Event Security Tips: Keeping Guests Safe

September 26, 2001, 12:00 AM EDT

By Suzanne Ito

Among the many issues that have been raised since the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11 is the importance of strong security at special events. Although the likelihood of an event being the target of a terrorist attack is still slight, people's current fears highlight an issue that has always been important. And many guests will probably feel safer these days knowing that precautions are being taken.

Making an event safe isn't just a matter of placing some burly men in suits at the front door. So we spoke with experts in the event security industry to find out what sorts of changes event planners should be prepared for, and what they can do to make their events safe and secure--and therefore more enoyable--for guests.

Just because you're having an event doesn't mean you should call the National Guard. Richard Werth, president of Event & Meeting Security Services (EMSS), cautions against overreacting to the terrorist attacks. “The basic premise of assessing risk hasn't changed,” he says. Striking the right balance between providing enough security and still allowing guests to feel comfortable is key. Ask yourself what you can do reasonably and appropriately. The likeliness of a terrorist targeting an informal cocktail party at a bar is significantly less than a gala event where the President is the guest of honor. If it is a high-profile event, the highest security measures simply start with not publicly disclosing the location of the event. The celebrity-studded telethon last Friday was an example of this measure.

Security consultant Steven Gaskin offers these tips for selecting a security company for your event:

  • Ask about what kinds of training its personnel have been through, and any certifications they hold.

  • Inquire into its background in event security, who some of its clients are, and what range of events it's been hired for.

  • Ask for references from other clients.

  • Ask if the company has ever been sued.

  • Inquire if it will do advance work (inspecting the venue before the event).

  • Remember that the smarter and more prepared your security team is, the more secure your event will be. Gaskin says, “Brains are always superior to brawn.”

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    “Security used to be the last thing on people's minds, and the first thing to get cut when there were budgetary restrictions,” says Tony Poveromo, owner of 21st Century Security. “You should never compromise safety for a budget.” Hiring a security firm for your event is one of the first things you should do, because their work starts early. They often need to do advance work to inspect the location and meet with the venue's on-site security team. Future high-profile events will most likely include metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs and X-ray machines, all of which require advance notice and preparation.

    Procuring event security early is also important, because security firms often know of issues and concerns that some event planners might not be aware of. (For instance, Poveromo told us the Coast Guard recently mandated that recreational and charter boats with more than 50 passengers operating in specific areas around Manhattan must have at least one armed guard onboard.)

    If you're an event planner who struggles with handing over any control of an event, understand that it's in your best interest to let the security pros handle what they do best. Michael Stapleton, founder of Michael Stapleton Associates, told us one.phpect of guest screening that many event planners resist is screening celebrity guests and members of their entourage. “We won't do an event unless everyone is screened,“ Stapleton says. “You can't discriminate among guests like that. If every single person isn't screened, it makes no sense to screen anyone.” Poveromo agrees: “We've never cared about ruffling people's feathers at an event,” he says. “They need to understand that it's in their best interests.”

    When selecting a location, create a checklist of questions the venue's staff should be able to answer. A few topics: evacuation plans in case of an emergency, the location of all emergency exits, access for paramedics, and contingency plans in case of bomb threats or power outages. These questions are especially important if it's a high-profile venue.

    For especially high-profile events, warn guests ahead of time, even on the invitation, that any bags or briefcases will be searched and/or passed through an X-ray machine. “Tell them to expect similar procedures as if they were going to the airport,” Werth says, “and tell them to come early.” Poveromo also advises planners to warn guests of a cut-off time for late arrivals. “Don't be fashionably late,” he says “If they're late, they don't get in.”

    All experts agree that having at least one backup plan in case of emergency is of utmost importance. Gaskin says, “Panic sets in when you have neither [options or contingency plans] and don't know what to do.” Backup plans include venue evacuation plans, the availability and accessibility of emergency medical care and thoroughly briefing event staff prior to the start of the event. And as everyone now knows, unexpected occurrences don't have to directly affect you to shut down your event. “Review your insurance policies to check on specific coverages. Examine you existing event contracts' fine print on cancellations, changes, etc., to determine any impact,” Werth writes in an EMSS newsletter.

    Experts expect one of the first precautions many security firms will take is checking identification at the door. For high-profile events, event planners might even require copies of state-issued IDs and Social Security cards faxed to the office days before the event to double-check guests' identities. Poveromo adds one of his greatest pet-peeves: the ubiquitous “plus one” on guest lists. “Know all the guests' names, and if they're not on the list, they don't get in.” The same goes for the media. Gaskin suggests credentialing all members of the media the day before the event at the latest, so it doesn't have to be done at the door the day of the event.

    Making an event safe also includes curtailing guests' ability to wander, especially with events in large hotels or outdoor spaces. Seal off superfluous entrances and exits, and submit anyone reentering the event to the same security procedures as when they first arrived. Gaskin also suggests stationing security personnel at all entrances and exits, whether they're operational or not.

    All of our experts agree that uniformed security and undercover security that mixes in with guests are equally important. For a high-profile event, Werth suggests a “more visible perimeter of security” outside the venue to meet guests' protection expectations, and additional plainclothes guards inside. Gaskin says, “The clandestine approach is better. People won't interact and do business unless they feel comfortable.”

    Experts agree that the odds of an event being targeted by foreign terrorists are very unlikely. But there are all kinds of security risks--in addition to people who pose a physical threat to guests' safety, consider less significant acts such as animal rights groups throwing red paint at fur fashion shows. Both expose major flaws in security.

    Even consider risks within your own company. “Assess risk inside as well as outside,” Werth says. This includes being in touch with your own employees, encouraging communication between the levels of company hierarchy, and making employee counseling available.

    “Air travel is still safe. It's just the perception we're all struggling with,” Werth says. “It's safer now than it's ever been.” If you need to get a group normally stationed in various cities into the same room, Werth reminds us of the standard in corporate travel arrangements. “Never put multiple layers of the same management on the same flights.” If you don't do this and something does happen to the flight, it has the potential to irreparably devastate the company. (Why do you think the President and Vice President have their own airplanes?) Stagger flights to the same location over a few hours, or a few days, if possible.

    Posted 09.26.01

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