At a recent mega-conference in Las Vegas, all the dogs were out. You could not have packed more people into the Las Vegas Convention Center and its sprawling satellite venues for the annual Consumer Electronics Show that has had a regular January citywide presence in the neon gaming mecca for more than 50 years.

Nearly 200,000 people from all over the globe came to take part in the production, including captains of government and industry and celebrities as well as waves of C-suite executives and their suited-up staff. However, this conference that showcased all the new and existing end-user technology happened on the heels of regular mass shootings, a worldwide pandemic, a world more prone to floods, fires and weather disasters than any time in history, unprecedented travel delays, staff shortages…

And yet, the show must go on.

Fortunately, few problems and glitches have cropped up at these mega meetings of late. Problems are more likely to skew to mistakes in the promised coffee break presentations or unwanted hotel guests swooping in to join the party.
But planners and staff have found that holding a large gathering – or even a small one as trends are dictating -- takes all the more vigilance now, perhaps even more than the pre-pandemic days required.

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Marion Gauthier, vice president of sales at HRS, notes, “Before the pandemic, duty of care meant observing all legal requirements regarding health and safety. While it was an important element in the meeting industry, it typically fell in the category of ‘nice to have.’ The organizer was responsible for meeting participants. Post-pandemic, duty of care has become an absolute requirement for meetings, and it is nearly the number one priority as business travel slowly but surely picked up over the past 18 months.”

Meeting the Moment with DoC
Duty of care (DoC) is a concept more tied to systems that track business travelers on the move rather than keeping meetings safe from coffee break crashers. So the idea is rarely given the spotlight inside the event context, and yet it is a critical component of any important business gathering. And while most conferences and meetings are a fraction of the size of a mega Las Vegas event, lessons learned in Las Vegas and beyond are beginning to get the front-and-center attention they require.

“The issue of security at meetings and events is now a top-of-mind factor,” says Ben Goedegebuure, enterprise vice president, global and industry presence at Maritz Global Events. “But in event planning, a strong security and communications plan needs to be part of the package and all those involved need to be taken into consideration and taken seriously at different levels.” He has also acted as global general manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Maritz.

In an interview for a Maritz blog post, Goedegebuure recalled a serious incident he managed during his former tenure with the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. It occurred during a meeting and involved an international delegate; subsequently it then included meetings staff to operations staff to outside security personnel and on a nail-biting timeline. In a snap the protocol that had been determined by the policing authorities had to go into action.

While skilled planner instincts might have swayed toward stopping the event and clearing the space, security experts onsite dictated the opposite approach: Continue the show without interruption but ensure no one leaves the site until all in attendance could be questioned. And in the end, the right choices were made in terms of communication and security protocols, he said.

“Consultants focused on meetings technology and venues are increasingly required, as planners need to have local expertise to alert, advise and support them continuously as they refine their DoC process,” Gauthier notes.

Wellness and Stability
Similarly, over the past few years, concerns have broadened to health emergencies and, more broadly, mental health issues. As the pandemic turned lively urban corridors into ghost towns, much of that vitality has left city centers where the key convention venues and business-focused hotels remain. And to that end, homeless populations have moved in to fill the vacuum, creating areas of apprehension both for meeting planners and attendees.

“Over the past few years, we have seen a variety of safety factors intensify from civil unrest to severe weather to crime. In the US, homelessness has become a severe problem in certain locations, which impacts our ability to suggest key destinations to customers,” says Jenna Baker, DES vice president, account management for the Life Sciences Center of Excellence at BCD.

“BCD Travel provides information about destinations around the world and offers a security ranking for each location,” Baker says. “Our meeting planners utilize this information when making location recommendations to our customers. It used to be that we looked for a hotel in a nice location that suited the meeting needs. Now we also must consider political factors, climate change and financial stability when making recommendations.”

Jennifer La Fuente, who is senior vice president, SMM and meetings solutions, venue search and performance optimization at BCD, agrees. La Fuente says that post-pandemic meeting planning is much more focused on both health and safety. “For planners that can mean preparing effective crisis management plans, sanitation planning and contingency for illness,” she says.

