by Brendan M. Lynch | July 01, 2005

John C. VillinesRunning risks: Security consultant
John C. Villines says a failure
to protect is a failure to plan.

Convention centers are high-profile buildings that connote civic pride and economic power. Often, centers host massive events with a high media profile and VIP attendees from all over the world. Unfortunately, what makes convention centers exciting meccas for traders and travelers also makes them seductive targets for terrorists, thieves, scammers, gate crashers and troublemakers of all stripes.
    In this new epoch of airtight post-9/11 security, planners would be wise to master the ins and outs of center security infrastructure and organize their events so as to keep attendees and exhibitors as safe as possible.

Assessing threats
Event planners should work with security experts either the center’s or an independent agency’s to formulate a threat assessment for a specific event. A thorough threat assessment not only accounts for the dangers involved in gathering people under one roof in a particular place, but considers the history of an event along with the potential political or criminal trouble it might generate.
    “Everything comes down to your risk assessment,” says Bob Hayes, chief security officer with Framingham, Mass.-based CXO Media and chairman of the CSO Executive Council, a professional group for corporate security executives. “Information loss and medical emergencies are the most common problems. Location brings natural disaster risks. Is there a terrorism threat? But more common risks to all conventions are criminal in nature, like theft of materials, muggings or sexual assaults near the center.”
    Hayes says certain events have different risks than others: “Is it an industrial, corporate or consumer event? If it’s a convention of biomedical research people, you may have animal rights activists showing up. That’s very different than a Barbie doll convention, although an event like that carries its own problems. Risks come in different flavors.”
    “The presence of celebrities or political figures or something controversial on the agenda increases the level of risk,” adds John C. Villines, founder of Atlanta-based security firm John C. Villines Group. “There will be safety and security issues germane to any convention, and other issues that are more specific to one event. Failure to protect an event is failure to do adequate research up front. For instance, at a rare coin and gem show, it’s unlikely you’ll have as much threat inside the show as out in the parking lot.”
Crime might not be limited to physical property or cash. In assessing risks, experts say to pay attention to vulnerabilities created by new technologies as well. For instance, does a given convention center feature a Wi-Fi zone?
    “Wireless tech opens up a new world of thievery,” says Kevin White, CSEP, director of production with New York City-based Empire Force Events. “Competitors of a pharmaceutical company could intercept cellular messages or wireless messages being beamed. Do checks on what other groups are in-house. Sweep every group that might be sharing meeting space. Once, it was ‘shred all the paper!’ Now, meetings need a lockdown or a scrambling device.”
    In addition, White says the environment around the convention center should be taken into account, as threats vary between suburbs and cities and different regions. “There are certain places where assessing threats can be more challenging,” says the planner. “New York City is an intense market for productions because events are not very separate from the general public. There’s no driveway, no high gates. There’s the venue, and right outside there’s a city that doesn’t shut down. Anything can impede or come into your event.”