Upcoming ACOM Event Calendar

January 2009

2009 Annual Conference
January 9-11, 2009
New Orleans, Louisiana
Westin New Orleans


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Risky Business: How to Avoid Killing Your Attendees

Managing Event Risk and Maximizing Safety

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Successful Meetings. Reprinted with permission.

Risk management—it's essential, daunting, and can keep planners from getting embroiled in litigation, and it's largely being ignored.

According to the most recent research from Successful Meetings' sister publication MeetingNews, a mere 16 percent of 350 planners surveyed believe risk management is extremely important, and 55 percent admit they have no formal strategies regarding how to handle emergencies.

But while the threat of terror attacks, pandemics, or natural disasters may be slight, planners are very likely to encounter other situations in which a risk management strategy is important — be it a drunken attendee driving a golf cart, an award recipient falling off the stage, or the need to evacuate a building because of a fire. In those cases, having a protocol in place can mean the difference between a lawsuit and an amusing anecdote. Here, SM gets some advice on how planners should handle 17 potentially risky situations.

1. Everybody Out

If a property has to be evacuated, it has to be evacuated immediately. Although planners should ensure that exits are clearly marked, evacuation plans posted, and emergency lighting and fire extinguishers at the ready, "evacuations never happen at an opportune time," notes Erin Peschel, director of marketing and sales at The Conference Center at NorthPointe in Lewis Center, OH.

Since attendees won't have time to peruse wall-mounted exit strategies in the event of an emergency, Peschel recommends incorporating a morning "Safety Minute," during which attendees get a quick update on nearby exits, violent weather, or other pertinent information. "It's not about scaring people; it's about being informed," says Peschel. "If we do these safety minutes, people are much calmer [in the event they need to evacuate the building]."

2. Slip 'N' Slide

It takes less that a second for a slip-and-fall to turn an attendee's day upside-down. "Immediately we provide what we call 'Care, Concern, and Empathy,' " says Stan Alexander, director of security at InterContinental Houston. Alexander, who is a certified lodging security director, a CPR/AED/First Aid instructor, a First Responder/Professional Rescuer, and a member of theDisaster Action Team, adds that if there is any question as to the extent of injury to the attendee, 911 should be called at once.

"We also want to find out the root cause of the accident. I've had cases where it was water on the floor, but also cases where a high heel had no rubber left on the bottom, leaving only the metal [screw or nail, which caused a fall]." He adds that it's important to be mindful that the attendee may be embarrassed and to clear and secure the area as much as possible. If need be, statements and telephone numbers should be collected from witnesses.

3. In a Nutshell

"We're seeing a lot more peanut allergies, shellfish allergies, and increasing levels of severity," says NorthPointe's Peschel. While guests with severe allergies are generally proactive about telling the property, Peschel recommends planners ask attendees up front and let the venue know of anything that might be a cause for concern.

For guests who may not have divulged an allergy or sensitivity, label food with every ingredient — not just primary components. Peschel notes that as chefs become increasingly creative with banquet meals, they are using a wider range of ingredients, many of which are present in very small amounts, but could still trigger a reaction.

Matt Bencivenga, executive chef and partner with Wolfgang Puck Catering, adds "it is important that the staff is fully briefed on ingredients and has a breakdown of each menu item. We like to type them up and highlight items that contain common allergy ingredients, such as peanuts, peanut oil, dairy, and gluten."

4. By a Nose

And what about scent allergies? "Someone on our staff has scent allergies, so that has made us highly alert to it," says Peschel. "We limit flowers in the lobbies, among other things." She recommends planners inquire whether attendees have sensitivities and pass all information on to the property in an unedited form. If need be, the property can ask for contact information for a specific guest, but editing and cleaning up the list can delete important information.

Planners may also look to PURE Allergy Friendly Rooms, which undergo a rigorous process to eliminate or minimize allergens such as mold spores, yeast, dust mites, and chlorine, along with their corresponding odors. PURE rooms can be found at the Conrad Miami, the Four Seasons in Boston, the Mandarin Oriental in Washington DC, and the Peninsula Beverly Hills, among others.

