Meeting Safety and Security

Nick Topitzes has encountered virtually every security circumstance, from the days of the ’72 McGovern campaign, when he was part of a security detail, to present-day event planning.

Topitzes, president of PC/nametag, said the first basic is that every meeting needs security, no matter how trivial it appears to be. Whether it’s a company picnic, a board of directors meeting, or an internal meeting with sales staff, “You need to have security as the very, very first thing on your agenda when planning that meeting,” Topitzes said. “The worst thing you could have happen is for somebody to be injured at your event, and for it to be splashed all over the papers. You’d offset any benefit you had gained.”

Security threats range from competitors overhearing internal strategy to the theft that often occurs at corporate meeting and events. The first threat can do a great deal of damage to your organization’s strategic positioning; the other can damage the reputation of your signature gathering.

The first is often overlooked. “If you have a meeting that’s strictly internal where you are talking strategy, where maybe you have your dealers, staff, and board of directors in that meeting, one of the things you have to make sure is that the room, itself, is private,” Topitzes stated. “In other words, somebody can’t be in an adjacent room and able to listen to what you say.”

In that context, planners also need to protect the information presented so when you are finished with that room, or you go on break, planning books are not left behind. They often are, and it’s very easy for a competitive dealer to walk through and notice you are holding a meeting, see everyone taking a break in room down the hall, walk in, and grab it. “That happens all the time,” Topitzes related, “so not only protecting the room while there, but making sure you clear it out afterwards.”

The most important security rule is protecting your people, which means minimizing risk at hotels, convention centers, and other venues that have emergency management plans in place. In Topitzes’ view, that encompasses everything from selecting the proper hotel, reviewing security incidents the hotel has had, understanding neighborhood safety issues, and protecting guests from personal theft by favoring hotels with room safes.

Organizers have to watch who is standing around because there are all kinds of people who will show up just to victimize attendees. That’s why organizers ask people to wear their nametags or they don’t get in.

“A common occurrence is you will have a bunch of people in room listening to a speaker, and somebody will walk into the back of room and stand there and listen to the speaker for a few minutes, and meanwhile what they have done is put their shoe around a woman’s purse, lift the purse, and walk out,” he explained. “Women will put their purse underneath their chair and if it has a strap, they will take it.”

Computer notebooks are another favorite target, and the security of your wireless network, where someone could access information in the next room, often is overlooked.

According to Janet Sperstad (Madison College), it’s not the best practice to leave nametags out on a table and let non-attendees know who is at your meeting; there will be other people at the hotel. “If you have a sensitive attendee or content, or you work with a sensitive organization, you have to be mindful of what are you putting at risk by putting everyone’s name on the marquee,” she said.

In addition, organizers have to be conscious of their food. According to Topitzes, you don’t want staff putting food out well beforehand, especially if it’s food that is supposed to be refrigerated. His preference would be 2-1/2 minutes, but a reasonable time is about a half an hour because it takes time to set up and uncover things. “If people come to your house, you would not put out something that should be refrigerated 45 minutes before your guests arrive.”

If you serve cocktails at a reception, you also should be serving some food, and if you truly are sensitive to what is going on in this world, Topitzes said drink tickets are a must. In fact, guests should receive two drink tickets to protect against legal exposure. “That will generally protect you in most lawsuits, particularly if you have a licensed bartender,” Topitzes said.

“If you have it wide open and people are going to drink as much as they want and get in their cars, and they hurt somebody, you are going to be in court defending yourself on a host case.”

Or perhaps create staff morale issues. “People say dumb things,” Topitzes noted, “when they’ve had too much to drink.”

Sign up for the free IB Update — your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices and the names you need to know. Click here.