Safe Meeting Locations

March 22, 2012

By Thomas Ishmael

Often, meeting and event professionals are bound only by their own creativity.

I’ve seen fireworks launched from flotillas on the Fourth of July, gravity defying scaffolding erected on mountaintops to provide sweeping views for nuptials, and everything in-between. The ingenious use of otherwise unexciting space is one of the hallmarks of a good meeting planner. But, before you transform your property’s broom closet into a bodega, or your parking lot into an igloo “ice bar” I urge you to contemplate the consequences.

A prudent meeting professional should evaluate the risks presented by each event. It is paramount not to lose sight of the safety of your staff and guests when keeping  an eye out for the next great meeting space.

It is a grim reality that even well planned events can end in tragedy. The 1981 walkway collapse in Kansas City’s Hyatt Regency serves as a sobering reminder of the importance of ensuring the safety of a space before using it to host an event. One hundred and fourteen people died and hundreds more were injured when a suspended walkway spanning the property’s atrium collapsed under the weight of a crowd viewing a dance competition in the lobby below.

More recently, seven event attendees died and more than 40 were injured as a result of a stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair in August 2011. There, a wind gust blew stage rigging into concert-goers gathered to hear the country singing duo Sugarland.

In addition to the loss of life and human costs, these tragedies have tangible financial costs. The Kansas City disaster is believed to have resulted in judgments and settlements in civil lawsuits exceeding $140 million. Litigation surrounding the Sugarland stage collapse is just beginning. But, Sugarland, producers and the staging company have already been named in one lawsuit brought by the families of four of the deceased and forty-four survivors of the accident.

No meeting professional wants to see their event end in tragedy. Every meeting planner should seek to make their meetings safer, and to protect guests against misfortune. But, many are unsure of what that entails.

A prudent professional will evaluate safety considerations surrounding their events before they ever take place. Here are some suggested methods to help ensure a safe and successful event:
• Conduct a Hazard Vulnerability
Assessment
• Develop a Contingency Plan
• Mitigate Risks & Liability

A “Hazard Vulnerability Assessment” sounds much more complex than it actually is. It involves identifying a list of the most influential risk factors facing your event. Evaluate the risks posed by each. For example, consider: special structures necessary for the event, the make-up of the crowd (old/young, rock and roll concert/ business group, etc), and possible complications from weather. Next, consider the likelihood of each of the complications and rate them accordingly. The point of the exercise is to make meeting professionals slow down and discover safety and security pitfalls so they can be avoided.

Armed with your assessment, you should create contingency plans. The hazards identified in your assessment should be addressed. The detail and scope of your contingency planning will obviously depend on the size of the event. For a smaller event, a contingency plan may simply mean having an off duty police officer present. For a large event, it may mean planning closely with the local police department to ensure a rapid response in case of a large scale emergency. The point is, have a plan with the people who would be necessary in solving any emergencies that may be identified in the Hazard Vulnerability Assessment.

Before the event is set in stone, I recommend you ensure you have done all you can to mitigate risk and potential liability in case of a disaster. A savvy meeting professional should narrow the scope of potential liability to his or her principals by effective contract negotiation. For example, if you must outsource a security company for an event, make sure all liability exposure for security rests with the vendor. No company can contractually avoid all theoretical liability. But, if the security company was later deemed to be negligent for letting a dangerous condition occur at the event, it would sure be better if the service contract made clear they assumed all liability for any such occurrence. Though these negotiations can sometimes be awkward, the value of negotiating a contract that clearly spells out the intent of the parties before a problem occurs is invaluable. Another tool for minimizing your exposure to liability from disasters like those in Kansas City and Indianapolis is insurance.Insist on viewing the applicable insurance policies each of your vendors has in place, and make sure your own property’s general liability policy is in full force and effect before you begin hosting events.
Most of the above is common sense. But, busy meeting professionals sometimes get so caught up in delivering the perfect event that they fail to contemplate the potential hazards and liabilities each event presents. Getting these topics out front early is a good way to ensure they are adequately addressed before any tragedy may occur. There is no easy solution to putting on a safe meeting, but planning for the worst is always for the best. MM&E

About the author

The MEET® Family of Publications

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