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Contingency Planning For Events: What Could Go Wrong

By Megan Gosch

By the time the now-iconic photo of one Fyre Festivalgoer’s pitiful cheese sandwich had gone viral, social media platforms and news outlets were abuzz with shock and bewilderment—questioning how the seemingly star-studded island excursion could have resulted in half-built FEMA-issued tents, cancelled musical acts and stranded attendees. But for sea- soned planners, the legendary disaster was just another in a slew of daily reminders on the impor- tance of contingency planning and the true value of the many hours spent crafting alternate options for the emergencies they hope will never come to pass. While most planners are well versed in the basic elements contingency planning, we’ve checked in with crowd and emergency management experts, local planners and law enforcement professionals to talk tips, tools and concepts for planners to keep top-of-mind when planning their next event.

Hit Refresh 
Just as custom reigns king in today’s event design, food and beverage, and décor, cookie-cutter plans won’t do in case of an emergency—a concept planners likely already know but need to dedicate more time and effort to.

“To effectively manage an issue as it arises, con- tingency plans should be unique to  that  event,”  says Crisis and Public Relations Consultant Rick J. Kaufman, APR. With over 30 years of emergency management experience, Kaufman consults with schools and organizations across the country and finds that although most clients come to him with a plan already in place, many are already years old or incomplete, requiring an audit for vulnerabilities or possible gaps in operational response.

“A solid plan should consist of elements of prevention and intervention, response and  recovery and a crisis plan. The contingency plan should also account for the needs of the client, and attendees, event activities and location specifics,” he says. “In most cases starting with a general framework is OK, but you need to get more specific and drill down from there. You need answers to big questions and that effort takes a significant amount of time.”

For some, finding enough time to plan may be the biggest challenge. “We all know planners are busy and no one has spare time on their hands, but for [contingency planning] you make time. You find a way to carve out those hours,” says Evette Pittman, supervisor of the Office of Special Events for the City of Grand Rapids. “It’s one of the most important parts of the process and you need to hit the ground running as soon as possible.”

“At the end of each  event,  we  start  working on various reports for sponsors and stakeholders, but we’re also beginning to reach out to potential event spaces for the following year,” says Derek Call, director of operations and production for ArtPrize, which produces a 19-day biennial art-focused event. “Working with such a large event, there’s no time to waste, especially if we’re hoping to experiment or try something new in the next year, we need to get working and loop in those key staff immediately.”

Team Effort 
“At their events, planners are in a unique role in that they are the most knowledgeable person in the room. They are the experts in their circumstances,” says Steven A. Adelman, an expert in safety and security at live events, head of the Adelman Law Group, PLLC and vice president of the Event Safety Alliance.

“As attendees, we tend to be anti-authoritarian when we go out to play. We don’t listen to directions or pay attention very well. We’re more concerned with who’s going to win or who’s coming out on stage or what’s the next cool display. We’re looking for our friends. We’re not looking at signage, we don’t notice exits and we probably can’t hear your PA announcements, so we’re really relying on event organizers to have the answers if anything bad happens.”

And while that may be intimidating to some, experts like Adelman and local event professionals like Andrea Trudeau, exhibit compliance  and  show floor  director for the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), agrees it’s important for planners to utilize the full strength and support of their team. Successful contingency planning relies heavily on a team approach, delegation and strong, clear communication.

“There’s just so much that needs to be taken into account, you can’t possibly do it all yourself. I’m the first wave of contact for all of our major automotive manufacturers, but I also work directly with exhibit management and marketing teams and we’re coordinating with our security team year-round. There are so many moving pieces, it has to be a team sport,” says Trudeau.

Just as planners maintain clear and consistent channels of communication with event partners, from clients and internal staff to A/V providers and custodial staff, to ensure day of production goes off without a hitch, planners must consider how contingencies can impact all involved with their events and communicate accordingly. “You don’t want to get caught flat-footed. Issues that pop up are only exacerbated when the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing,” says Kaufman. “Everyone needs to know where direction is coming from, what their roles are and who is responsible for what, and they need to be adequately trained to take on those roles. Any confusion on those expectations can slow down response time and cause more distress or panic.”

