What Mass Shootings Mean for Meetings and Events

Security expert Bruce McIndoe outlines grim new imperatives for planners, venues and destinations

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This episode of NMG’s free Eventful podcast looks at some of these issues around how to ensure the security and safety of their guests or attendees while obeying federal and state laws around gun possession.

On the heels of the latest mass shootings in the U.S., some 8,000 travel-industry professionals gathered in Chicago for the Global Business Travel Association's annual convention. Traveler safety, already a prominent topic on the educational agenda, was now even timelier than anticipated. 

Bruce McIndoe, president and founder of WorldAware (previously iJET), is in high demand for his expertise in global intelligence and risk management, but he made time to talk with Northstar Meetings Group at length about the escalation of gun violence in the U.S. and what it means to our business. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

A Global Reputation for Gun Violence

We've seen an unprecedented number of shootings in the U.S. this year. And it's really only happening here. What's your perspective as a global security expert?
The reality is, this country needs to do more to manage the kinds of weapons that our citizens have access to. When you look at any of the numbers, in virtually all other countries the number of mass shootings in 2019 has been zero, a small handful have had one, two or three, and then the U.S. with 252 so far this year. 

When you start mapping that against countries that have substantial gun control, like the U.K. and others, there's a direct correlation: period, the end. The idea of taking weapons away is what elicits that emotional response. But it's just the type and the capability; we don't want people to have machine guns that can spray out 200 rounds per second.

If this were happening in another country, the U.S. would issue a travel advisory telling citizens not to go there.
Well, Mexico just gave us a whipping. They basically issued a statement demanding that the U.S. do more to protect their citizens who come here, just as we would complain to other countries if U.S. citizens were being injured because of their ethnicities.

Making America Safe Again

Legal Considerations Related to Guns and Meetings
Gun control is a complex issue that raises a number of questions, notably: should meeting planners be thinking about guns as they plan their next event? Naomi Angel of Howe & Hutton offers points to legal issues relating to guns at meetings and events. Learn more here.

Do you think getting new federal legislation on gun control passed will depend upon who is in office?
Elections are important, but at the end of the day it's the citizens who will force change. We've seen a growing level of activism around this. I'm seeing the potential now of another major round of demand by the citizens for their states and the nation to take this more seriously. 

I think the dialogue now through the election season is going to keep this front and center. We had a 10-year ban on assault rifles that was passed in 1994; Congress let it expire in 2004. If this issue dies away again, we only have ourselves to blame, not the politicians. 

Look at the situation in Hong Kong. When 60 or 70 percent of the electorate -- the people who actually vote -- come out onto the streets, governments pay attention. We probably will have to see more activism in the United States if we're going to change things. 

What do you see happening on the state level? California has enacted some of the strictest gun laws in the country. Will others follow?
You can almost pick the states -- red states versus blue states -- to know what those legislatures are going to support.

Security and Site Selection

We've seen that gun violence can happen anywhere. What would you advise a meeting professional who is deciding where to hold a large event? 
The first question should always be, "What are the requirements for that meeting or event?" -- maybe in terms of where people will be traveling from, or the type of destination that makes sense for your objectives. Once planners have choices about where to go, the next questions are, "What kind of capabilities do those places have around personal health and safety?"

In other words, you should be looking at infrastructure in terms of nearby hospitals, police or other emergency-response services?
Yes, you have to assess the effectiveness of the resources in that destination to support your event and be able to respond in a timely manner if an incident should occur. If you consider the most recent incidents, they were quickly controlled because of the capability of the local police or security force, not anything a meeting planner would have done. And, in both cases, armed guards were on-site. That's the only way you can respond in 30 to 45 seconds.

What is the meeting planner's responsibility for having that kind of security?
If you go to a place that doesn't have those support services, then you either need to deliver them yourself by hiring contract guards, or setting up an emergency medical station, whatever it may be to mitigate that risk so that you can hold your event in that location -- or you pick a different location. Those are your choices; you can't ignore it anymore.

Protecting a Crowd

How is security different for a large outdoor event?
With a major event like Lollapalooza, which was here in Chicago this week, there are huge challenges. With the level of threat that we're seeing, we need to step up the public presence of police at those kinds of activities. 