“Wellness is also an important component of DoC, with an increased focus on offering opportunities to get outside, exercise, and building agendas that do not require someone to be ‘on’ 12 hours out of the day, as well as offering healthy F&B. And crisis management plans are written in to provide direction should there be criminal activity, political activity or climate impacts,” La Fuente adds.

But Keith McKenna, regional vice president of TripEvents Client Experience at ITS, thinks duty of care needs to go even further in this strange new post-pandemic era that is trying to find its true north.

“Duty of care is much more than just looking after attendee health and safety. It also includes mental health, DEI sensitivities, data privacy, sustainability, supply chain and more,” McKenna adds. “All of which is important when planning and operating any type of meeting. This means your DoC plan needs to be in effect and included in the discussions from your initial planning.”

Furthermore, McKenna advises, the planning needs to extend beyond just your company. “Are you selecting venues and vendors that have DoC standards that align with yours? Managing safety and security is expected, but how do they handle inclusion or sustainability? Finding partners who are aligned with your DoC efforts helps to carry it through the entire event operation. Be intentional with the incorporation of DoC in your planning process. Creating a culture of care, by setting the right policies, selecting aligned vendors, and allocating proper resources and budget to your DoC plan can significantly elevate the safety, security, inclusion, and experience of your meetings.”

Safety … at a Cost
However, big questions remain as to the health of the meetings industry, which by all accounts has popped back beyond expectations and is beginning to normalize into pre-pandemic flows – but at a much higher cost.

According to an SAP Concur Global Business Travel Survey published in June, global business travelers maintain that health and safety are the biggest threats to business travel (44 percent) – more so than international or local conflicts and tensions (34 percent), inflation (34 percent), budget cuts or travel freezes (31 percent), and remote work and virtual meeting options (28 percent).

To get a handle on the pace of recovery for meetings and events next year and beyond, a CWT poll released in August looked at the effect of rising fuel prices, labor shortages, and supply chain challenges, coupled with red hot demand that caused travel prices to skyrocket in 2022. The prognosis? A soft landing, according to CWT CEO Patrick Andersen.

Yet, it may be a while before that relief shows up. The hotel numbers have been as unforgiving as air fares with the global average daily rate for hotel bookings showing increases of nearly 30 percent in 2022 (North America saw the highest growth in hotel ADRs of any region in 2022, rising 33.8 percent year over year to $174). Joining the inflation party were labor, energy, and food and beverage costs. In fact, several cities across the globe including London, Miami and Singapore, reported their highest ADRs on record in 2022.

For meetings and events, the average daily cost per attendee was $160 in 2022. This is expected to top to $169 in 2023 and then $174 in 2024, says the CWT report. The duty of care piece of that pie averages 5 percent, notes La Fuente.

Traveler security and event DoC are not something that should be considered when there is already an issue. To do it well, it starts at an organization’s cultural level and carries through with everything they do, McKenna says.

And that does not just mean preparing for the big stuff – the shooter, the backpack bomb, the hostage round-up of thriller movie plots. It also means the unwelcome meeting crashers and opportunist hotel guests.

What Slips through the Cracks
“The meetings and events industry has always had its share of ‘event crashers,’ whether it’s people looking for free stuff, like food, bar drinks, swag or just participants trying to game the event system,” says McKenna. “This could be as simple as people sharing badges to get into where they are not supposed to be, or more planned out like ‘suitcasing,’ when someone gains access to the event as an attendee, day pass, etc., and then solicits business within the aisles of the trade show or spaces.”

All of these situations create security and legal concerns, as well as disruptions to the quality of an event.

So why has this become more prevalent? McKenna points to reduction in staffing for onsite events, both at the organizer level and for basic security. Thus planning should consider a proper budget for the right levels of security and event staffing to ensure people can’t circumvent entrances, and that includes training staff and security teams on what to look for when it comes to these types of situations.