When meeting industry veteran Ben Novack Jr. was killed last month in his hotel room during a conference his company was managing in Rye Brook, N.Y., it sent shockwaves through the industry. It also served as a wake-up call for planners to think about their own safety. From hotel room security precautions to the best course of working with local authorities and the media, here are insights from industry professionals about what planners should do in case of an emergency.
“Be familiar with your organization’s crisis management and communications plan and be sure your event plan incorporates it,” says Jacki Johnson, CMM, a corporate meeting manager based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. “Use your resources and surround yourself with experts who can provide support.”
These experts include the security team at the hotel or venue where the meeting is being held as well as any additional security a planner may hire on a privately contracted basis. Christopher Smith, director of security and safety for Hilton in the Walt Disney World Resort, says every hotel should have an emergency procedures manual that lists how to report an incident.
“Always ask to see the procedures and make sure they’re up-to-date,” Smith says. “Our executive committee goes over the plan twice a year.”
Shawn Kane, owner and investigator for Kane Consulting Inc., a full-service security consultation company based in Utah, says the event’s communications plan should designate a security director to contact local authorities. If the security director is from an outside company, he or she should meet with the hotel’s security team and perform a walk-through of the meeting areas. The site visit should include the best arrival point for police and emergency responders to park and gain the quickest access to the building.
“We look at the layout of the site and work with the facility on the incidence response plan,” Kane says. “There needs to be a communications line and an understanding of who to call for each incident.”
Kane says the path of communications should go from the meeting planner to the security director, who then contacts the proper emergency response teams. As part of this plan, the security director should train the meeting planning staff on what to tell attendees, should an emergency occur.
“You never want to say ‘murder’ and ‘hotel’ in a sentence,” Kane says. “Don’t talk about the incident in the halls or even with other staff behind closed doors; you never know who’s listening.”
Smith says that if a guest passes away in their sleep, the death must be treated as a homicide until it can be investigated.
“Statements should come from the police and emergency personnel,” Smith says. “It’s the job of the police to contact the next of kin.”
Kane agrees that meeting planners should not be the point of contact for the police because their name will go in the official report. If the press arrives at the scene, the planning organization should have a designated media communications person who has been instructed to respond in a specific way.
“People want their 15 minutes of fame, but it’s best to say ‘I can’t comment,’ and ‘there will be a media statement shortly,’” Kane says.
If members of the press ask for information when they are at the scene of the emergency as it’s unfolding, Smith says it’s fine to lead the media to the proper spokesperson, who will then give the official comment.
“Limit the information you are giving out,” Smith says. “Provide only general comments and nothing specific [about] who’s involved.”
Even though meeting planners may have all of these procedures and lines of communication in place prior to the program, they shouldn’t forget about their own safety. While accustomed to looking out for the welfare of their attendees, they sometimes forget about taking personal security measures.
Matt Clouser, president of Active Production and Design Inc., developed a self-defense class geared specifically toward meeting planners. Certified in Krav Maga, a hand-to-hand combat originally developed for Israeli defense forces, Clouser instructs planners on basic techniques that can assist them in threatening situations.
“The class is tailored to situations meeting planners would be in,” Clouser says. “I thought about the late hours we work in this industry, and the meeting planners who walk between venues and dark parking garages and hotel service hallways.”
According to Clouser, the planner’s best defense is self-awareness, and he recommends planners encourage it in their staff and clients, as well.
“Personal awareness is knowing what is going on around you,” Clouser says. “A person with good awareness should always be looking for any potentially dangerous situation and potential ways out of the situation.”
What may seem like logical hotel security precautions can be forgotten when maintaining the fast-pace of a meeting, managing a hectic conference agenda and following a demanding planning timeline. But it’s important planners remember that large events are easy targets.
“While you’re having a convention, there’s a criminal out there trying to figure out how to steal something,” Kane says. “Always be assertive and aware.”
Kane said the biggest mistake planners and attendees make is not paying attention to what information is being provided or may be overheard in the hotel’s public areas.
“Someone is watching you while you’re walking through the conference,” Kane said. “When you tell someone your room number and then someone else says ‘hello’ and uses your name, the potential criminal has accessed information.”
A new trend for hotel criminals is to use the overheard room number or last name connected to a guest room to gain credit card information from guests. The criminal poses as front desk staff, claims there is a problem with the credit card the guest submitted at check-in and asks the guest to reconfirm the credit card number.
“People frequently pose as convention attendees [or hotel staff] to gain the trust of innocent people and victimize them by taking their property,” says Anthony Spagnuolo, director of safety and security for the Hilton New York.
Don’t forget basic security measures, such as using the bolt and secondary locking device on the sleeping room door or locking valuables in the in-room safe. Some hotels have disclaimers on their check-in statements saying that they are not responsible for items stolen from the room if the in-room safe is not used. Often the guest’s insurance company will not reimburse for the valuables, based on this disclaimer.
Other security measures include requesting a room that is not on the ground floor, where windows may be easily opened from the outside.
“Select a room between the fourth and sixth floor,” Kane says. “Fire ladders usually do not extend past this level.”
John Wyatt, co-founder of the Hotel Security Excellence Rating Program with Frost & Sullivan, London, advises guests to draw the both the exterior curtain and the heavier interior curtain when there are lights on in your sleeping room.
“If you want to look outside at night, switch the lights off first,” Wyatt says. “Do not sit or stand next to the window for any length of time.”
When walking the hallway on your hotel room floor, Spagnuolo suggests counting the doors from your room to the emergency exit, in case the lights go out.
“In general, use common sense,” Spagnuolo says. “If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not right.”