by Michael J. Shapiro | October 11, 2017
Kriss Waldrum was finishing up dinner with colleagues at the SLS Las Vegas on Sunday, Oct. 1, when he received an urgent phone call. Waldrum, the vice president of client services and event services for San Carlos, Calif.-based George P. Johnson Experience Marketing, was in Las Vegas for NetApp Insight, a technical conference for storage and data-management professionals. Waldrum's team from George P. Johnson was helping run the conference, which was scheduled to begin the next morning at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.
 
The urgent call came from the team's operation lead at Mandalay Bay. "Do you know what's going on over here? There's a shooter," she told Waldrum. She then informed him that three staff members from the team were staying on the 32nd floor, where they believed the shooter was.
 
"We quickly sent out a notification to our team on the main group text," recalled Waldrum. For each of the shows they do, the GPJ team uses one of a handful of group-messaging apps. "I posted, 'You may be aware that there's a shooting in progress at Mandalay Bay. Everybody report on your location and status and safety.'"
 
All of the company's top management, including the CEO, were apprised of the situation immediately. The CEO, Chris Meyer, wasn't yet in Las Vegas, but he took the lead on pushing out messaging. The housing lead put together a spreadsheet of every staff member involved so they could account for everyone's safety. The team tried to provide information to the best of their abilities, but of course information was scarce at that point. 
 
"It was horrible," Waldrum recalled. "Some of our people were close enough where they could hear gunfire and a lot of noises, and nobody really knew quite what was happening. We didn't know the circumstances, whether someone was moving from door to door... it was very frightening.
 
"We were in communication with all of them," Waldrum said, "and we were making phone calls to support them during that really frightening period of time." 
 
One member of the team on the 32nd floor, Meredith Rich, huddled in her bathroom with the door locked and her lights off for what seemed like an hour and a half, she told the San Francisco Chronicle. Eventually, a police SWAT team evacuated the 32nd-floor rooms one by one. "They opened the door," Rich told the newspaper. "I immediately dropped to the floor like they told me." Evacuees were taken to a theater in the building, where they spent most of the night.
 
Fortunately, said Waldrum, nobody on the team was physically injured, but he expects it will be some time before everyone gets over the psychological trauma. "We had people outside hiding in the bushes with gunfire overhead; everyone had their own circumstances. No one knew what was coming their way; it was hours of a really frightening time."
 
Mandalay Bay offered counselors on-site the following day, and George P. Johnson offers ongoing counseling for any employees who want to take advantage of that.
 
The show, meanwhile, had been slated to begin the day following the shooting, with pre-show events and meetings scheduled for breakfast and lunch, and an opening reception on the agenda on the show floor Monday evening. Mandalay Bay, however, remained on lockdown until Monday morning.
 
The team from George P. Johnson, together with NetApp and the Mandalay Bay, canceled all of Monday's daytime events and downsized the opening reception, moving it from the show floor to the hallway and foyer outside of that hall. A couple of George P. Johnson staff members returned home, noted Waldrum, in large part because their respective families were terrified about them remaining in Las Vegas. When the executive team put out the word in various George P. Johnson offices that they might need more people who felt comfortable going to Las Vegas, the response, said Waldrum, "was overwhelming. We had 20 people ready to get on a plane if we needed them."
 
NetApp's corporate-communications and security teams, meanwhile, handled all attendee communications and concerns. They were fully supportive and offered full refunds to any attendees who didn't want to come and to sponsors who wanted to pull out. There was some falloff in terms of attendance and sponsorship, said Waldrum, but it wasn't significant. "NetApp was still pleased with their numbers," he said.
 
At 10:30 on Monday morning, the show teams met with Mandalay Bay president and COO Chuck Bowling, along with the facility's security team. Mandalay Bay significantly stepped up with security, said Waldrum, providing a much larger security force for the show, along with magnetic wands, a bag check and a canine team. That beefed-up security remained in place all week, at no charge to the clients.
 
"Everyone got wanded, and bags were checked on the way in," said Waldrum. "That was extremely well received by the attendees. They were very vocal that they really appreciated that."
 
A Wednesday-night customer-appreciation party at the Hard Rock was initially canceled, but the team reconsidered that move on Tuesday. Rather than ditch the event completely, they changed the original theme to the more appropriate "Come Together," and positioned the party to be as much about healing and community as anything else. The originally scheduled entertainment, Weezer, remained on the bill, and the Hard Rock similarly stepped up security, with wands and a bag check - again at no extra charge.
 
"We moved forward and had a great show, despite the really difficult circumstances," said Waldrum. 
 
As for lessons learned, Waldrum noted a few for future protocol changes:
 
• Ensure they get hotel room numbers for all team members on staff. This practice had fallen off since all communications are handled directly via cell phones now. But in some cases where phones were either off, dead or set to "do not disturb," they couldn't contact people directly.
 
• Have team members carry extra phone batteries. People who were locked out of their rooms all night needed a way to keep their phones going.
 
• Keep more complete travel records at their fingertips, to find team members as soon as possible and know whether or not they've arrived.
 
• Further enhance pre-planning and a crisis-command committee protocol, so everyone knows exactly what to do in cases like this, and what the protocol is for each team member.
 
"We've been building on crisis preparedness for the past six years or so," added Waldrum. "We just need to make sure we further enhance the communication so everyone knows where to go and what to do. We need to make sure the experience of the attendee, and our team, is as pleasurable and as safe as possible."