by Meredith Pallante, CEM, CMP | November 01, 2016

News of the Bastille Day attack in Nice, France, among other recent acts of terrorism, raises disturbing questions for event planners: How did the attacker get past police barricades? Why was the celebration not more secure? Didn't the security buildup for Euro Cup events and past attacks in Paris help?

The truth is, no matter where you are in the world, it's impossible to ensure complete safety and security at events. Every event we plan or participate in is a soft target, and if someone wants to do harm, they will find a way.

As planners, we cannot ignore this reality. We must face the fear of terror at events head-on and continuously communicate with our teams, stakeholders and attendees to create a quality, valuable and safe experience for everyone concerned.

To do so, we need to change the current dialogue on event safety and security. We must shift from the idea that talking about current conditions and safety plans will negatively impact our events by "placing the notion of risk into the minds of attendees." In these uncertain times, an event producer has a responsibility to openly communicate its security and safety preparedness to customers and attendees to provide some level of honest reassurance.

I try to put these precepts into practice as senior manager of events and conferences at the Consumer Technology Association, which produces CES among many other conferences and events. Last year, I was tasked with planning a six-day executive-level event in Israel to highlight this young, dynamic country as a hotbed of innovation and technology. We knew some of our invitees might have fears about traveling to the Middle East, so we employed the following strategies and tactics, which might be helpful as you plan events in areas of higher risk.

 Be proactive

We prepared a "save the date" notice in October 2015, following a string of violent attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But before sending out the notification, CTA president and CEO Gary Shapiro wrote a letter that our team kept on file in the event we received push-back on the choice of location. The save-the-date notice was sent to some 3,000 C-level executives, but Gary's letter ultimately went to just five people who expressed concerns. 

"I have visited Israel at least once in each of the last several years, and have come to believe there are two types of Western perspectives about Israel," Gary wrote. "One is from those who go to the country and see how safe it really is, while the other involves those who only hear news reports and are unsettled about traveling there." His letter also highlighted our security preparedness and explained our perspective. We also added security information to our event website and talked to our board and other key attendees about how we were preparing to keep the event safe.

While a number of invitees chose not to attend due to the location, 100 people did decide to register for this once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Prepare for crisis

Three months before the event, we developed a Security Procedures and Crisis Plan Manual, which included complete contact information for all staff, partners, attendees and their emergency contacts. It designated a crisis team, listing decision makers, meeting locations and guidelines for messaging. The manual also offered a crisis phone tree with procedures for notifying attendees in case of emergency. Finally, it provided an overview of what to do in various emergency scenarios, including evacuations.

Two weeks before our event, four people were killed and five wounded at the popular Sarona Market in Tel Aviv. Right away we began reaching out to our partners in Israel to expand our security plans. We updated Gary's original letter from October and sent it to all registered attendees and their guests, reiterating our stance, sharing our general security plans and underscoring our commitment to the safety of the event while expressing hope that our attendees would still commit to joining us.

The response we received was incredible. Reply after reply asserted how excited our attendees were, and that they would not let terror prevent them from traveling to Israel for our event. Many of our attendees brought their entire families and made plans to stay after the event for more sightseeing in the region.