by Barbara Peterson | November 01, 2016

Attendees at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas encountered more than the splashy new tech advancements for which this mammoth event is famous. They found an unprecedented level of visible, intrusive security.

Virtually everyone entering the Las Vegas Convention Center in January was subjected to a metal-detector screening and random pat-downs. Attendees' hand baggage was thoroughly searched, and standard-size luggage was all but banned from the venue. A cadre of police officers patrolled the trade-show floor clad in armored gear, accompanied by bomb-sniffing dogs.

"The safety of our guests is a top priority," said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, which runs the show, as he spelled out details of the precautions to the public in advance of the event. He also stated that the organization wasn't reacting to any specific threat. What he didn't say -- and didn't have to -- was that the November 2015 terror attack on Paris, which left more than 100 dead and many more wounded, was still on everyone's minds. 

 CES is one of the world's largest consumer trade shows, drawing more than 3,000 exhibitors and tens of thousands of visitors. But security concerns are top of mind for events of all sizes. In fact, in an M&C poll this past August, more than two-thirds of meeting professionals admitted they're now more concerned about security at meetings due to recent terror events. (Find the full survey here.)

Such concern, however, doesn't necessarily translate into a willingness to take concrete steps to ameliorate the threat. Here's a deeper look at how the meetings industry is struggling to cope in a new era of global insecurity.  

Perception and reality
"Any time you have an aggregation of people, it can become a high-profile target," says Bruce McIndoe, CEO of iJET International, an Annapolis, Md.-based security consultancy that works with major associations and event planners, among other clients. "We are in a really dynamic environment, and the frequency and severity of these events is increasing year-over-year."

In the aftermath of the Paris attack, the public perception of travelers' safety and security has only worsened, intensified by the twin bombings in Brussels, Belgium, a mass shooting at a banquet room in San Bernardino, Calif., plus a wave of terrorist activity targeting tourists in Istanbul, Turkey. 

Meeting professionals have noticed an impact. "The convention industry has been shaken by unthinkable acts in destinations around the world," says Deborah Sexton, president of the Professional Convention Management Association. While safety and security "has always been a top priority," for anyone involved in meetings, she says, "the new normal of travel makes security concerns a serious issue for every organization involved in face-to-face experiences."

Sexton expects to see more meeting professionals adopt procedures similar to the amped-up measures at this year's CES. But she concedes that there are risks to this approach. "For some, the image of metal detectors at entrance points and roaming armed guards can seem uncomfortable and intimidating," she says, even though in many parts of the world convention-goers are used to seeing a higher level of security in public places. 

But is the industry -- including hotels and other supplier partners -- ready for airport-style security at conference venues? Many are not so sure.