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Jeff OHara

Security Planning for Special Events: A Q&A with Jeff O'Hara of AlliedPRA New Orleans

Jeff O'Hara of AlliedPRA New Orleans on security planning for special events

Jeff O'HaraViolent crime, terror attacks, natural disasters: A sense of danger is putting a chill on special events, and adding more urgency to the jobs of special event professionals. Many of the big DMCs profiled in our latest "25 Top DMCs" tell us that they have been putting greater focus on security planning in their work for clients—a topic to be covered in the next issue of Special Events.

For starters, here is a Q&A with Jeff O’Hara, CMP, DMCP, president of AlliedPRA New Orleans, on the tactics he takes to keep guests safe and happy at events in the Big Easy:

SPECIAL EVENTS: Are more clients raising the issue of security to you than they were five years ago? 
Jeff O'Hara:

To be sure, the vast majority of concerns and tactics are around intellectual property protection, especially in technology, pharma and financial. With that said, given the recent events in Europe, we have started to hear concerns from our clients in the recent months and have shared our emergency plans more frequently than in the past.

SE: Do you find that most clients today are security-conscious, or do you have to stress security?
JOH: Clients are definitely security-conscious. It is a collaborative discussion we have in the logistics phase of event implementation. Sometimes we have to nudge them along--see nametags below as a frequent example--but most big organizations have this as part of their standard review.

Something as simple as requiring nametags for admittance to off-site events is a strong security step in the current environment. Sure, attendees find it a pain and planners are reluctant to ruffle feathers with enforcement--but a terrorist is unlikely to know to counterfeit a credential to gain access to the target. Nor is a common thief who poses a different type of security threat.

SE: How have you developed your approach to security and risk management: professional experience, consulting with security experts, other?
In New Orleans, we regularly host international large-scale events--Super Bowls, Final 4, BCS Championships, Mardi Gras, Jazz Festival, NBA All-Star Games. Not to mention just normal nights in the French Quarter. As a result, the city has developed quite an expertise in security of large crowds wrapped in the velvet glove of being welcoming.

The hospitality community has regular strategy meetings with the New Orleans Police Department, U.S. Homeland Security, fire and paramedics to coordinate ongoing and special event plans, and we are able to leverage those relationships to assist in our plans. Further, we commonly use off-duty police detail for traffic control and event security. In addition to the roles they play for us, these officers are highly trained in recognizing threats in large crowds, so we have their expertise at our service.

SE: How has your approach to security at events evolved over the last five years? Are there threats you plan for now that were not such a concern five years ago?
Absolutely. The global terrorist actions show that any large gathering of people can be a target. We regularly produce off-site events for several thousand people, so we have to make this part of the planning.

In the DMC world, we often use nontraditional spaces for our events. As a result we have to educate partners for whom this is not a normal concern and likely don’t have an existing security plan of this magnitude.

SE: Can you share any anecdotes of how your security planning protected an event from a threat?
There have been multiple instances where our event staff has intercepted people who did not belong at events we were producing.

Recently at a technology company kickoff meeting, we had to constantly remove people away from a product launch. They could have been innocent, curious hotel guests, or they could have been looking to find out about the IP being launched. We’ll never know.

Similarly, we have stopped people from entering our off-site events several times in the past year. They could also be curious and innocent, could be small-time thieves, or worse. Again, we will never know but by being proactive and having staff trained to look for suspicious persons, we will never have to know.

SE: How much of any security plan can be a template (e.g., identify entrances, get emergency contacts) and what must be customized to an event?
The basic things are a quick checklist--event entrances and exits, means of identifying credentialed attendees, security posts, venue emergency procedures, etc.

However, a lot has to be customized for each event. There are external factors that could impact the event--what other events are going on in the city that night, what type of crowds might those events attract, do we have headline entertainment that may induce gate-crashers? In New Orleans there can always be unannounced parades on any given night, so we check for parade permits with the city to understand implications on traffic flow. If we are using a nontraditional venue--warehouse, art gallery, etc.--we have to develop the venue security plan and then educate the venue on how to implement it.

SE: Have you seen the increased focus on security adding to the cost of special events?
It certainly adds to our internal costs, as the time required to ensure we have a proper security plan in place is extensive. As a DMC, this is part of the service that we provide to clients and one of the key reasons that they engage a DMC. So it is not something that increases costs to our clients in the scope of our programs. However, many do have internal security teams and they being deployed on-site more often now, so that is an increased cost to the client.

At the end of the day, all of the preparation that goes into this--our planning with the venue, the client, the on-site protection--has to be invisible to the attendees, which is kind of ironic. While everyone wants to be safe and secure, nobody wants to see it. People who attend our events attend events all over the world and understand the inherent risk of travel, but nobody wants to be in a security state. So by definition, all of our hard work needs to go unnoticed!

O'Hara received a BS in Hospitality Administration from Florida State University and an MBA from Tulane University. He is active in a number of industry associations and boards, including the Society of Hosts at Florida State University, which named him Alumnus of the Year in 2004.

See the full story in the Fall issue of Special Events.

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