emergency. When the Secret Service is involved, the emergency portion of your event security plan must be incredibly detailed and include the route to the nearest trauma center, an alternate "safe route" mapped out to rush a dignitary there, and a lengthy list of emergency phone numbers. Our emergency plans, which have always been very detailed and thorough, are even more so today -- and for all our events, not just ones where the Secret Service is involved.

Be flexible. When working with the Secret Service, there are frequently numerous last-minute changes. These can be significant. Two years ago, we had to fundamentally replan an entire event for Northwestern Memorial Hospital with less than 24 hours' notice to accommodate Hillary Clinton's Secret Service detail. At the annual Air and Sea Show in Fort Lauderdale, we were forced to find another location for a VIP party because the Secret Service felt the venue wasn't secure enough for the four-star generals who were expected to attend. Rather than looking at changes as an ordeal, we view them as a challenge and approach solving them in that way.

Get extra help if you need it. In working with the Secret Service, I've learned that last-minute changes often require additional help. We don't hesitate to hire additional personnel if that's what it takes to get the job done. I'm sure most event planners feel the same way.

Don't take it personally. In the event management business, smiles are our stock and trade. Dealing with someone who doesn't smile can be disconcerting. Members of the Secret Service rarely smile. They have one job, and it's one they are willing to risk their life for: the protection of a VIP.

From the moment they show up on your doorstep about a week prior to an event, you must be at this non-smiling person's beck and call. Given the frantic last-minute nature of most events, it can seem overwhelming. But I now realize how powerful a smile is in professional situations.

If I were to take body language at surface value, I would surmise that the non-smiling person doesn't like me or my work. But I now know that's usually not the issue. Working with the Secret Service has taught me not to take things at "face" value. To explore someone's concerns a little deeper. To put myself in another person's shoes.

Most importantly, it has taught me not to not take things personally. I have a deepened understanding and respect for all that it takes to get the job done right.