Have Planners Learned From the Las Vegas Tragedy?

By Marc Boisclair, July 17, 2018

When Jon Trask first got wind of last October’s Las Vegas shootings, he was stunned. “There’s obviously the shock and craziness of it,” says Trask, CMP, CMM, president of Strategic Meeting Tech in Orange, California.

Like millions of other Americans, he followed the endless news updates on the gunman, holed up on the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, and his 59 victims attending a country music festival below. “I have friends in Vegas, one of whom could hear the sirens and shots from his house,” says Trask, a 30-year meetings industry veteran and longtime live music fan. (He’s seen Bruce Springsteen some 40 times.)

When the shock began to subside, Trask started thinking more about the bigger picture and how such a horrific situation could have happened. Remembering the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed 100 people in 2003, Trask had a sense of deja vu. “It was the same feeling,” he says. “What could have been done differently? What were these people thinking—or were they thinking at all?”

It Does Happen Here

No doubt many people were pondering those questions—and others—in the wake of the Vegas shootings.

Only a year earlier, in Manchester, England, and Paris, similar tragedies played out at large group events, resulting in extensive injuries and loss of life. In those instances, security experts have examined what happened before, during and immediately after the violence occurred, and considered what might have been prevented or done better.

They appreciate the daunting challenges of deterring and intercepting an act of violence, as well as mitigating the damage once it’s occurred. But those experts also agree that what happened in Vegas won’t be limited to Vegas. Many groups fall far short of having a serious plan in place to deal with such incidents, they say, or, worse yet, refuse to consider that it could happen to them.

“The active-shooter world is one of the most difficult to deal with,” says Harold Hansen, CFE, principal and managing partner of Venue Management Consultants Group in Chicago.

Hansen, who also sits on the board of the Event Safety Alliance, says after Paris and Manchester it was only a matter of time before a similar incident happened stateside. He’s concerned the Vegas shooting has not been a sufficient enough reality check for some planners.

“‘It’s not going to happen here. Why would a terrorist want to hurt someone in Fargo, Fort Wayne or Kalamazoo?’ is a fundamental belief of many people in the industry,” says Hansen. He emphasizes that people don’t recognize that while the probability of a bombing or shooting is small, it’s still possible.

For those who won’t acknowledge that possibility, being unprepared if something does happen can be overwhelming. “The problem then becomes that you are not ready to hear the gunshot because you haven’t thought about it,” he says.

Most active-shooter situations last five to seven minutes, he says, with the police typically arriving once the shooting’s stopped. “That makes the event manager the immediate responder,” says Hansen. “You need to know what you should do, and that means you have to have thought about it beforehand.”

Plan For Security

That lack of forethought has troubled others in the meeting world, including MPI President and CEO Paul Van Deventer, who has expressed concern over reports that many planners don’t have a solid emergency preparedness plan ready to go. “It’s crazy; we work in a soft-target environment,” he says. “That’s the reality.”

Van Deventer felt strongly enough about it to form an ongoing alliance with the University of Mississippi’s National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security last year. Its first effort, a certificate-level emergency preparedness course for MPI members, debuted at the World Education Congress last summer in Las Vegas—just weeks before the shootings.

For former FBI agent Gary Gardner, the Las Vegas attack represented a “paradigm shift” in terrorist tactics in the United States.

“Active shooters generally have been at ground level, not shooting from an elevated platform down into a crowd of people,” he says. Gardner, CEO of TotalAccess in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a security consultant for NCS4, says that style of attack has not been seen here since 1966, when Charles Whitman shot and killed several students from the University of Texas at Austin’s clock tower. It serves as a reminder to the meetings and hospitality industry that any tall buildings, including hotels, are fair game for gunmen.

Gardner urges all planners to form a risk assessment group well in advance of an event (see next page) and engage local law enforcement officials, as well as other authorities, in the process. “I don’t think it’s in the nature of what planners have been used to doing,” he says.

He also warns that while hoteliers, venue managers, transit firms and other hospitality vendors should participate in a group’s risk assessment team, planners should not rely solely on those vendors to supply their event safety. “Assuming somebody else is doing something for your own security is a bad safety net,” says Gardner.

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Playing It Safe

Preparing for a potential emergency shouldn’t mean being overwhelmed by the process. The National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at the University of Mississippi offers clients a handy preparedness checklist that, with the help of NCS4 Director Dr. Lou Marciani, we’ve adjusted for meeting and event planners in particular.

  • Form a Risk Management Unit. Put together an evaluation group to help determine the baseline risks of your event. Members should include, but not be limited to, your own planning staff, hoteliers, the convention center and local fire, law enforcement and emergency medical services.

  • Meet with organizers and stakeholders. Have your RMU meet with the essential folks who’ll be engaged at the event—e.g., board, C-suite and sports teams reps, as well as caterers, transportation firms and other big vendors—and hold a pre-event meeting at least nine months before the event.

  • Make a site map. Determine where everything—and everyone—should be located in terms of emergency and crisis plans. Use a floor plan software program and lay things out, then print it out for your RMU and key event staffers.

  • Assess vulnerabilities. Conduct a walk-/talk-through survey of your meeting site to determine what areas leave you vulnerable. Make a checklist of potential dangers—unsecured doors, questionable name badges, lax loading dock security—and then review and make improvements.

  • Develop a safety staff chart. Put together a flowchart of your staff in terms of their emergency authority, specific assignments and responsibilities and key communication protocols.

  • Know your resources. Specifically, determine and account for your security in terms of finances, physical assets (e.g., badges, metal detectors, two-way radios) and personnel for staffing.

  • Create a crowd control plan. Organize your room and building evacuation routes by foot, noting regular and emergency exit signs and where transportation such as buses, trolleys, taxis and cars await attendees.

  • Do a dry run. Conduct training and exercises that allow people to practice their specific emergency roles. Hold a follow-up discussion to determine what worked, what vulnerabilities remain, and any corrections or adjustments that still need to be made.

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