3 Ways to Plan for the Unthinkable

Managing risk is a balancing act for meeting planners — but being aware of your surroundings may be the most powerful weapon of all.

More than 2,000 meeting professionals met in Atlantic City, New Jersey, earlier this week for MPI’s 2016 World Education Congress, three days of education and networking at the Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center. The news that dozens of people were killed in a mass shooting in Orlando — a tragedy that coincided with the opening night of the conference — lent gravitas to some of the events, especially a Tuesday-morning session titled “How Increased Situational Awareness and an Improved Guest Experience Can Improve Your Event’s Security.”
Mark Herrera, the director of education for the International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM), as well as a former police sergeant and SWAT officer, was blunt with attendees: To think that conferences and meetings are invulnerable to attacks is a mistake. “How many times have you ever had anything major happen in a convention center?” Herrera asked. “A convention center is a soft target, and soft targets are becoming the targets of choice.”
Sure, planners can hire security, as well as demand emergency plans and evacuation procedures from venues. But individual awareness and response are also crucial to reducing risk. What would you do, Herrera asked us, if an active shooter burst into our meeting room at Harrah’s right now? Many people said they’d hit the ground and seek cover. A few would try to escape. One woman said she might move toward the shooter. 
Turns out, the last suggestion was a surprisingly good one. Herrera explained why as he offered advice for increasing situational awareness and responding to unexpected events:
1. Mentally accept the fact that you will encounter a hostile situation during the course of your employment. “It should not be a surprise that you might encounter risk,” Herrera said. “Come to terms with that.”
2. In new places and situations, flip your mindset from “white” to “yellow.” A white mindset, Herrera said, is one in which you are totally unaware of your surroundings — hunched over your phone, for instance. A yellow mindset, on the other hand, involves being acutely aware of what and who is around you, and being prepared to react to a perceived or real threat. To do this, begin by guessing what others around you are thinking or doing, and look for odd behavior or anomalies that seem out of place. 
3. Have a plan of action. What would you do if you had to manage a crowd experiencing explosions or gunshots? What are your exit procedures? “Practice visualizing potential scenarios with the appropriate response in mind,” Herrera said. Under extreme stress, our heart rate can spike, our motor skills deteriorate, and we may have tunnel vision and a loss of hearing. “If the mind hasn’t ‘been there,’ the body doesn’t seem to follow,” Herrera said. “Program the subconscious mind. The more training and emergency planning you have, it will keep your heart rate down.”
4. If something does happen, don’t hesitate to respond. Herrera calls this process “breaking the loop,” based on the OODA loop of decision-making that is used in military training: observe, orient, decide, and act. A shooter might expect you to hide — but probably doesn’t think you’ll rush him. Disrupting that loop of anticipation can be key to survival (that is, if you can’t make a quick escape). “A shooter might expect you to drop, and will make a decision on what order you are going to take,” Herrera said, which is why dropping and hiding is not always the best survival strategy — but a forward approach might be, as Herrera did once during an active shooter situation. “If I give you something you never expected to see, it disrupts your course of action.”
Herrera’s no-nonsense approach was jarring but gentle — and he left at least one planner thinking she might hire a new security company. “I want to flip your alert switch on,” Herrera said. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is associate editor of Convene.