Have you heard the one about the women in high heels running down a hotel lobby with stolen flat-screen televisions and a blue Rubbermaid bin full of event supplies? Beth Cooper-Zobott, director of conference services at Equity Residential, wishes she hadn’t.
That was the story a venue’s security team was telling her after high-priced equipment and other meeting materials went missing during an Equity Residential meeting in Las Vegas. Days earlier, the same venue informed Cooper-Zobott that the lockable storage room she’d arranged for had been sold out from under her, and her team would need to use an airwall closet that couldn’t be fully secured to store valuables.
The guards told the meeting planner to trust that the facility’s many cameras would deter any thieves, or at least catch perpetrators red-handed.
“I’ve been assured by venues not to worry because they have the best security in the world,” says the Chicago-based Cooper-Zobott, who has more than 20 years of experience planning domestic and international events. “When I’ve taken their word for it, that’s when something happens.”
Which it did on that memorable occasion, when what came to Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas. Cooper-Zobott wasn’t buying the venue staff’s first explanation, which accused her high-heeled conference attendees of the crime.
When the venue refused to hand over surveillance tapes, she had a good idea of what happened. While she never received visual evidence, the property’s readiness to cut a check to ward off legal action was all the proof she needed that hotel staff was to blame. She has never returned to the venue and learned this harsh lesson in Event Planning 101: Hire your own security.
The same advice is universal from the group interviewed for this story. Most planners, like Cooper-Zobott, can name only a handful of incidents when their events’ on-site security was compromised. But that doesn’t mean security isn’t top of mind at all times.
From ensuring safety of attendees to protecting personal and group property to safeguarding an organization’s reputation, risk management of host venues takes many forms for planners, whose job is to think of everything. The hope is these efforts won’t be necessary, but taking any chances is out of the question.
”That’s what all security is: Just in case,” says Patricia Ahaesy, CMP, CSEP, president and partner at P&V Enterprises, a New York-based strategic event planning, production and management group.
Chaos in Chicago
On a bitter-cold December night outside Chicago last year, safety measures became more than hypothetical. A chlorine gas spill in the stairwell of Hyatt Regency O’Hare in Rosemont, Illinois, created an unusual scene in which thousands of hotel guests, many dressed in animal costumes, evacuated onto the street.
The incident, which is still under investigation, is believed to have been a deliberate attempt to disrupt Midwest FurFest, an annual convention that in 2014 drew more than 4,500 furries. It’s a group that celebrates art, literature and performances based around anthropomorphic animals, according to the convention website.
In the show’s 15 years of existence, there have been several false alarms, says Toby Murono, chairman of Midwest FurFest. However, this year, “it quickly became apparent this was far from a typical incident,” he recalls. Nineteen hotel guests were hospitalized after complaining of nausea, dizziness and other medical problems as a result of the spill that began at approximately 12:40 a.m.
The media jumped on the story, interviewing furries like Morgan Smejkal, who—while reportedly wearing a red panda suit—told a Chicago Tribune reporter the alleged attack was shocking.
Shock turned to frustration as attendees waited for more than three hours to get the all clear to return to their hotel rooms. The nearby Donald E. Stephens Convention Center was opened to provide warmth and shelter to the evacuees anxiously awaiting information about the night’s events. Circumstances largely left Murono’s hands tied in communicating with the group. “Authorities were both treating the chemical spill and conducting an investigation,” he says, “so our ability to disseminate updates to our attendees was limited.”
Murono says the group’s security team executed an established emergency plan that called for working with city, venue and medical personnel. Also involved was a legal team to identify liability and safety concerns before the convention could continue as scheduled. The staff’s long hours paid off in restoring confidence in attendees that the show would go on. “People felt we had survived and overcome this incident together,” says Murono.
That said, memories from the 2014 convention linger. FurFest officials are re-evaluating safety protocols and have fielded questions from attendees expressing concern over future events (the 2015 conference will go on as planned Dec. 4-6 at the same Hyatt Regency). It’s certainly not anything Murono will forget.
“Seeing the streets filled with emergency vehicles and our attendees huddled inside a convention hall for hours is something I hope never to repeat,” he says.
Ins and Outs
Getting a lay of the land is a must during site visits, says Michael Owen, managing partner at Nashville-based event management firm EventGenuity. Things to look for include the locations of stairwells and emergency exits, and where security personnel are stationed. This information serves as the foundation on which to build an emergency plan for combatting a situation like the one at FurFest. From there, planners need to educate their staff on floor plans and exit routes to quickly guide attendees outside venues to safety.
But almost as important as getting attendees out the door is preventing outsiders from getting in. Owen, who has experience working in back halls of hotels during event preparation, says convention hotels are particularly easy to penetrate. “If I were homeless, I would live near a large convention hotel and own one suit and a name badge, and I would walk in and go to the buffet,” he says.
Meeting crashers aren’t necessarily common, but they can draw the type of attention a company isn’t looking for. Two protesters from a San Francisco-based anti-eviction group disrupted the keynote at the 2014 Google I/O, the Internet giant’s largest annual event, protesting the effects of the tech industry’s boom in the area. One went as far to say Google is creating “machines that kill people,” according to media reports. An attendee sympathetic to the protestors’ cause donated them tickets, which were $900 and only available through a lottery system.
