Averting potential disaster
With any large event comes the potential for disaster, and Hong Kong's event organisers, planners and venue providers are no strangers to crises.
As the onslaught of Typhoon Vicente in Hong Kong in July showed, a lack of preparation can be fatal to organisations that wish to keep their reputations intact.
Crisis management has become a key concern for any group planning a big event. History has taught many event participants to expect the worst and hope for the best.
Catherine Ho, who heads the sales and marketing department at Audace International, an organiser of wedding expos in Hong Kong, recalls 2003 as the city's worst crisis.
"We had exhibitors not willing to join us during the Sars [severe acute respiratory syndrome] outbreak," she recalls.
The expo's largest exhibitor was not prepared to come to Hong Kong during the outbreak. "We had an emergency plan. We found some sponsors for masks, cleaning and hygiene," Ho says.
The event went ahead as planned - minus the anchor exhibitor. Charlie Lau, account officer at TG Events, which engages in event-management design, fabrication and exhibitions, says typhoons are usually the biggest cause of events being cancelled or rescheduled.
There is usually notice from the Hong Kong Observatory of at least two hours before a major signal is hoisted, enabling conference planners to determine whether an event has to be scrapped.
"Normally, we have time to warn guests if the event is to keep going or be cancelled. The guests for our clients are most important," Lau explains.
Event planners must then scramble to store the equipment, which involves finding space. It helps to have warehouse facilities at your fingertips.
Monica Lee-Muller, managing director of Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (Management), says it pays to have high levels of preparedness.
Her company is the professional private management company of the Wan Chai-based exhibition centre. A committee meets every month to recommend any procedural changes and training upgrades to safety and emergency measures. It also reviews actual cases and organises drills.
When Typhoon Vicente hit the city during the Hong Kong Book Fair on July 23, steps were taken to mitigate the effects of the storm hours before the Hong Kong Observatory issued its two-hour warning. "At the time, thousands of exhibitors and visitors, many of them young children, were inside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre," Lee-Muller explains. Crowd management and customer-service plans were put into action.
Her advice to event organisers is to have a clear policy and contingency communications plan in place. "Close communication with the event organisers during the planning stage and events is critical," she stresses.
John Macpherson, Hong Kong manager of crisis management and security consulting company Control Risks Group, believes thinking ahead is crucial.
The company handles large events such as annual general meetings and trade fairs, particularly those involving jewellery or antiques. At the latter, theft is a huge risk factor. "Our role is very much to do a lot of planning, and it's about understanding what threats are out there," Macpherson says. Assessing the type of event is paramount. Where events may involve precious goods or other expensive items, an organiser should know what kind of criminals may turn up. Once an assessment has been made, appropriate security measures can be put in place, from CCTV and other electronic surveillance to constructing physical impediments to crime, such as glass cases around objects or other barriers.
Resources then have to be worked out, notably how many security personnel are required and where the exit points will be. Another factor to consider is getting the display items from A to B. "The more common risk to manage is when all the goods are in transit," Macpherson explains.
Even where there are not items of high value on display, pickpocketing is something event planners have to think about, even in a city such as Hong Kong with its low crime rate.
"If you think about a big exhibition hall with a lot of people, just monitoring for theft can be very difficult," Macpherson says. "Criminals can be very clever. If they really want to do something, they will find a way." Evacuations are also something planners should prepare for, Macpherson stresses.
"If you need to evacuate for fire, or an infrastructure failure, where you have a large crowd of people, how safely can you evacuate the building, then maintain protection of the group?" he says. Macpherson's major advice for event planners or venue providers is to have detailed scenario planning. This means thinking about the worst-case scenarios and devising worst-case plans.
"Also, don't underestimate the logistical challenges of a big event," he says.