31 March, 2023, 03:47

Anticipating the Unknowable: A Q&A with Dr. Larry Barton on Risk Mitigation Strategies

As a threat and risk consultant for more than 30 years who has worked with the U.S. Justice Department, over 140 Fortune 500 companies (including Disney), and, yes, Benchmark, Dr. Larry Barton’s job is to predict the unpredictable. He thinks about the things that you probably aren’t thinking about and works to educate people on how to head off a crisis before it hits in an increasingly unpredictable world – and, how to respond in a composed way when it hits anyway.

In this comprehensive Q&A, Dr. Barton sheds light on some of the common risk mitigation strategies and mistakes in corporate event planning, how to handle an unruly attendee, what to do in the event of a natural or emergency event, why transportation is so overlooked, what makes Benchmark stand apart from its peers in terms of corporate risk management, and why he considers meeting professionals “magicians.”

When we think about organizing meetings, so often the focus is on scheduling, food and beverage, tech, venue, etc. Why are trust and safety so important in the planning process?

Planners by nature are incredibly optimistic. They have to be hyper-organized and anticipate everything going well. That’s why they’re so obsessive and excellent at what they do. The flip side is that there are circumstances where a situation can create a genuine PR crisis for a property. That’s why, before the event, the planner should ask what could go wrong, and how can I mitigate that risk? Everyone has a horror story in their career – but the more we can push it out to the future, the better.

What are some of the common mistakes that you see?

Oftentimes, a planner has such a reliance on their staff and contractors – because maybe they delivered for them with precision on prior jobs – that it may not strike them that a person could have an accident or a screw-up. Or maybe they think that the facilities manager or the municipality would come running to their aid in the event of a tornado. Other people can let you down, but nature can surprise you, too. Sometimes, it’s a hostile guest. The point isn’t to create paranoia, but to do your best to build in smart risk mitigation. If you keep the property name out of the headlines, your career will be pretty error-free.

But how can you anticipate the unknowable?

Event planners are magicians. Part of the magic is that people don’t see their incredible gifts. When it comes to risk, the best planners I know are more open before the event. There’s nothing more critical than the pre-event huddle. This is where some of the issues that typically don’t come up, should come up. For example, if a guest gets unruly or violent, which physically fit man or woman on your staff could intervene before law enforcement arrives? That sort of thing isn’t on the checklist of most event planners. You can’t necessarily anticipate the unknowable, but you have to think about the uncomfortable.

What do you do to plan for something as unpredictable as a natural disaster, things that event planners know all too well in recent years?

A checklist is always useful. It’s not always a natural disaster, though. When the shooting in Mandalay Bay happened, there were a lot of corporate events going on that Sunday night. Or it could be a chemical spill down the street. Or there could be a hostage situation in a retail space near your event. In that case, police could lock the event down. Imagine having 400 guests at a meeting, and nobody can leave. That responsibility of addressing the crowd won’t fall to the GM or the president of the tech company – it’ll fall on the event planner. In those situations, it’s on you to calm people down, and it can have a huge lasting effect. People could walk away saying, “This was managed with grace and class.” Or, they could say it was a total disaster. If event planners even spend an hour at some point thinking about what they would say in that situation, both to their crew and to guests, it can reduce anxiety and fallout by 80 or 90 percent. That’s something I train event planners on – how to grab the mic in a way that’s reassuring.

What are some of the questions a planner should always remember to ask themselves before an event?

1.) Do I have a crisis plan?
2.) Have I assigned specific roles to my staff in case a disaster occurs, whether an attendee has a seizure or there’s an altercation?
3.) Considering the local 911 would get jammed, what are the hot numbers that I could use in case of an emergency?
4.) What happens if our transportation falls through?

Transportation is one you haven’t mentioned, yet.

