Skift Take

Following recent terrorism attacks and acts of violence in high-profile locations popular for meetings and events, the convention industry is compelled to proactively develop a new set of security standards. This is going to be costly, but it's a different world in 2016, and that's something the industry needs to accept.

While terrorism and random acts of violence have plagued North America, Europe, and elsewhere for centuries, the tragic events in Orlando, Paris, and Nice in the last 12 months struck particularly close to home for the meetings and events industry.

Florida and France are two of the world’s most popular destinations for both conventions and incentive group travel, and they’ve typically been considered safe for any type of international group event.

It’s a different world in 2016.

As a proactive response, a coalition of meeting industry organizations launched the new Exhibitions & Meetings Safety & Security Initiative (EMSSI) last month at the IMEX America meetings industry trade show. The purpose of the program is to officially certify convention centers that fulfill an in-depth review and education process to upgrade their security readiness and response systems.

The International Association of Venue Managers, the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, and the Exhibition Services & Contractors Association are leading the roll-out of EMSSI, which was developed in collaboration with Bruce Davidson, director of the SAFETY Act Office at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The initiative is further supported by two dozen tourism- and meetings-related organizations and travel companies, including the Meetings Mean Business Coalition, Meeting Professionals International, and U.S. Travel.

“The risk landscape we have today is very, very challenging,” said Davidson, during the official announcement of EMSSI. “What are the risks and vulnerabilities to venues? Many of the challenges are not linear. They can pop out of anywhere.”

Expected to be finalized in the first half of 2017, the EMSSI framework aligns convention center security guidelines with federal programs such as the National Preparedness System and National Infrastructure Protection Plan, supplemented with industry expertise specific to the meetings and events sector.

A few of the facilities that have expressed early interest in the program include: George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, and Colorado Convention Center in Denver.

“As convention centers go through this application process, and their venue becomes designated, now as a meeting professional coming in, we’re all speaking the same language,” said Kevin Olsen, co-founder of Keyway, an events company consulting on the delivery of EMSSI. “As more convention centers adopt these guidelines, meeting professionals are going to come in looking for that designation, which will be based around smart practices that are practical, scalable, flexible, and most important, procedural.”

We sat down with Davidson to get some specifics about what his office is prioritizing for meeting planners and convention center executives facing a shifting future.

Skift: What are some of the most basic things recommended in EMSSI that convention centers and meeting planners might consider to make their events more secure?

Bruce Davidson: When you’re dealing with venues, there are a few things you’re going to want to do. You want to understand what the vulnerabilities or risks might be. You want to take a look at what type of activity you’re going to have, who’s going to be there, and what the flow is going to be like. Also, what types of systems can you set up to provide for security so you’re able to screen people’s credentials coming in? Is there any sort of parameter? Is your facility close to another facility that might also have a major event at the same time?

So you want to get some situational awareness about the type of event you’re going to have, and try to understand what potential threats and vulnerabilities might present themselves. And then you have to take a look at what resources you have to structure a plan of action that can deter some of these types of activity, like a terrorist activity, or at least mitigate it, or respond to it, or recover from it.

Skift: This is a major shift, or expansion, in terms of a meeting planner’s job description. What are the first things you recommend that planners should understand if they’re going to take on these added responsibilities?

Davidson: First, this is best done way in advance, and most of these events have a pretty good advance timeline. It’s also good for associations who have events to also think about this well in advance to try and marshal resources. There are a lot of good resources available from the federal government in terms of advice and assistance from state and local governments. They have responders that can be available. They can get briefings from law enforcement personnel if there are any type of threats that you should be alerted to.

And then you have to think about if you’re going to have a security staff, and who’s going to be responsible for security? How is command and control going to be organized, and what types of policies and procedures need to be in place? What type of personnel are going to be deployed for security, and are they going to be uniformed? Will there be law enforcement people there as a symbol or resource in case they’re needed. Sometimes the presence of law enforcement provides a good deterrent effect. Sometimes you need them in case there’s a use of force that needs to be dealt with.

Skift: Aside from the resources required, what are some of the biggest challenges for organizations to implement heightened security measures as an industry standard in the form of EMSSI?

Davidson: These conventions and events tend to be widely attended, and there’s a premium on individuals being mobile and exercising personal choice on where they want to go and when. So it’s difficult to have a rigid structure in terms of security. For some large events, if you have a facility where you can set up some sort of perimeter to try to organize the flow of people into the facility, that is recommended if you have some kind of screening process. Other things to think about would be emergency response. What are your plans for that? What are you going to communicate to attendees if they need to evacuate the premises, or stay in a certain location?

A lot of these threats that we talk about are low probability in an absolute sense. On the other hand, the probability isn’t zero. So we really need to start thinking through this, because if they do occur, they tend to have high consequences. Once an act of violence begins, it’s very difficult for free society to terminate that without some kind of risk and potential loss of life.

Skift: This all starts with executive buy-in and leadership.

Davidson: Yes, you need to try to get good executive buy-in to what you’re doing because some of these capabilities require additional resources. Executives need to be briefed on this and understand what the potential risks are, and what the potential resources are that can be brought to bear to mitigate those risks.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has a wealth of information on the website that can be drawn on by private sector personnel to try and educate themselves to get some ideas about best practices. Associations are developing series of best practices and scalable guidelines to provide some structure to this, because everyone wants to know, “Am I doing the right thing?”

EMSSI is a response to that. So you have layers here. Not only layers of security, but layers of leadership. And all the leadership should be engaged because when you bring them all together, that’s when you have the best shot of putting together a coherent strategy.

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Tags: meetings and events, politics, safety, unrest

Photo credit: Colorado Convention Center in Denver is one of the first such facilities to show interest in the new EMSSI security certification. Metro Denver

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