Salman Rushdie and Complacency in the Meetings Industry

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When author Salman Rushdie was stabbed 10 times just before giving a lecture in western New York, a crucial question was raised, perhaps the only one that matters: Why was such a high-risk person so easily accessible?

Perhaps an even better question may be, “What will event organizers do to prevent something like this from happening again?”

We’ve been here before several times and the sequence is roughly the same: The accident happens, alarm is raised, authorities and event professionals take stronger precautions at events moving forward, that is, until all is forgotten and we return back to baseline with nothing really having changed.

Mass shootings, cyberattacks, contagious diseases, sickness and disease: All these occur frequently enough that they should be at the forefront of any event planner’s mind whenever an event, large or small, is held.

This isn’t to place blame at anyone’s feet; with the already chaotic nature of event planning—absent these four potentialities—it’s easy just to push these into the background, as there are simply more pressing matters at hand. And this goes beyond meeting planning. It’s a human issue.

In 1989, Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or a religious ruling, condemning  Rushdie to death as a response to one of his novels, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie went into hiding for nine years, protected by British security forces. Although he resurfaced in 1989, the fatwa remained in place. With this in mind, one would believe extra security would still be in place, just as the fatwa. The questions of the event’s dearth of security remains unanswered.

Do We Not Care?

“Humans in general are complacent,” says Alan Kleinfeld, former law enforcement officer and director of Arrive Conference Solutions, a company that specializes in event safety. “But it’s a big problem in the meetings industry.”

Kleinfeld pointed to 9/11 as one of the clearer examples. “The world flipped on its head and meetings were impacted negatively. It took a long time before people felt comfortable flying again. But once we as an industry got over the initial shock, we went back to business as usual. [There was] no more ‘see something, say something.’ Back then, had you noticed an unaccompanied backpack sitting in a lobby or airport, you’d alert the authorities. Now we don’t do that, but we should continue to.”

Read More: Beware the Public Wi-Fi Network: 6 Ways to Practice Cybersecurity While Traveling

Another example, Kleinfeld says, “After the Vegas shooting, many planners reconsidered holding outdoor events for fear of harm. That’s no longer the case. Outdoor events got a big boost by Covid, because it was safer—and probably less risky than [being a victim of] a random shooter.”

As new events present themselves and garner attention, the stories that made the headlines of every major news source slowly transform into the background noise of everyday life.

“Each type of incident is eventually overcome by another,” Kleinfeld says. Kleinfeld says the trauma and attention paid to Covid has left just about everyone not considering all the other threats. For example, while so much attention has been given to Covid, kids all over the United States have missed routine non-Covid vaccinations for diseases such as measles, rubella, mumps and polio, which, long after having been eradicated for decades, has found its way back in the U.S.

“So what will planners do?” Kleinfeld asks. “Will they require attendees to show proof, so new cases of polio don’t grow? I suspect they won’t, until it actually strikes their events.”

What’s the Solution?

“There is an answer, but it requires building new habits and some upstream thinking,” Kleinfeld says.

When new safety and sustainability measures are introduced as a response to something in the past, Kleinfeld says event profs need to keep including it. “Make it part of the planning process. [Planners] should include it in RFPs, too, so venues know the planner and their organizations take it seriously. The more this happens, the more the venues will be able to respond to it.”

Those planners who wrote duty of care/code of conduct policies for Covid [should] keep those policies in place for future meetings. This doesn’t mean it has to include masking or vaccines per se, but at least keep the general info about what the organization will do to protect the attendee and what the attendee agrees to do as a participant. This might include organizations doing something like providing hand sanitizer or asking attendees not to use offensive language [which can be found in some code of conduct policies].”

And meeting planners don’t need to do all this on their own; attempting to do so not only causes the planner to suffer by spreading themselves too thin, but attendees to suffer as well, from all aspects of the event by not having full attention placed on them. This all comes down to proper delegation.

Read MoreWhat Keeps Attendees Safe in a Pandemic and What Doesn’t

“[Delegation] is an important habit to grow. For cyber security, the planner doesn’t need to know how to write code or do programming, [they] simply need to work with someone in IT to make sure it gets done,” Kleinfeld says.

“Same with a crisis communication plan,” he adds. “The planner doesn’t have to write the plan, but they can work with the marketing/communications people to make sure one is on paper and updated before events take place. In some cases, this may mean outsourcing, already often done for AV, tradeshows and more. Adding a safety or sustainability consultant may very well pay for itself in the long run.”

Upstream thinking, which Kleinfeld says, “might be the biggest hurdle of all,” is the practice of solving problems before they happen or getting to the heart of the problem, effectively cutting off the problem’s source, as described by Dan Heath in Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen.

The book’s creation was based on the following public health parable, attributed to American medical sociologist and activist Irving Zola:

You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of a river. Suddenly you hear a shout from the direction of the water—a child is drowning. Without thinking, you both dive in, grab the child and swim to shore. Before you can recover, you hear another child cry for help. Then another struggling child drifts into sight…and another…and another.…Suddenly, you see your friend wading out of the water, seeming to leave you alone. “Where are you going?” you demand. Your friend answers, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.”

For meeting profs, getting to the root of the problem may not solve everything, but it will surely make things easier when—not if—something unexpected happens.

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