Special Events

Playing It Safe: Security at Special Events

Whether the goal is to keep gate-crashers out or company property in, security plays a role in most special events. And the overload of hype surrounding the millennium will make security challenges tougher this year for event planners.

For starters, off-duty police officers won't be available to moonlight as security guards. "Most of the police agencies have canceled days off for their officers" so they will be available to protect the public, notes A.C. Hart, sergeant with the Minneapolis Police Department. Further, many police agencies consider the millennium risk period to run beyond New Year's Eve itself. "We're looking at the period running from about Dec. 15 to about Jan. 5," explains Gary Moses, director of special events operations for Pinkerton Security, based in Burbank, Calif.

On the bright side, the stroke of midnight won't strike all at once. "We'll watch to see what happens in the time zones ahead of us," Hart says.

Colleen Rickenbacher, CMP, vice president for event planning with the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, is in the thick of determining how to handle security for her millennium event.

"We're having a downtown celebration and it's free-that alone is scary," she says. "Right now we have approximately 200 police on foot, motorcycle and horseback to handle the crowds. We will up that number as more admission tickets are given out. But we don't know if we will have 500 people or 5,000 or 500,000. It all depends on the weather that night and how well our media campaign kicks in."

No one can plan for every contingency, but a careful analysis of your event will help you determine how much security you need and where.

CHECK YOUR PROFILE "If it's a low-profile event, held in a hotel, with little advertising and admittance by invitation only, then the security level can be low," Moses says. "But if it's a high-profile event, you need to consider where you are holding it-in a hotel with a limited amount of entrances, or in a park where the public can come in and out of the area?"

There is no rule of thumb on how many security guards an event needs. "A rock concert for 1,000 people is very different from a prayer breakfast for 1,000," says Tom Daly, vice president of loss prevention for Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Hilton Hotels.

"I just did a corporate and incentive familiarization trip outdoors for only about 100 people, but I had six police officers," says Rickenbacher. "It was right downtown with heavy food and drink, so a lot of people wanted to attend. I did not want any fencing or gates, and that made it more difficult. But the police were wonderful and kept all the street people and onlookers out of our party. I regret only that I didn't have a lot more 'private party' signs all around."

Moses suggests a mix of uniformed and plainclothes guards. "Uniforms are a deterrent at entrances and other points of access, but they can give guests the impression that something is wrong," he says. "You need a balance."

He also recommends a security survey of the venue and the creation of a security plan, including a timeline and operations plan. He explains: "The operations plan tells when the entrance doors will open; what qualifies a guest to be admitted, such as a pass or invitation; and post-event security-getting everyone out of the area with no problem."

Sally Webb, managing director of The Special Event Co. in London, agrees that thorough planning and communication are vital. This year alone, her firm has handled events for British royalty, international financiers and movie stars. "Make sure your security heads have a full production schedule and running order well in advance," she advises. "Fully brief the whole team on security before the event."

STAR-GAZING Events including celebrities demand that all security teams-the celebrity's, the event producer's and law enforcement-work together.

Kenneth Heidt, director of special events for Los Angeles-based Para-mount Pictures Studio Group, recently staged a celebrity-studded fund-raiser with former Beatle Paul McCartney as guest of honor. "And he had more security than Vice President Al Gore had when he was here two days earlier," Heidt says. The event went smoothly, thanks to extensive planning. "We must have had eight security meetings to go over everything-media credentialing, which gates which celebrities would use, and so on."

High-profile events bring another security challenge: the threat of protestors. "You never know who is going to be offended by or object to your function," cautions Chuck Vance, a former Secret Service agent who now heads security firm Vance International in Oakton, Va.

When protestors showed up at one of her events, Mona Meretsky, CSEP, president of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Comcor Event and Meeting Productions, took action. "I went over to them with a security guard in tow to see if I could help," she says. "I listened to their concerns and reasons for being there and negotiated an agreement that they would leave if I convinced the person whose attention they were trying to get to come out and talk to them. Sometimes, just listening to reason helps."

Danielle Voorhies, marketing and public relations manager for the Overland Park, Kan.-based event company ASE Group, also stresses a commonsense approach. "More isn't always better. Do you really need an armed guard watching a room full of computers? Always consider what you are trying to protect and at what possible cost." She adds, "Know your insurance coverage and liability. And every company-whether you're a planner or security provider-should have an emergency plan."

Some lessons you learn only through practice. Webb notes: "From bitter experience, we have learnt to advise the catering staff early when 'sniffer dogs' are cruising the building while food is in preparation!"

Resources: ASE Group, 913/339-9333; Comcor Event and Meeting Productions, 954/491-3233; Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, 214/571-1000; Hilton Hotels, 310/278-4321; Paramount Pictures Studio Group, 323/956-8398; Pinkerton Security, 818/569-5850; The Special Event Co., 011-44-(0)171-375-6081; Vance International, 703/385-6754

Former Secret Service agent turned security consultant Chuck Vance offers these tips:

* For social events, it's best to have a member of the host group control guest access. "You don't want a big burly security guy standing there at a wedding saying, 'Let me see your ticket,'" Vance says. "Instead, you want a nice hostess, backed up by a big burly guy if someone starts to cause a problem."

* To deter gate-crashers from pestering high-profile guests, you want high-profile security forces. "You will dissuade 99 percent of the problems from ever occurring," Vance says.

* Because the Secret Service checks out catering and hotel staff used for official visits, "ask which staff members were cleared by the Secret Service, then say you want to use those individuals at your event," Vance says.

* To ferret out fake members of the media, set up the credentialing session the day before the event.

* Keep your perspective: "You're far more likely to have a medical emergency than a security problem per se," Vance says.

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