by Astrid Zeppenfeld
At our Groovy Galas and Funky Functions Expo in April, I was lucky enough to be able to attend our general education session on crisis management. Led by individuals with experience in dealing with the media after the fact, as well as panel members with hands-on experience in dealing directly with the crisis itself as policemen or security personnel. The audience received an eye-opening education on crisis management.
How much situational awareness is needed to effectively manage a crisis? Can you ever be prepared for everything? Is there a way to catch a situational crisis in its early stages and stop it from becoming a full-blown catastrophe?
In a way, it was not so much the words uttered by the panel members that got their message across, but the actions they were – possibly subconsciously – taking to ensure that everyone in the room was safe. Due to years of training, their eyes scanned the room periodically, to then lock with someone else’s eyes, someone seated across the room and who clearly understood that the look was meant to convey, “Everything is safe, the person that just entered the room belongs here.”
WHAT CONSTITUTES A CRISIS AT AN EVENT?
While it may feel like a crisis at the time, the food being sub-par or the people you hired for entertainment running late is not exactly the type of crisis I am talking about. In fact, that type of crisis is easily remedied by having the phone number for a nearby pizza delivery service readily available and asking your staff beforehand which one of them can sing, dance, or recite poetry while waiting on the entertainment to show up.
After 9-11-2001, and especially after we have all watched endless replays of the two planes hitting the twin towers and their subsequent collapse, many of us have become human screening detectors, scanning the faces of our fellow travelers at the gate, because… well, you can never be too careful, right? How often have you been at a crowded event since “terrorism” has unfortunately become such a frequently-used word in our vocabulary and found yourself looking at the guy next to you, wondering if he’s “up to good or no good”? We’ve all done it; would do it even more automatically had we been brought up in Israel, for example. But could we ever be any good at doubling as our own security staff at our own events? Of course not. We don’t have the necessary training; plus, we need to be doing our impromptu comedy show while the comedian we hired is running late, remember? So what can we do in advance, to be prepared for a real crisis at an event?
It doesn’t even have to be a full-blown terrorist attack; I have heard stories of events where a homeless person walked into a reception and made all the guests uncomfortable, but the event planner could not get him to leave, as hard as she tried.
THINGS TO DO BEFORE THE EVENT
- Start planning as early as possible. As soon as you have a location set, even if the date of the event is still a year away.
- Contact local law enforcement. Say your company is headquartered in Missouri, but for your big annual celebration, Orlando was chosen because of its business and beach combination. Even if you don’t have a venue picked out, call PD headquarters in Orlando and inquire about what local PD needs you to supply to ensure a safe and fun event.
- Do you know a local event planner in Orlando? Contact that planner and ask if there is anything you should take into consideration that would be different from Missouri.
- The U.S. Department of Homeland Security suggests to obtaining all available information (aerial view, floor plans, evacuation plans, fire inspections reports, etc.) from the venue, as well as assessing security plans of the event hotels.
- Sticking with the Orlando example from above: What is the weather likely going to be during the month of your event? Is it hurricane season? Or are tornadoes historically expected where your event will be held? If you don’t know, contact FEMA; they should be able to give you a pretty good idea of what to expect.
- Above all, hire someone qualified to work security at your event! Joe Schmoe from ABC Company may not be your most trained and competent bet. Our panel members at the 2018 St. Louis Expo, Will Matthews and Sean Wesley, who possess a combined security and defense training of a good half-century’s worth, stressed how important it is that your security has the necessary training and certifications to keep your guests safe. This training cannot just be response-based; it has to be proactive so any crisis can be spotted, and thus hopefully averted, before it begins.
NATURAL DISASTERS – CRISIS MANAGEMENT FOR ANOTHER DIMENSION
Naturally (pun intended), preparing for a natural disaster is even harder because it cannot be stopped once it starts. No matter what wonderful plan you have in place, once that hurricane comes rushing in or that earth starts shaking, mankind powerlessly yields to the forces of nature and watches the catastrophe unfold.
Patrick Tuttle, Director of the Joplin Convention & Visitors Bureau, knows firsthand what it is like to manage a natural disaster. When the EF-5 rated, multiple-vortex tornado struck the city one Sunday afternoon in 2011, his office did not have any crisis plan in place and was forced to react during and after the 38 minutes the tornado was wreaking havoc on the city. His advice for any future events like this is as follows:
- Quickly assess your inventory. The Joplin tornado displaced so many people that the 2,000 hotel rooms that were available at the time quickly filled up with residents needing refuge.
- Have the government, FEMA (Missouri actually has SEMA, its own state-level emergency management association), and the National Guard come in to assess the situation and determine whether the city can handle the damage on its own.
- Assess conditions of guests in town. Do you have any conventions, big sporting events, presidential visits, etc. going on at the moment? You need to be able to take care of residents and visitors alike.
- Ultimately, “the response to the disaster is not your decision, but who is running the response team for your community. So you need to be at the table when it’s time to contribute to the efforts and know where you fit into the plan,” says Tuttle.
ON TO THE NEXT PHASE
Most of the “things to do before your event” were probably sort of a nod-a-thon for you, especially as an experienced event planner. After all, we live in a world where we are conditioned to “obtain threat intelligence information from internal and external sources” before going anywhere or doing anything more than driving to work in the mornings. Add the above quote from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to your bullet point list of things to do so you can be prepared for a crisis at your next event.
And if you did everything right to prepare for that “active shooter” or how to evacuate and cancel your event in case of a hurricane, but a crisis in form of a sudden wind blowing the roof of your event venue strikes your event nonetheless, how will you explain it? To your event guests? To your boss? And, most importantly, to the media, who will be guaranteed to show up and ask questions?
There is a whole other list of things to do and take into consideration as you are planning your next event. Look for that list in our next issue! MM&E
Astrid Zeppenfeld is a contributing writer and MM&E’s editor/business development manager from St. Louis.