Any large gathering of people, such as a business conference, presents security risks that event organizers must be ready to respond to.

In recent years, this has become more complicated, as a few major threats have become more common. Climate change has raised the frequency of severe weather events, and has even increased the risk of disease outbreaks, according to a recent report from travel management company BCD Travel. Global tensions and the rise of polarizing political candidates have also made an impact on event safety.

Now, the main question for event planners is how to effectively prepare for such risks while still making sure the event is welcoming and enjoyable for attendees.

“Whether it’s flooding in South Africa or severe hailstorms in Guadalajara, Mexico, travelers are increasingly faced with disruptions caused by extreme natural events,” the report states. “According to the World Health Organization, large outbreaks of deadly diseases are becoming the ‘new normal.’ Climate change, rainforest depletion, large and highly mobile populations, weak governments and conflict are making outbreaks of diseases like Ebola, cholera and yellow fever more likely and easier to transmit.”

The report goes on to cite the rise of “populist and often right-wing politicians” being elected around the world as another threat to attendee safety, along with the economic uncertainty and instability caused by Brexit.

“The political doctrines of some of these new leaders and their backers could threaten travelers targeted because of ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation,” the report states. “Intent on challenging established practices, this new breed of national leader may disrupt the diplomatic traditions that helped defuse international disputes and support the status quo for decades.”

With the nature and severity of threats changing constantly, it is important for event organizers to have a comprehensive yet flexible security plan in place, according to Jason Porter, vice president of private security agency Pinkerton.

“The key thing is being able to objectively look at all of your risks across the board, identify your threats, and identify the probability of those threats,” he said. “But this is a very individualized process. You can’t just approach an event from a checklist scenario.” Depending on the size of the venue, the location, and the event’s theme, risks will be very different.

Common methods for combatting risk include using metal detectors, checking attendees’ bags, and even using facial recognition software. When it comes to catastrophic events such as natural disasters, however, having a response plan in place is most important. For this, Porter recommends hiring a private, third-party security company.

With that said, organizers have to make sure their plans are not so overbearing that it negatively impacts the attendee experience. This can be tough to balance, especially for planners hosting a very large event, or one which centers around a controversial or political topic, which is more likely to attract negative attention, Porter said.

“Across the board, the primary thing most events have to take into consideration is they need to be able to develop a security plan that walks that fine line of creating a secure environment and creating an open and welcoming environment that the attendees want to attend,” he said, adding that this was an area that many organizers struggle with.

If planners do not strike the right balance, they risk creating a negative conference experience, which may deter attendees from returning in the future.

Data Security

Ironically, some of the tools most useful for identifying and combating risk can also leave a company vulnerable in other ways. Artificial intelligence and machine learning can help monitor risk patterns, and can also work to screen attendees, but it also increases the amount of data that can potentially be leaked or stolen.

“Artificial intelligence and facial recognition is an upcoming tech that we’re seeing more in the use of event planning and large conventions. And that creates a whole other caveat of potential risks and other items to consider,” said Porter. “When you have those technologies, it’s a deep rabbit hole you can go down.”

This is complicated further by the variety of data privacy rules, which can change based on which country an event is located, or where the attendees are visiting from. Europe, for example, has much stricter data privacy rules than the U.S., and events hosting European attendees should make sure their data policies are compliant with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

Porter suggests that planners have a clear understanding of who owns the data being collected and how it will be disposed, and develop strict boundaries on how that data can and cannot be used. With that said, no preparation will be perfect.

“In the world of today, we’re seeing new data breaches every other month,” Porter said. “Anytime you’re in a data-heavy environment, you have to create a crisis management plan. So if you find out there’s a breach, who’s going to do what? What plans do we have in place to create that? How are we going to properly respond to that? You have to actually have a robust protocol in place.”

Photo Credit: Attendees clapping at a TED conference in 2015. TED Conference / Flickr