Disease, natural disasters and terrorist attacks are all real threats that meeting planners and suppliers must consider in their emergency planning protocols. But are you prepared for much more common disruptions, such as a fire in the venue's kitchen, protests in the host city or a medical emergency on-site?
"I think you have to go into it understanding that something will happen," says Erin Lipman, national sales director for Destination Concepts, a global destination management company. "If you have that expectation, you will plan accordingly and you are always going to be prepared."
An event risk-management plan should be a living, breathing document that is regularly reviewed and updated. There is no one-size-fits-all checklist, notes Tyra Warner, department chair of hospitality, tourism and culinary arts at the College of Coastal Georgia, and author of the Events Industry Council's 2021 Risk Management Guidebook.
"The risks associated with an auto show will be different from those associated with a corporate incentive event or a product launch," she says. "Unless every meeting is held at the same venue, in the same city and with the same participants, meeting professionals need to start by determining what adverse events are likely with the particular event they are planning."
Below, experts provide tactical advice on some of the common risks that should be on a planner's radar.
Selecting the Right Destination
Event safety and emergency preparedness cannot be an afterthought or a last-minute task to be addressed in the final weeks before the gathering. "This should be an important part of how meetings are planned and decisions are made," says Warner.
Potential risks should be factored in at the very beginning of the process, even before choosing the meeting destination and venue. Warner suggests considering the following before selecting your destination:
- What is the likelihood of severe weather, such as hurricanes or wildfires?
- What is the crime rate in the city as a whole, as well as in the area where the venues are located?
- What is the local rate of Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations?
- What is the political climate in the destination?
- If the event destination is outside the United States, is there any risk of a coup, war or unrest between neighboring countries?
- Within the U.S., has the destination passed any polarizing or potentially offensive laws or ordinances that might attract protestors?
Assessing Hotel/Venue Risks
Planners must be just as diligent when it comes to selecting the host hotel or venue. Warner recommends considering the following:
- How many access points are there to the venue itself and into the meeting space? How are the entrances managed
- Where is security located? How can they be reached?
- How many full-time security personnel are on-site? How many are in an office vs. roaming during each shift?
- Have there been any violent crime incidents on-site or in the parking structure in the past three years?
- Will any other groups be meeting in the venue over your dates? If yes, could a concurrent event invite risk because of its nature, program or participants? If so, prepare for tangential effects — or choose a different venue.
- Does the venue have defibrillators on-site? If so, how many, where are they stored and who on-site is authorized to use them in an emergency?
- Is there an on-site physician or nurse? If so, where are they located and what are their hours?
- Where is the nearest hospital? What are the phone numbers for local emergency services?
- Does the venue have a public-address system for emergency announcements? Is it equipped with visual alarms for guests with impaired hearing?
- Where are the evacuation routes? How will attendees be directed to the proper exits?
- Is a procedure in place for an active threat and/or sheltering in place?
Preparing for Covid-19 Complications
Coronavirus cases might be declining, but new variants can reemerge quickly. It's also possible that another unforeseen health threat could arise. Review safety plans regularly and stay informed about local health news in the destination.
For now, Lipman of Destination Concepts believes planners should maintain some pandemic-era safety protocols, such as conducting daily health checks, and requiring proof of vaccination or a recent negative test for entry.
"Gathering 100, 200 or 5,000 people for a meeting is very different from just popping out to your grocery store without a mask on," she says. "You are in a contained area indoors for general sessions. You are having meals with people; you're shaking hands. There's so much more contact than you would otherwise have in your everyday life."
Many of Destination Concepts' clients have stepped up their testing requirements for events. Rather than asking that Covid-19 tests are taken two or three days prior to arrival, they're conducting on-site testing, which further minimizes the risk for contagion. This precaution, combined with requiring proof of vaccination, can make attendees and event organizers feel more comfortable, says Lipman, as mask mandates and social distancing are eased.
No matter the group size or health-safety measures, every planner must be have a plan of action in the event that a participant tests positive or develops symptoms on-site. Destination Concepts had its quarantine plan put to the test last August at a 500-person incentive event, where three people tested positive for the virus and had to isolate for 14 days.
"We had a plan in place that was crafted with the knowledge that this was going to happen, so all went according to plan," says Lipman. The company already had a designated hotel for those who tested positive, and the transportation company had set up vehicles in advance with additional Plexiglas and PPE, and drivers who were comfortable transporting infected guests. The plan also included meal delivery and the necessary Covid-19 testing at the end of the quarantine period.
Following are questions to ask and points to be addressed in your plan:
- What are the local case numbers and hospitalizations?
- Are any state, county or city restrictions still in place?
- What Covid-19 protocols are in place at venues your group will be using? Consider hotel(s), meeting facilities and off-site restaurants, if applicable.
- Will you require face masks, social distancing, vaccination and/or Covid-19 testing for attendees and staff? Will you conduct daily health checks?
- Where will attendees/staff go if they test positive for Covid-19?
- How will you transport them to a quarantine hotel? Who will handle rebooking their flights and return travel?
- How will they get their meals?
- What other materials, such as additional clothing or toiletries, might people need if they test positive and must quarantine for multiple days?
- For how long will they need to isolate? How will testing be conducted to determine if they can leave quarantine?
Creating a Cybersecurity Plan
Cybersecurity should be a critical part of any thorough safety plan. Live, hybrid and virtual events are vulnerable to hacking that can disrupt the meeting, spread malware, expose sensitive attendee data and ruin an organization's reputation.
Awareness of cybersecurity risks has grown in recent years, but preventative measures are still rare in a meeting setting, says Rebecca Herold, CEO of the Privacy Professor consultancy and CEO and cofounder of Privacy and Security Brainiacs SaaS services. "Unfortunately, most awareness for meeting planners comes only after breaches have occurred," says Herold, who emphasizes that potential threats should be addressed well in advance of the event. "It is not possible to simply show up and implement cybersecurity protections a day or even a week ahead of time."
Among the first steps planners should take is to add security and privacy requirements into their venue and technology contracts, says Herold. Event organizers should request that the supplier provide confirmation that all cybersecurity issues have been addressed at least one week ahead of the event. This can include asking for a copy of a risk assessment that identifies potential vulnerabilities in the venue's cybersecurity.
For added security, Herold suggests having someone on the planning team who is trained in cyber safety and privacy. This is especially important if the gathering includes a virtual or hybrid component, which brings greater risks for malicious online acts.
Following are questions to ask venues and technology partners:
- What type of antimalware software does the venue provide? When was it last updated?
- Is the network encrypted? Is there a backup network set up in the event there is a failure or a compromise of the primary network?
- Is it possible to provide each in-person or remote attendee with a unique WiFi login and password? While setting this up requires more work, it can enhance security significantly and allow event organizers to track down the misuse of IDs easily.
- Does the venue/technology supplier use two-factor authentication?
- Have any cyber breaches or security issues occurred in the past few years?
- Are there privacy screens on computers with access to the venue systems and settings?
- Does the venue check for USB skimmers?
- Will your group be provided with a secure meeting room on-site where staff members, vendors and speakers can safely leave their laptops and other vulnerable equipment?incidents that occur at meetings?