TCF Center General Manager Claude Molinari puts these tenets into action throughout the year, ensuring each mem- ber of his team receives safety and secu- rity training annually to keep contingency procedures top of mind. “Having a strong, extensive network involved in crisis manage- ment is important. Using the plan frequently throughout the year keeps everyone alert and well trained,” says Molinari. “Clear communication on roles and responsibilities with all staff is most important. In a true crisis situ- ation, elaborate plans may be rendered inef- fective. Evacuation routes and identified rally points are critical to the recovery process.”

And in most cases, successful communication and training should extend beyond the core internal team. “In addition to our full-time staff we work with a volunteer pool of approximately 800. We need to make sure each of them has the tools they might need and knows what to do in an emergency,” says Call. “We disperse emergency action plans, give everyone time to review, and attend staff meetings and volunteer orientations to help answer any questions they may have. As a crucial part of our event, they need to be in the loop.”

Questions are Key 

“Really, when it comes down to it, contingency planning is all about asking good questions,” says Adelman. When crafting a thorough contingency plan, planners may turn to local law enforcement and emer- gency responder professionals for help, “and that’s a great place to start but there needs to be more of a dialogue.”
“No matter how much time I might spend with a client, I’m never going to be as knowledgeable about their event as they are. I do know where things tend to go wrong and I know what the existing guidance is to help mitigate some of those risks. Experts may know enough about human psychology or a specific security issue, but planners need to take what they’ve learned from those con- versations and adapt it to their events. The better and more specific the questions, the better prepared they’ll be,” Adelman says.

Kaufman concurs, noting “your plan can only be strengthened by the answers you’ve gathered along the way. What are the hazards to your event? Are they geographical? Are they intentional? Will dig- nitaries attend? Will alcohol be served? Who will provide the security and what are they responsible for? What time will doors open? What time does the event end? Which exits and entrances will be used? Your questions will range from broad high-level to the minute detail, but this is a time you don’t want to hold back. It can sound elementary, but understanding that questions like these are your tools can be powerful and keep you prepared.”

Big Picture
Unfortunately, while man-made hazards and acts of violence continue to dominate news cycles and loom as a potential threat throughout the event planning process, experts worry planners may begin to miss the forest for the trees with less attention paid to other likely risks.
“The inclination is to react to what we see in the headlines. We have far too many instances of active shooters, so we pay a disproportionate amount of our attention to guns relative to the likelihood that we will have a gun-related incident at our event,” says Adelman. From the placement of direc- tional signage and seating or stage setup to the event of a flood or an attendee health or medical emergency, “we need to be able to deal with crowd management apart from active shooters because crowd management must be done regardless of the reason the crowd needs to be managed. This can get us out of the trap of thinking only of guns.” Kaufman also advises planners to focus on the task at hand when planning for the worst case scenario—the response. “We often focus too much on the threat and less on the response specific to that emer- gency. ‘Active shooter’ may be the buzzword these days, but any number of threats could emerge that require a similar response protocol,” he says. “The reality is it’s about responding to situations we don’t have all of the info for. I counsel clients to concentrate on and practice drills using consistent proto- cols to create cultural conditions so that they know what to do in a real-world situation.”]

In consideration of the potential for violence at live events, Adelman also notes planning for substance as well as percep- tion. “The fear of acts of violence is far more widespread than the acts of violence themselves, but addressing perception can enhance attendee confidence. Obviously you want to have the basics—security perimeters like a physical fence or use of bollards and a check of guests and their bags at the point of ingress, wayfinding sig- nage and clear directions to exits—because visual deterrents not only help prevent bad behavior, they provide a sense of confidence to guests. In the past, uniformed security guards might have caused alarm, but these days when they see security, guests are more likely to think ‘great, they’re considering our safety,’” says Adelman.

On the Radar
While active shooters may be one of the most concerning threats facing today’s live events, experts advise planners also keep issues like cyber security and climate change in mind.
“Climate change should be on everyone’s radar and may actually impact the live event industry disproportionately due to the number of events that take place outside of brick-and-mortar venues. As our climate becomes less stable, we have an increased potential for severe weather evacuations, underscoring the importance of having a severe weather action plan. Planners will need to stress site planning as well as access to accurate weather infor- mation (hint: Your cell phone app is not a reliable source of GPS-located weather information),” says Adelman.

