by Jonathan T. Howe, esq. | September 01, 2007

Recent stories in the news of terrorist activities in the United Kingdom, including the attempted bombing at Scotland’s Glasgow Airport on June 30, serve as reminders to the meetings industry that we need to be vigilant when we choose facilities. The security of our groups, large and small, is paramount.

Before You Go

One of the key elements in ensuring the safety of your group is making sure you have exercised due diligence during site selection. Have you walked the halls and the exit areas, and considered those who also will be in the hotel when your group is there? This step-by-step scrutiny should be applied to off-site venues, as well.

A meeting with the facility’s director of security and/or the director of risk management will do much to help you develop a safe program.

Another area to investigate is the response times of local emergency services. On or off property, how easily will police, firemen and ambulances be able to arrive where you are? Does the venue have emergency-preparedness plans in place for everything from the basics, such as a heart attack or a serious fall, to more catastrophic events?

Contract Covered

From a liability standpoint, the meeting professional has a duty and obligation to assure that the venues selected have the capability of responding to any emergency that might occur. This does not mean you are a guarantor or an insurer; it means you have protected your organization by determining the capabilities of the various venues with which you have contracted.

Meeting professionals also should consider what steps their organizations must be prepared to take, apart from what the venue can handle. Developing an on-site emergency response plan for the organization should be considered part of your due diligence. Who will represent the organization and make decisions in the event of an emergency? Is contact information readily available to give to emergency care providers? Do you have a written plan for instructing attendees in a crisis, to ensure their safety and prevent the situation from dissolving into chaos?

Nature’s Way

One might not expect so-called acts of God such as tornadoes and hurricanes to be within the purview of the meeting professional, but being prepared for them is. Emergencies that can interrupt or end a meeting take many forms, from accidents to fires, earthquakes and floods. Even the event itself, such as a golf outing or a gala with dancing, could cause injury to attendees.

Consider the bizarre: You arrive at the venue you chose a year ago, and the city is in the middle of a drought. The conditions are horrible for an evening barbecue -- it’s hot, the grass is dry and even in the shade of the tent, with fans blowing, the temperature is barely tolerable. You consulted with the caterer on whether the event should continue and were reassured that all safety precautions would be taken. However, a supposedly empty bottle of lighter fluid is tossed into a trash can in the middle of your tent, and the can is full of used paper plates, cups and napkins. Anything can happen.

Addressing risk management and security during the contract negotiation phase should give you some leverage, not only when working through attrition and cancellation terms, but also in getting a more detailed explanation of the procedures already in place and the emergency training provided to employees of the venue and third-party contractors.

The extent to which both you and the event venue are prepared will do much to limit the potential for injury and liability.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.,is a senior partner in the Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him at [email protected].