1 in 63 busses that run from Orlando International Airport to Port Canaveral Cruise Port fail. It’s so embarrassing to have a bus go down when you have a CEO on board, a salesperson getting recognized, the entertainment – whoever. You have to consider a contingency, or it will smack you in the face. You can’t call 90 Ubers. Have a bus company on hot standby. Think it out, but don’t be paranoid. Call an alternative bus company before the event, and say, “We’d like to set up a backup plan with you. Would you happen to have one or two busses open in case this happens?” If they need a $200 deposit, I’d rather spend that, and have them on a short call, then have 60 angry event attendees in the searing sun in Mexico.

How do you handle it when someone on your team makes a critical mistake at an event?

You have to know your staff. You know your heroes, and you know those who may be juggling three jobs and really struggling to keep up. Sometimes, it means saying, ‘I don’t think you’re ready for this one. I’ll pay you, but I want you to be back of the house.’ You want to be really compassionate and really smart. Last month, I was a keynote speaker at an event, and one of the techs had an attitude. He was belligerent, throwing things on the ground, having outbursts at the staff, all of it. I had to turn to the planner and say, ‘I just want you to know that I don’t think he’s ready for this.’ She was so appreciative and said that this wasn’t the first time, and he was sent home. You have to handle it with compassion, but you also need a strong radar and address issues as soon as you spot them.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of substance abuse at banquets, too. So many of these people are working 2 or 3 jobs, doing their best to manage their relationships and/or kids at home. It’s a hard life. You need to be conscious of how your people are and check in with each and every one – take a minute to say good morning, good night, how are you? That little check can give you a sense of alcohol on the breath, but also just overall demeanor and wellbeing, too. There’s a reason why a pilot on a plane goes through a checklist preflight. Diligence leads to success.

Benchmark has a comprehensive Crisis Communication Plan which is consistently reinforced with our properties – what else sets this company apart from others in terms of prioritizing safety and security?

It starts at the top. It’s rare to see a CEO of a hospitality company, like Alex [Cabañas], sit in every session and pay attention to every speaker each year when he convenes with his properties. I notice it every year. He and his team care deeply about their people and they have a focus on mental wellness and life balance, which, in a business of numbers and events and rooms, is rare.

Every year, I’m invited to be a keynote speaker at the Executive Development Program for Hospitality and Gaming Executives. Think about it: They could be talking about design, architecture, lighting efficiency, new innovations in bars, all that cool stuff – and they do – but they always maintain a session with me on risk management. What’s happening at the properties? How do we keep our people safe? How about our guests safe? I think about it like continuing education, like doctors and lawyers have to go through, since they’re engaged in a practice involved in personal wellbeing or public safety. The same is true at Benchmark. A lot of their peers will do it after a disaster, when the roof caves in or there’s a Salmonella outbreak, but this company innovates and gets ahead of the potential disasters before they happen.

Looking a few years down the line, how will this conversation evolve in the future?

We have to look outside the United States. When you look at Sri Lanka and that horrible Easter Sunday where churches were attacked, three luxury hotels were attacked, too. Only one – the Shangri-La – had a crisis plan that worked. A message was up on their website immediately, outlining what to do if you had a close friend or family member at the property, what to do if you have an upcoming corporate event there, who to call with questions, etc. I intend to applaud them for their response for many years to come. I’m looking into their exact response now. We should assume there’ll be more random acts of violence at corporate events because they’re very soft targets, no different from a house of worship. We’ll see more individuals engaged in activism and unexpected protests, maybe representing a union or special interest group, that’ll be disruptive. You need to think of crowd control and managing that person with grace as best as possible.

Event planners reportedly have one of the highest-stress jobs in the world. How do you view their role, especially considering the potential for things to go really wrong?

I think the event planner is one of the most critical and under-appreciated members of the property team, and I love that Benchmark really celebrates them. I hope they’re not paranoid, but they should never assume it’ll all go well. We all have that one day that we’ll be best remembered for, and I’d like for them to be remembered for managing it with care and grace, as opposed to falling prey to chaos.