“Issues like climate change are going to have a greater impact on events and lead to further disruptions in the industry, but today’s political climate also poses a threat. As we begin to see more cases of protest and civil unrest … planners need to begin to plan for politically-motivated issues as well,” says Kaufman.

Power in Planning
Most importantly, although the complex process of contingency planning  may be nerve-wracking at times, Adelman encourages planners to embrace the power that the practice can bring planners.

“Understanding crowd management and contingency planning gives people— regardless of age, skill set, education level or expertise—helpful things they can do in an emergency that are within their power,” says Adelman. “Being told to stand in a corner and wait for further instruction— that’s disempowering. But when you break things like an evacuation plan for severe weather or finding back-up entertainment for an artist that can’t perform down into fairly simple, easily achievable elements, there’s something everyone can do to help solve a problem and to help keep people safe—that’s empowering.


Tools of the Trade
While the ideal combination of guides, web-
sites and services will vary by event, local planners and industry experts have recommended a few of their go-to tools:

  • American National  Standards  Institute (ANSI): A private not-for-profit organization fostering national safeguarding standards for a range of industries, including the field of safety and security. ANSI will publish a new Crowd Management standard in early 2020 to provide planners with key questions and authoritative crowd management guidance for planning safe and secure events.
  • Event Safety Alliance: Dedicated to helping event professionals mitigate foreseeable live event risks through education, skills train- ing and advocacy, this nonprofit creates resources for planners like its Event Safety Podcast (an ongoing discussion for ideas and news from the world of live event safe- ty), Event Safety Access Training (an online program for professionals in all aspects of event production), and “The Event Safety Guide,” the country’s first published safety guidance manual created specifically for the live event industry. The Guide compiles relevant safety standards, insight from industry experts and reasonable operational practices regarding emergency planning, weather preparedness and more.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service: The national organization provides weather, water and climate information for the general public, but can also help plan- ners prepare for hazardous conditions that may put attendees in harm’s way. Planners can register their event with the organiza- tion’s local branch for assistance with accurate day-of forecasting.
  • National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4): As one of the world’s leading academic research institu- tions in addressing sports safety and secu- rity risks and threats and offers planners a variety of online resources, best practice guides and more.

Tips from the Pros
Bethanie Fisher, special events and film administrator for the City of Detroit’s Special Events & Film Office and Evette Pittman, supervisor of the City of Grand Rapids’ Office of Special Events share their tips for successful community and public sector relationship-building.

  • It’s never too early: “Even if you’re not the person who will take the event from start to finish, or you don’t have approving power, as soon as an idea comes up email me and we’ll figure out what needs to happen next. I’d prefer an early notice to a late application any day,” Fisher says.
  • Make an appearance: “For us, in-person meetings are huge. That’s what builds relationships, so when there’s an issue, the process will be much smoother because you’re working through it with people you know and trust,” says Pittman.
  • Be neighborly: “We want our planners to be good neighbors. We ask that they dedicate time to community  notifica- tion, whether that’s sending out an email or a flyer or going door-to-door to fill in the people and businesses that could be impacted. We’ve also found it’s a great way to market your event and boost atten- dance,” says Pittman.
  • In the loop: “In Detroit, we’ve got a small team, so we may not always be able to meet, but we’re a one-stop shop and my departments trust my word. If anything pops up and planners can keep me informed, I can keep that process running smoothly and make it easier to get the approval they’ll need,” says Fisher.
  • Honesty is the best policy: “Be honest. Be honest about your goals, what you want your event to be, how you see each element coming in to play. We’ve had producers downplay their events in the past, but we’re ready and open to discussing new ideas, and we can’t help if we don’t have the full picture,” says Fisher.
  • Study up: “In most cities, the resources are out there to help planners through this process. We  have  an amazing planning resource guide online that’s a great starting point for planners, but in Grand Rapids we also offer a free one-day course that covers everything you’d need to know to host an event on public property in our city,” says Pittman. “Planners learn about everything from an overview of the permit application process to recruiting volunteers and sponsors, and it’s taught by one of the city’s most experienced planners so we know attendees will take that training to heart.”
  • Find a mentor: “I’m always ready to guide planners through our pro- cess, but I also try to connect especially first-time planners to some of the city’s key producers with a vast working knowledge of the process. They can give a clear view of what they’ll need to know and can offer perspective having been through it all,” says Fisher.