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Steps to Safety

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Threats to conferences have escalated in recent years. Effective planning involves close communication with meeting venues, and a range of ways to reach out to attendees.

Linda M. Lindamood, president and CEO of First Watch Strategies and Events, has decades of experience preparing organizations for security risks at large-scale events, including the Special Olympics. But even her clients will push back sometimes.

“The thing that keeps me up at night is the client who says, ‘We’ve been doing this for 25 years and nothing has ever happened,’” she said. “Just because it’s never happened doesn’t mean that it’s not going to.”

Conferences—and the threats to them—are more complicated than ever, thanks to extreme weather, concerns about active shooters, and controversial speakers in a divisive time politically. Associations needn’t panic, or put their attendees on edge. But Lindamood says the need to create, share, and prepare to implement an emergency response plan is more pronounced than ever.

As a first step, Lindamood consults directly with an organization’s leaders. “We want to understand the audience, and also if there’s a threat to that audience,” she said. “We also want to understand what the client feels the risks are. We’ll just ask them to throw out one word that comes to the top of their mind for their audience about what exactly could go wrong.”

Conference venues have also developed their own safety plans around events. Mary Klida, senior marketing and communications manager at Detroit’s Huntington Place convention center, says that its staff conducts active shooter training annually, and conducts tabletop exercises around scenarios with area law-enforcement agencies.

“We realize that if [an active shooter incident] happens, it would be unexpected, so training is key,” Klida said. “In our pre-planning meetings with a show client, we now distribute some basic safety protocols so they can forward information to their attendees.”

Once that plan is developed, an association may wish to bring in law enforcement to develop their own tabletop exercises that address elements unique to their event. Those can involve a variety of issues, Lindamood says. Will lots of attendees be outside in warm weather for an extended period? Are there other events happening simultaneously that will create traffic issues? Are you in an area that’s at an elevated risk of an earthquake?

“A safety plan that sits on a shelf is a waste of time.”—Linda Lindamood, First Watch Strategies and Events

Get the Word Out

Regardless of the threats, the emergency plan needs to be not just developed but also communicated.

“A plan that sits on a shelf is a waste of time,” said Lindamood. “A lot of folks do the safety plans and the security plans for the sake of doing a safety and security plan and they never share it with anybody. That’s where disasters happen.”

One essential element of an association’s emergency planning is communication with attendees. Meeting planners can’t assume that in a crisis every attendee will have downloaded the conference app or be onsite at the venue. Associations can prepare better by gathering as much contact information as possible, including cell phone numbers and email addresses, and having the ability to adjust conference signage as needed as well.

They can also discuss in advance what access venues and security firms have to technologies like Nixel, which can deliver emergency alerts to people within a particular geographic range. “If something bad happens like an active shooter, a lockdown alert goes out and everybody in that geofence gets a text message that tells them to shelter in place,” Lindamood said.

Informing attendees about the emergency plan can be a source of anxiety in itself. But clearly communicating that an association and venue have planned for contingencies should provide more reassurance than concern.

“We’re not trying to scare folks. We’re trying to make them aware and prepare them for if something does go bad,” Lindamood said.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.

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