Ask any event planner about his or her job, and the word “anticipation” will almost certainly come up. After all, it’s their job to think about things that could happen and have a plan in place for those potential crises. Sometimes those scenarios are things like, “What will we do if the caterer gets the order wrong and we end up with Tex Mex rather than pasta?”—but other situations can be much more serious, like the devastating flooding many of us experienced after Hurricane Harvey.
What happens if a weather issue like Hurricane Harvey occurs and the guests’ safety is put at risk? What’s the game plan for a terrorist attack? How should things be handled if a medical emergency arises? It is critically important that event planners and venue staff are as prepared for these situations as they are for managing vendor coordination.
The Austin Convention Center, which has hosted events for up to 16,000 people, most certainly must pay attention to potential emergencies. It ensures that staff is well trained. It also has emergency protocol with companies or organizations that are planning events at the convention center. These safetyrelated conversations happen surprisingly early in the planning process.
“We bring up emergency planning during the contracting and booking phases, and continue throughout the event,” says Al Eells, security and safety manager for the Austin Convention Center Department (which includes the Austin Convention Center and Palmer Events Center). “We have specially trained security coordinators who work directly with clients during the planning process and serve as the client’s point person for any security and safety-related items. We provide our clients a Client Safety Guide that details many of the most common emergencies and how [the Austin Convention Center] will respond.”
Many clients, Eells says, go on to use content from the Client Safety Guide to include in their attendee and exhibitor brochures and apps to make the group at-large aware of that information.
As far as staff training to prepare for emergency situations, the convention center hosts annual employee training sessions that help arm the employees with skills to deal with issues ranging from severe weather to medical emergencies and more. Staff is required to meet minimum annual safety training hours, and Eells says his department works closely with local emergency responders during both training and event planning.
Unfortunately, the convention center employees have had to utilize that training. Thankfully, they’ve had appropriate training to fall back on.
“We recently had an emergency where a visitor to the center suddenly collapsed due to a serious medical condition,” Eells says. “Our staff responded immediately with first aid, including the use of one of our Automated External Defibrillators, and coordinated an EMS medic response. The visitor survived the incident and later expressed thanks to the involved staff for their life-saving efforts. Having a coordinated and planned response was integral in the successful outcome of this medical emergency.”
Communication Is Key
Preparing for emergencies is an ongoing process, not only because of the amount of staff to train, but also because of the breadth of scenarios for which the team has to prepare. Ranging from big to small, and from predictable to unlikely, emergencies include everything from severe weather to suspicious packages/bomb threats to medical emergencies to an active shooter situation.
They can also come when you least expect them, says Carla Pendergraft, director of marketing at the Waco Convention Center, and dealing with specific sudden issues can help tighten up an emergency plan for future scenarios.
“We had a small gas leak when a contractor damaged a line,” says Pendergraft. “Someone smelled gas, and we went into action. It allowed us to see we were very good at evacuating our own building, but that we also needed to contact folks in the buildings around us, like City Hall and the hotel nearby. It helped us see the flaws in our plan.”
Another hugely important element for planners and venues to account and prepare for is how to communicate with event attendees when something goes awry. If there’s a need to evacuate an area or a building quickly, there should be an efficient and effective method to spread the word to everyone effected.
At the Austin Convention Center, Eells says, the staff uses strobe lights, sirens, public address systems, two-way radios and personto-person contact to quickly communicate emergency information to people within their facility. They also partner with coordinators of specific events going on at the convention center to convey information to event attendees via social media. That outlet can be particularly helpful for less emergent situations that arise (or pre-event issues that may impact attendees).
Emergency planning should also be top of mind for an event planner, says Sarah Lo, vice president of professional services at Red Velvet Events Inc. in Austin. She emphasizes the importance of preparedness regardless of event size, and says her company takes planning for unexpected situations very seriously
“We have a few team members officially certified in the Emergency Preparedness Certificate Program as presented by the Association of Destination Management Executives International, and other team members who have been previously certified in first aid, CPR and AED machine training,” she says. “We have one team member as the assigned lead for emergency preparedness for our company, as they help ensure our programs execute with emergency preparedness in mind and that our program managers know what to do in case of an event emergency.”
Lo says her company also has weekly staff meetings, and these act as an ongoing forum for discussions around how to react to emergencies. These conversations can include ensuring everyone feels comfortable speaking about the topic of emergency preparedness, role playing through specific emergency scenarios, and reviewing emergency documents to be sure the team is up to speed on their details.
She says they also make sure to create an environment of open communication with their clients around this topic, and to help with that openness Red Velvet Events presents a high-level plan and awareness during the event proposal stage to make it clear how seriously the company is about the subject of safety.
“The heart of the planning really starts once we have identified the who, what, when and where of the event, and we build out our plan from there,” Lo says.
Fortunately, as far as Lo can recall, Red Velvet Events hasn’t had to deal with an emergency situation during one of its events. However, at the top of Red Velvet Events’ list of potential emergencies to prepare for are suspicious activity, a disgruntled or hostile guest, or any kind of man-made, intentional disasters or issues. The company has a process for how they’d notify event guests of any issue, too, and they partner with clients to customize this approach based on the specific company or event.
“Our communication plan to the event attendees involves a discussion with the client to understand if they have any general protocols they must abide by as a company, and we integrate that plan with ours to ensure it’s entirely comprehensive,” she says. “Communication generally takes place prior to the event so as not to cause direct alarm to attendees, but to let them know that it’s still important to think through these logistics just in case of emergency, whether it’s a section dedicated on the event website, event phone app, or pre-training the client’s employees/event staff to ensure they are well versed in protocol.”
Know the Plan
Because it’s looked to as a leader in the event planner industry, Meeting Professionals International (MPI) views emergency preparedness as being of utmost importance— and it knows it’s critical to help educate others on best practices.
“MPI strives to provide quality education focusing on trending industry news,” says Rachel Linder, vice president of education 2017/2018, Texas Hill Country Chapter in Wimberley. “For example, how to handle a live shooter situation was a hot topic in our industry, so MPI THCC held a stand-alone education session on the best way to handle it as a host, and added this session as a track at the MPI THCC Texas Education Conference.”
It is not only critical that the event team be aware of safety practices—all key players need to be involved sooner than later—but MPI THCC also recommends getting approval by the event planner and confirmation by both the venue and vendors on an emergency plan. Make it clear who plays what role in the event of an emergency, and practice those roles on-site before the event takes place to further solidify the protocol.
MPI THCC counts scenarios such as fire, travel delays related to weather, social and political situations, and natural disasters among the top to prepare for, and says it’s important to think through specific outcomes for as many scenarios as possible.
For example, where should attendees be led during a fire in this venue, or how could alternate transportation be provided in the event of travel-related weather delays?
Linder also noted the importance of developing not only overarching emergency preparedness skills, but also of ensuring the team is aware of protocol specific to the venue, group, or situation.
“Last September, I was hosting an event at a very nice hotel … they were doing construction and accidentally set off a fire alarm in one section of our meeting space,” she says. “Luckily, we had a plan before the event, confirmed the plan with the security team on-site, and walked it. We knew the protocol at that venue was to stay put, wait for the overhead announcement to direct us and then exit the building only if necessary. Because we’d walked the plan the day before, I was able to calmly direct attendees to stay put and assured them that we would be directed via overhead instructions shortly.”
The moral of the story? Have a plan, and stick with it—and make sure people really know the plan so they can react quickly and appropriately if needed, without spending precious time stopping to refer to a document that spells out a protocol overview.