5. Something's Fishy

When incorporating a raw bar, sushi, or other uncooked fish into a menu, it's easy for disaster to strike. "You must start with extremely fresh fish and shellfish," says Wolfgang Puck Catering's Bencivenga. "For the shellfish, we will only use something that has been harvested no more than two days before our display will be eaten." He adds that the fish should be inspected upon arrival and stored properly at the facility.

"On the day that we will be serving, we prepare the seafood at the last minute and serve it on a display that is made out of anice carving, ice block, or pea ice. It is important to put the seafood directly on the ice and cover it with damp, chilled cheese cloth. [The cloth] should not be removed until the guests have entered the room. To replenish, we put our platters in the freezer, then load them with the seafood when the server is ready to take them from the kitchen and transfer them onto the ice."

6. Nobody Orders Their Chicken Rare

Dry, overcooked meats and poultry are unappetizing, but undercooked items are downright scary.

"This has to do with proper training and supplying staff with proper thermometers," explains Bencivenga. "We like to use the instant-read thermometers. You simply check each piece with a thermometer to make sure that you have reached the proper internal temperature for that item. Chicken is to be cooked to 170 degrees internally and held above 145 degrees. Legs and thighs can be tricky. When roasting a whole chicken, those parts tend to take a bit longer, so check them separately.Beef, veal, and lamb are to be cooked until internal temperature reaches 145 degrees. Pork should read 160 degrees for an internal temperature."

7. The Poisoned Apple

Even with all the planning in the world, it's possible that attendees will fall ill from banquet cuisine. If that should happen, the most important thing to do is be proactive, instead of hoping the situation will resolve itself, or assuming the attendee got sick from a late-night run-in with the minibar. "A meeting planner should contact the food service company immediately after finding out that a food-borne illness could be present, after directing the person with the illness to go see a doctor," says Bencivenga. "From there the food service company should contact the health department immediately after they have received a call. The quicker the better, so that if there is a food-borne illness, it will be much easier to trace it back to the source. The health department will then conduct an investigation, which includes checking hygiene of staff, cleanliness of kitchen, and storage of food."

8. Think Outside the Highball Glass

One way to keep attendees from overindulging is to offer specialty drinks that have a low alcohol content. Here is a favorite from Brigitte Liebowitz, the director of public relations for the Columbia Bartending Agency and School of Mixology at New York's Columbia University: "A great low-alcohol cocktail is a modified version of a Soju Cocktail (which is typically made with sake, plum wine, triple sec, and Sprite). Take plum wine and mix it with Sprite or Sierra Mist, which essentially becomes a wine spritzer. You can modify it to make it even weaker, because plum wine has a very distinct taste, making people think there's more alcohol than there is. If you use soda water instead of Sprite, it's a great low-calorie beverage as well."

9. Out of the Driver's Seat

"Taking the keys away from someone can be tricky, especially if the person is your superior or a co-worker with whom you don't have a personal relationship," admits Liebowitz. "A simple, 'I'm going your way too and could use the company. Can I give you a lift?' [often works]."

Julia Rutherford Silvers, author of Risk Management for Meetings and Events, recommends "discuss[ing] this situation and other alcohol liability issues with the host before the event, and (in conjunction with the alcohol provider) agree on one person from the host's organization to monitor and intervene with event guests. Use a friendly manner to diffuse the situation. Avoid an audience. Ask a friend of theirs to help encourage the person to hand over the keys."

10. GCWI: Golf-Carting While Intoxicated

Although many golfers are cavalier about drinking and operating a golf cart, it can be a dangerous mix. "Donated product and open bar tabs provide more of a probability of unlimited drinking, so [planners] might want to limit consumption and provide each golfer a limited number of drink tickets," suggests Dave Scott, director of golf at Orlando's Rosen Shingle Creek.

Planners should also ask about the instruction staff receives. "All of the snack bar people and cart girls attend bartender training and are therefore trained to identify people that need to be cut off—and are obligated to do so," says Scott about the training that employees receive at his facility.

11. Fore!

Golf events often include inexperienced players who are more likely to cause an accident (hitting an errant ball that beans a fellow player) or get injured (walking in the path of an angrily thrown club). What's a planner to do?

