“Event security … the service everyone wants and no one wants to pay for.”
This was one of the replies I recently received when I started a group discussion on LinkedIn about the current state of event security.
Often we as event professionals think of the attendee experience first – like food-and-beverage, venue location, speaker and entertainment considerations – and then tack on event security much later. In fact, we often approach it much like we do insurance. We know we need it but tend not to invest enough in it, and if disaster strikes we find ourselves woefully lacking and unprepared.
However, the awful event catastrophes at the Bataclan theater in Paris, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice have made it painfully obvious that event security needs to be at the top of our event preparation list.
In fact, event security is now just as essential a part of the attendee experience as lighting or appetizers. And the risk of getting it wrong is exponentially greater than choosing the wrong caterer or not having enough chairs.
And even when it is at the top of the list, how much security is enough? And when does the law of diminishing returns apply?
“The crux of this problem is getting the balance right,” says Chris Englund, managing partner of Hungary-based event security firm C2-Training and Consulting. “You want enough security, but you also want security that is not overly restrictive or may be detrimental to the event itself.”
With that said, here are nine event security tips from security professionals that will help ensure that your events and staff are prepared for the worst.
1. Assess your event’s security risk upfront
Not all events carry the same security risk (e.g., a U.S. Senator’s birthday gala carries a whole different level of risk than your daughter’s sweet-sixteen party), and so you should first assess if your event is a high, medium or low risk. The things to consider when assessing event security risk include the organization that is hosting or promoting the event; the content or context of the event; the key individuals speaking at or attending the event; and the exhibitors or sponsors related to the event.
In addition, you should assess the likelihood of protests as well as of the presence of local or national media at the event (more cameras and microphones increase the likelihood for confrontations and demonstrations). You should also take into account potential vulnerabilities of the venue you choose. For example, outdoor venues are often harder to secure than indoor spaces, but indoor spaces may also have fewer escape routes. And then there are always the force majeure “Acts of God” like tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and earthquakes that must be accounted for.
2. Create an emergency response plan
Planning for a disaster can mitigate risk, and so it’s important to sit down and create an event emergency response plan ahead of time. And, if your event is large enough, you can hire an event security service to help you draw one up.
Building out such a plan requires close work with your venue and speaking with them about their procedures for mass evacuations, active shooter situations and moving people into safe areas or rooms. You should also work closely with your venue to map out evacuation routes and ensure that all routes are marked clearly on event day.
The event security plan should also include a crisis communication plan that outlines how you will communicate with attendees and the general public if disaster does strike. This would include creating a list of potential crises, naming your crisis communications team/point people and identifying your communication channels in advance.
Finally, if you decide to hire an event security company, you should ask them about their staff training procedures/certifications, prominent events they have worked, references and insurance as well as what level of advance work they will do.
3. Focus first on people and context, then on technology and tools
“One of the main oversights with the industry is the reliance on technology,” says Chris Englund. “Metal detectors, cameras and access control technologies are great security tools but should really just augment the security people already on the ground.”
Getting the right people on the ground with the right training and experience is your first step, and this can include not only hiring the right event security firm but also supplementing event security guards with off-duty policemen, who are licensed to carry a firearm at events. “Many police departments post off-hours opportunities on their internal websites, so that is a great place to start,” says Martin Kirsten, founder of Suitz Security.
Once you have the right people in place, giving them a complete lay of the land equips them with the knowledge they need to secure the environment properly. “At any event, we should take the time to listen to the people who live, work and know the area to help us develop situational awareness and context,” says Englund. “Context allows us to assess the situation and create a three-dimensional picture of our risks.”
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4. Create a visible security presence
According to event security experts, hiding your security force or putting them undercover may do more harm than good, mainly because attendees now rely more than ever on event security staff to direct them in time of emergency and distress.
The reason for this is that attendees simply don’t pay as much attention to their environment as they used to. As such, they are not prepared mentally when someone instantly poses a threat to them. “People are always walking around with headphones on, looking down non-stop at their iPhones, not paying attention to what is going on around them,” says Englund.
“Awareness is so critical, and people should always be aware of their surroundings and thinking about how to respond to a situation,” he continues. “At events, this responsibility for awareness falls on security to ensure people have obvious cues and authority figures who can provide direction and guidance during high-stress situations. This is why we wear uniforms like police, to provide a symbol for attendees to look for during times of stress.”
5. Widen your event’s footprint
Event security risk reduction can actually start with both expanding the physical parameters of your event and widening the radius of your event security, not reducing them. Both the Bataclan and Pulse environments were dense, concentrated areas, and even the Nice truck incident occurred on a narrow strip of densely populated sidewalk/road.
“To combat tragedies like these, events need to expand their footprints and occupy more space to allow concentric circles of defense, giving security staff the time and distance to react,” says Englund. “At a recent event, we used undercover security operators to mingle with the crowds as they approached the venue from up to one mile out. Their job was simply pre-screening using body pattern recognition. If someone didn’t fit the environment or exhibited certain suspicious traits, they were contacted and asked for identification.”
6. Collect identifying information in advance and check IDs upon entry
Asking for identifying information upfront during the registration process is a good first step in confirming the identity of your attendees, though it is hardly enough. What you can also do is require each attendee to present a valid ID prior to entering the event and, if possible, match this to the information on their registration or ticket.
You can even take this a step further and use technology like RFID-chipped wristbands that are synced with each attendee’s information. “This helps eliminate ticket fraud and allows event organizers to keep track of who is coming in and going out of their event,” says Milan Malivuk, a director at the event tech company Intellitix. “Guests gain entry with an RFID wristband that cannot be removed or tampered with, meaning you’ll always know who’s on your event grounds.”
7. Make your event as invisible as possible to the public
Some events like employee appreciation celebrations or board/investor meetings don’t necessarily need to be made public, but often organizations put these events on their websites, in monthly newsletters and on hotel event announcement boards where the general public can learn about them.
“Unless the event is open to the public, it’s a good idea to keep private events as secret as possible,” says Martin Kirsten. “This is especially important for companies that might operate in an industry that has politically charged opponents.”
And if it’s not possible to hide your event from the public, you can take steps like password protecting your registration form (so only people with the password can register; event registration software like Planning Pod offers this capability) as well as making your event check-in “will-call only” and requiring all attendees to show a valid ID.
8. Lock down the event WiFi
Not all event security threats pose a physical threat, with cyberattacks and data theft being two emerging threats that event planners need to address now and in the coming years. One way to minimize these threats is to take some basic steps with regard to the event WiFi.
First of all, your event WiFi should ALWAYS be password protected, and you should share this password discretely. This means you really should not announce the password from the stage or post it throughout the venue. Instead, share it through the registration materials and the event app if you offer one.
Usually WiFi is an additional service offered by your venue, so when in negotiations with them you should make sure of two things. First, the network must be secured by a standard security protocol called WiFi Protected Access (WPA). Second, you should make sure that the network is equipped with AP-Isolation, which blocks users from accessing other devices logged onto the network.
9. Screen all staff, including venue staff
Security threats can come from places where you least expect them, including from event and venue staff. In fact, this may happen much more often than you think.
“Inside jobs are the number one cause of security failures,” says Martin Kirsten. “So make sure your event security knows who they are working with regarding event and venue staff.” This means that anyone working on the event needs to be pre-screened and assessed thoroughly, and once they have been cleared, they should be properly credentialed to identify them as event staff. And, like attendees, you should still check their credentials at the venue and match it with a legal ID.
In conclusion, the two keys to establishing solid event security are advance preparation and vigilance before, during and after the event itself, and the more resources and effort you put into these, the better prepared you are to fend off serious threats.