by Steven Hacker | January 01, 2016

At the beginning of each year, I share my thoughts about key event-industry trends that might be important in the coming months. While there are many things that will undoubtedly have some influence on how associations and their clients do business, one issue in particular deserves its own focus: the threat of terrorism. Following a series of events that started with the ISIS attacks in Paris on November 13 and included, most recently, the shooting at a conference center in San Bernardino, California, the issue is dominating the public conscious and already changing our behavior by robbing us of the freedom to travel without fear. And when that happens, things cascade quickly in ways that ultimately erode the enormous power that travel has to bring people together and drive economic growth. This impacts the meetings and events industry in two fundamental ways.

First, since it is very likely that additional attacks will take place, and that more civilians will be targeted, next time perhaps with chemical or biological weaponry, discretionary travel has the potential to decrease. The only real question is: By how much?

Many individuals and organizations are already rethinking the wisdom of organizing events that require considerable travel, much less to Paris, Egypt and Beirut, whose tourism industry was almost literally blown up two decades ago as a result of civil war. National borders throughout the European Economic Community are already being sealed against Syrian refugees despite leaders’ long-touted assurances of the social and economic benefits of keeping them open. And, in typical fashion, U.S. Congress is turning isolationist as well, overreacting with hair-brained proposals that are certain to discourage travel to the United States.

The presence of sleeper cells of domestic nationals lying in wait for the “go-ahead” to launch attacks raises the ante substantially. (Remember, the 9/11 attackers were all foreigners here on special assignment.) According to international terrorism experts, hundreds of ISIS sleeper cells are already in place in most Western democracies, including the United States. French anti-terrorist officials, who have had thousands of suspects under surveillance for some time, admit that the terrorism threat is too large for them or anyone else to manage completely. A string of recent U.S. intelligence failures suggest that the same may be true here.

The second way recent terrorist attacks will likely alter the way we do business will occur on a local level. The attack in San Bernardino can testify to that. Event planners, host destinations and their facilities will logically consider increasing security of events in the face of the mounting evidence that places of public assembly will continue to appear as targets on terrorist’s hit lists.

Here are some actions your group can, and really must, take to ensure that maximum attention is given to the threat of terrorism:

If you dismiss the need to ramp up your security planning because you think your event is small and relatively inconsequential, you are wrong. Think a moment about the patrons of the French café who were assassinated by ISIS during the Paris attacks. None of them expected to be targets of terrorists that night. Your attendees could become “collateral damage,” the result of simply being in the wrong place, at the wrong time and in the path of something much larger than you ever imagined. Regrettably, we all must now plan for the unimaginable.

1. Revisit hotel and facility contracts and ensure that your existing and future contracts include an added layer of protection. Let’s take the basic principle of force majeure as an example. Say your event is planned to take place in 60 days in a specific city, and a terrorist attack occurs in that city today, resulting in multiple deaths and injuries. Can your group invoke force majeure as the reason to terminate the hotel contract without facing damages? Event planners know that many attendees would cancel their plans to attend such an event as a result of an earlier terrorist attack in the same city. This could make it impractical or unwise to conduct the event due to circumstances beyond your control—the classic definition of force majeure.

But what if the hotel or facility takes a more restrictive view of the circumstances and insists that what occurred today does not make it impossible for you to go ahead with your event in 60 days? Instead, its management says force majeure cannot be invoked. Rather than argue about the fact, probably in a courtroom, it is more prudent to add specific language to your contract, such as an understanding of force majeure that would include reasonable fear of travel as a consequence of a terrorist attack in or reasonably near your event’s destination. Make sure agreements are in place on such elements as what is a reasonable amount of time between an occurrence of an assault and your event site(s), as well as what could be considered a reasonable distance between an attack site and your event venue.

Also, you might discuss what the repercussions would be in the event of multiple terrorist attacks within the United States, such as when 9/11 shut down air travel for weeks. In other words, agree to realistic alternatives that are fair to both parties. Look also at performance clauses like attrition and cancellation with the same potential issues in mind. Craft new language that addresses post-attack remedies. All of this is necessary because, while we can all agree that acts of God such as storms, earthquakes, fires and floods are indisputably included in the principle of force majeure, terrorism and its aftermath are much more difficult to define.

2. If your major event is a significant source of annual revenue, as is the case with so many organizations, you should consider event-cancellation insurance. How would the absence of all of your event’s revenue affect your association’s ability to continue normal operations? Could you sustain a loss and, if so, to what extent? Most policies provide coverage for unanticipated circumstances that might prevent you from opening the event, continuing the event or being forced to change and/or relocate the event. Terrorism coverage is available under a variety of circumstances. This specialized coverage is ultimately underwritten by Lloyds of London and should be highly tailored to address the specific exposures your event may face.

3. You must have a crisis management plan in place. Unfortunately, most businesses, including nonprofit associations, do not. If you don’t possess the in-house expertise to craft a serviceable plan, outsource this task to consultants who specialize in crisis management. The absence of a crisis management plan could be very costly in terms of human casualties, public relations and the preservation of your organization’s financial resources.

4. Alter your site-selection matrix in ways that can materially reduce your risk exposure. If you are not already inquiring about what other events are scheduled or may take place at your selected venue (or even at that destination) during the same time frame, you must begin doing so. The risk of terrorism happening during your small event may rise materially if an international conference of defense-industry officials will occupy much of the building during your function. Know something about your prospective neighbors before you sign any contracts.

It is simply impossible to address all of the security issues that must now come into play in this age of terrorism. You can be certain, however, that 2016 will be a year devoted to event security issues, so start planning accordingly.