We also have to do more surveillance and social-media monitoring. For example, we have teams that will actually monitor Instagram and Twitter and all that, and look for negative or disparaging remarks, or anything that requires a rapid response. Someone might say, "Hey, somebody just jumped over this fence" or "this guy just broke through a restricted area." You can see that on social media and relay it to the security force so that they can figure out what's going on. That's a very common capability, and there are half a dozen companies that will provide that kind of social-media monitoring; we call it threat-monitoring service. 

Are they just following the hashtag for the event?
Watching the hashtag for the festival is the easy part; we're also monitoring what's happening in that locale. Even here in Chicago, we had issues outside of the festival, because people were coming and going in droves and getting into fights and those kinds of things.

Branded by Tragedy

Mass shootings leave an indelible mark on the place where they happen. How does a hotel or destination deal with that?
I always tell CVBs and destination marketers that security needs to be a top priority, because you don't have the luxury of changing your location, right? If you look at how people refer to these incidents -- it's the Las Vegas shooting, or Columbine or the Boston Marathon -- the location is what gets damned in the sense of what's in people's minds. That's why security is incredibly important for your local brand, because it carries that incident forever. 

No Guns Allowed?

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Our recent cover story on Guns and Meetings addressed the fact that, depending on state laws, venues or planners might not be able to enforce a policy that bans guns from the premises.
Right. Legally, attendees could stand their ground and insist they have the right to carry their weapon. If you're going to say there will be no weapons, and you are going to control the egress of people and validate that they're not bringing weapons in and out, then you need to look at state laws and say, OK, here are 22 states where we're not going to hold these kinds of festivals or meetings because we can't enforce that. If meeting planners say, "We're just not going to operate in your state," it's going to force those legislatures to say, "Well, wait a minute..."

It's complicated. Meeting planners have a thousand other things to worry about, and they do the best they can. But, you know, if you look at the severity of these issues in the United States, very predominantly, this is real. The probability now that your public event is going to be impacted is higher than it has ever been. Every planner has to take this to heart.

The Role of Event Insurance

Where does event insurance come into play?
Insurance is economic protection for the people responsible; it's not helping you protect the staff and the attendees. At the end of the day, if something happens, somebody has to write a big check; you want to see that risk transferred to the insurer.

But the insurers are starting to get smart and saying, "No, that's not going to be covered." Precious few people actually read the policies, but they define the exclusions. For example, we have more people injured on sidewalks because of those little scooters than the people that are riding. That's happening in a lot of cities right now. They're running trials to see how this works out, and it's not working out all that great. 

Event insurance policies can help shape what you're doing and at least put some boundaries on activities that could be dangerous. It's important that meeting planners open up their blinders and think like Mr. or Mrs. Doomsday. They need to look at every detail and say, "OK, what could go wrong?"

Managing a Fast Exit

Clearly, we need to think about what would happen in a mass shooting, and how people would quickly exit the area or meeting facility.
Any time when you have a mass gathering, it's when people get scared and then start moving as a herd that people get hurt. Unfortunately, it's kids or older or disabled people who don't necessarily keep up. I always tell people that if you're in that situation, move to the nearest obstacle, a wall or a piling or whatever you can get near or behind so that you're not in that flow of traffic, and traffic will flow around you. The reality is, you're more likely to get hurt or killed just getting the hell out of there. 

With the incident in Las Vegas, one of the challenges in that venue layout is they did not have a great number of egress portals, which they really needed to manage a rapid offloading of people. That's something that has to be thought about. It's just like being in an airplane. If you have to evacuate and there is only one emergency door, it'd be great if you had 15 to 30 minutes to load people off, but there are six doors because you've got to do it in two or three minutes.

Security on No Budget

What would you advise a smaller organization that does not have a security department or a corporate risk policy, or even a budget for additional measures? What can they do?
Most places where you're going to hold a meeting will have a security director, if not in that property specifically, then for several venues in that area. They're going to work with you. They're going to be proactive. They have relationships with the local police and EMS services. You need to bring them onto your team.