by Esther Faith Lew | October 06, 2015

The bomb went off in the middle of a popular tourist attraction at about 7pm local time. It was crowded with locals and tourists.

It was meant to inflict maximum damage. The Erawan Shrine in Bangkok could have been the venue for a group of visiting delegates.

Guests staying at nearby Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel would have been affected. Shoppers at Amarin Plaza would have been affected. This attack reflects the current backdrop of political instability, even amidst popular tourist destinations and venues. It reminded us that travellers need to be prepared for emergencies while overseas.

Rotary International went to Bangkok well prepared for its 2014 annual convention. They had over 33,000 attendees. They enlisted the help of iJET International, a leading provider of integrated risk management solutions. "We provided pre- and post-event updates on the security and political situation, performed site inspections and gave a security review of the venue to our client. Based on our data, we then designed an evacuation plan that included transportation collection points. We also set up a broadcast text system to provide emergency information to leadership and staff," says Bruce McIndoe, CEO of iJET International.

But for planners who may be faced with the decision of cancelling or going ahead with their events in the aftermath of an attack, it may sometimes not be in the best interest of the organisation to cancel. This, however, goes against the instinctive flight response of our sympathetic nervous system. Sound advice from a risk management professional would be crucial in making an informed decision in the best interest of the company and its employees.

"In the case of the Erawan bombing, we advised that travel could continue but with some restrictions. On the evening of the attack, we advised clients to minimise movement in central Bangkok. We did not advise our clients to leave Bangkok. However, several did based on their own risk tolerance. Many clients restricted movement around Bangkok and also shortened events in order to reduce their exposure," says Grant Strudwick, regional security director, Asia Pacific of International SOS and Control Risks. Ultimately, meetings planners have to weigh many factors before making a call; if their delegates are showing signs of emotional distress, they may have to pull the plug even if a risk management company was able to contain and manage the risk factors.

While this may have been a tough call it allowed meetings planners the option of going ahead. The scenario may not be as flexible for someone who does not have a risk management plan. This is a scenario that McIndoe anticipates and which warrants a bugle call in the meetings industry. "One of our biggest hurdles is to educate the meetings industry that risks are everywhere globally. It's important for the safety and security of event staff and attendees, as well as for the financial integrity of your organisation to have a preparedness plan, especially concerning reliable communication during a crisis. Otherwise, one may make costly and risky reactive approaches," McIndoe emphasises.

Echoing this sentiment was Franck Baron, group general manager, risk management and insurance of International SOS, who says: "A key challenge we face is the gap between the perception and reality of health and security risks in destinations. It is the inherent nature of humans to have a cognitive bias known as optimism bias. This is the tendency to over-estimate favourable outcomes in situations for ourselves and believe that we are less at risk of encountering a negative event than others." 

Although statistics may show that one is more likely to encounter a motorcar accident than a terrorist attack, the severity and extent of an attack is far more serious and comes with crippling effects on the environment and economy. The number of lives that could be lost is an overwhelming repercussion as well. Considering the unstable political climates in the world, unpredictable events are occurring with alarming frequency.

Baron shared that during the 2013 Egyptian coup d'état and 2001 September 11 attacks, they had clients who were uninformed about the escalating status of risks on the ground. This led them to develop TravelTracker, which helps organisations to take immediate action during a crisis by identifying travellers at risk and facilitating communications with them via an integrated email and optional SMS system. He added that the latest statistics from their organisation's 27 global Assistance Centres have shown there is a clear return on investment for clients who manage risks effectively and have a proper risk management programme in place. "Over the past three years, the number of travellers using medical and travel security pre- trip advisories is up by nearly 30 percent, with 90 percent of TravelTracker clients now using this service," says Baron. 

Sometimes, impromptu announcements such as that of elections pose potential threats as well. For one corporation that was organising an event in Istanbul for over 800 participants, they knew they had to re-assess the situation, especially since the hotel for the event was near a park frequently used as a protest site. McIndoe shared that their holistic risk management approach allowed the client to: assess the likelihood of civil unrest and its level of impact; regain the confidence to carry on with the event; prepare handouts on safety and security concerns for participants; and develop alternative transportation routes for offsite events. A clear understanding led to a focused plan, allowing the client to manage risk factors without incurring heavy costs of relocating or cancelling the event.

With so many tangible factors to consider in that long checklist for organising successful meetings and events, attending to the invisible "what ifs" of risk management sometimes slips through the cracks. This challenge highlights one of the key takeaway messages in this discussion about risk management - that duty of care extends beyond the responsibility of just the meetings planner. It should ideally be an organisation-wide initiative with a collaborative team sitting down together to plan contingencies for their people. Ultimately, managing risk is akin to managing staff welfare, and organisations with a sterling track record in both enjoy cost efficiency and increased productivity that impact their bottom line in a positive manner.