“If you are Citibank, or another company, do you really want your meetings listed on reader boards and attendees wearing name badges so reporters can troll them?”—Michael Owen, managing partner of EventGenuity
Google didn’t respond to an interview request, but the top meeting planner of another tech giant worries events may become magnets for more social disruptions.
“You see a social acceptance around disruptive protests in general,” says Scott Schenker, Microsoft’s general manager of worldwide events, citing 2011’s Occupy Wall Street movement as an example.
As much as Schenker hates to admit it, he says meetings make perfect targets because of large, captive audiences and media covering an event. If the disruptions are cheered, the trend will gain momentum. If not, planners will have one less thing to worry about.
One way to prevent unwanted outbursts is to monitor attendees as they register. “The system used to check in attendees is important, to make sure [they are] the actual people who are supposed to be there,” Ahaesy says. In addition to personal safety concerns, unwanted guests also present dangers to business. Though many meetings may not involve classified information, that doesn’t mean organizations want to air their “laundry in the streets,” as Owen puts it.
Issa Jouaneh, senior vice president and general manager of American Express Meetings & Events, has a similar view. “Meetings and events are key reflections of an organization’s brand,” he says. “We view ourselves as custodians of that brand.”
Included in that brand protection is preventing unwanted media coverage. Owen recalls reporters looking for wrongdoings in conferences shortly after the AIG event in 2008 that sparked a backlash against lavish spending at meetings. Corporate groups in particular often prefer secrecy to head off potential hazards.
“If you are Citibank, or another company, do you really want your meetings listed on reader boards and attendees wearing name badges so reporters can troll them?” asks Owen.
Safe at Home
A venue will always have a security team available to planners, but that is not enough to safeguard an event. Hotel or convention center staff is dedicated to their employer, so in the event of a propertywide incident, its responsibility is to the building as a whole and not to a specific meeting. “Someone causes a distraction somewhere else and our people run out,” says Cooper-Zobott. “Then someone can come into our space and steal everything.”
A few days into a multiday event, attendees begin to feel more comfortable in their surroundings. It’s natural, but not necessarily healthy. “You are essentially in a hotel full of strangers,” says Cooper-Zobott. “I’ve had people ask me, ‘Should we take our purses with us?’ I’m thinking, ‘Of course. Would you leave your purse on a train?’”
When an attendee left a cellphone on a conference table at one of Cooper-Zobott’s events, it took less than 15 minutes for it to be stolen, the planner recalls. She also had her personal laptop stolen from a hotel room in Dallas.
“Theft can happen anywhere,” she says, noting it can affect more than the person whose equipment is stolen. “If any presentation or content for a meeting suddenly vanished and we couldn’t hold the meeting, that’s irreplaceable in terms of everyone’s time,” she says.
If there is a budget for it, hiring a private security team, often made up of off-duty or retired police officers, will go a long way toward mitigating risk. Even then, Cooper-Zobott monitors the guards. She’s seen instances when one security official will leave after his or her shift ends but before a replacement has arrived—meaning no one is on guard for a period of time. She now checks in late at night to make sure hired personnel are where they are supposed to be.
Establishing behavioral protocols with security staff, like not touching any equipment, is another lesson Cooper-Zobott learned the hard way when a hired guard decided to watch a movie on a laptop that wasn’t password-protected. “It screwed something up,” she says. “A presentation we needed the next morning was gone.”
Company CEOs and other top executives may also have their own security with which planners must coordinate efforts. High-level speakers like government officials come with a U.S. Secret Service detail, which also involves coordination.
Ahaesy, who organizes corporate, business-to-business and nonprofit events in the New York City area, worked with the U.S. Secret Service twice when then-first lady Hillary Clinton was a keynote speaker. The protection group performs walkthroughs a week before an event and sometimes will take another pass closer to the date. Ahaesy says planners should allocate two hours the day of for a final inspection.
Preventing an onstage attack is the obvious priority, but more commonly, the Secret Service works to ensure no one rushes up to the speaker unexpectedly, even for something innocuous like a handshake. That’s especially the case with a public figure as well known as Clinton, says Ahaesy, who was amazed at the security detail’s rapid actions even when there wasn’t an incident at the event.
“You’ve never seen Secret Service get somebody offstage so quickly,” Ahaesy says. “It’s like they had a magic wand, or like in ‘Star Trek,’ she was transported out. It was amazing.”
Beware of Piracy
A related issue to venue security is hotel room block piracy and poaching, in which businesses aim to recruit attendees and exhibitors to go outside the room block through them. Sometimes the reservations aren’t real and are a ruse to get attendees’ information. Other times, the reservations are legitimate, and the main harm is to planners who pay attrition fines for not filling their allotted spots. The Convention Industry Council found room poachers affect 73 percent of 622 respondents in a study released by APEX. The same study found 45 percent of planners say piracy damages a brand’s reputation, and 86 percent say it takes time away from planning their event, meaning they have less time to worry about other safety concerns.
Photo credit: @EikoTehMouse