"Advise them to play ready golf, but do not walk too far in front of anyone else who is hitting," says Scott. Ready golf is a style of play that generally speeds up the game by allowing players to hit as they are prepared to do so, instead of in a particular order. He also recommends that planners "advise your golfers to keep their angles very wide and be aware of their surroundings. Never go in front of someone hitting the ball—stay parallel." Planners can also ask the golf course to add such reminders to a rule sheet in every cart.

12. Show Me a Sign

When conducting a site inspection, keep an eye out for proper use of signage throughout a property. If you see a puddle and no "wet floor" sign, chances are it won't be out for your group either.

"From a planner perspective, when you're doing a site tour, you should be able to see these signs being a part of the facility without even asking," says Peschel from NorthPointe, who adds that "you should see them come out appropriately." At the same time, take note if employees are using the wrong type of tool for a job—for example, standing on a chair to hang a poster. If the employee isn't using the safest and most appropriate item for the job, the property does not deem safety a priority.

13. Tripping Up

Unsecured cords are the nemesis of every planner and attendee. To avoid trip hazards, it's important to consider local codes and conduct an extensive walk-through prior to the event. "Installation codes may vary by jurisdiction regarding the manner, type,and extent of tapingand/or coverings required, so this should be discussed with your AV provider(s) before the event," says Rutherford Silvers."Conduct a walk-through inspection prior to opening the doors to confirmcompliance and that no cords are exposed or pose a trip hazard."

Alexander from InterContinental Houston even recommends that planners designate a safety officer, who goes into the room prior to opening and checks wires as well as other issues like adherence to fire codes and that dance floors are secure and in good shape.

14. Gotta Dance

Speaking of dance floors, Alexander notes that there is a lot of room for error using a venue's years-old, worn-out model. He encourages planners to take a hard look at the setup, particularly the spacing between the individual parquet tiles—if it's too large, a high heel could get stuck, twisting an attendee's ankle.

Planners should also consider having the deejay ask guests to refrain from carrying glasses onto the dance floor. One broken glass and the accompanying puddle could hurt unaware fellow partygoers before the property is able to clean up the mess.

15. Name-Calling

How many times have you left a meeting only to discover later that you're still sporting that name badge? Aside from being a minor embarrassment, it can be a bull's-eye on a lanyard. ("Hey Emily! How are you?" You try to figure out who the person is and then discover that your wallet disappeared while you were distracted.)

"Nametags are a really big issue, particularly if there is a local hotspot that everyone is going to," says InterContinental Houston's Alexander. One strategy he's seen work for groups is to "have a box at the entrance, and ask attendees to please pick your nametag up so we know you're here, then drop it off [after the meeting]. You don't necessarily have to say that it's about making yourself a target."

16. Clear and Present Danger

If your meeting takes place in a potentially dangerous neighborhood or city, it's best to do some research ahead of time and remind attendees to be aware. Alexander recommends that planners find out if the property has 24-7 in-house security coverage, noting that in-house officers are a positive sign, since "many times when you just have the security officer who shows up, you don't have much buy-in from them."

Rutherford Silvers adds that planners should "discuss this with local law enforcement and venue management to determine specific precautions to be addressed. Provide advisories on what not to do, where not to go (or go alone), and what services are available and should be used if they want to do something or go somewhere. Deliver the advisories in a 'You probably already know this but as a reminder...' manner."

17. Too Late

If the worst happens and an attendee dies during a meeting, Alexander says the property should "immediately secure the area until EMS and the fire department arrive." The planner will be notified and should then contact his or her corporate office, recommends Alexander, because each company handles this type of event differently.

Although planners should always collect emergency contact information from attendees, if that was not done ahead of time, the corporate office can track down someone from the human resources department, where emergency information should be on file. In his more than 30 years in the industry, Alexander has encountered four deaths, so while it is a rarity, it is certainly something to prepare for. And according to that same MeetingNews survey, less than one-third of planners (30 percent) develop detailed emergency plans that include contact information.

Originally published July 01, 2008


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