Come on, tell the truth: Have you watched a major sporting event or a concert or parade on television lately and thought: What if a terrorist is lurking in the crowd?" That nagging worry is affecting a lot of people these days, says PR and marketing instructor Linda Hamburger. "The sense of agoraphobia and the fear of open spaces and being in crowded, public places is on the rise," she says.
So what to do if your business is organizing an event or helping to plan an industry conference this year? What if you make your living in the trade-show or event-management business? Hamburger, who works for Miami-based special-event planner M.E. Productions, offered these tips recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein.
Q: How hard is it to attract a crowd to your event these days?
A:It's difficult even in good times to get a crowd for a special event. But right now, people are becoming more fearful of leaving what they perceive as a safe place. With the current uneasiness over escalating gas prices, terrorism threats, and the economic slump, the trend to hibernate is growing.
Q: What if your job and the success of your event is based on getting certain attendance? Is there anything you can do about it?
A:First off, don't ignore the current headlines. The media does influence public opinion and to conduct business as usual in unusual times may be short-sighted. While you don't want to feed into public hype or overplay a sense of doom and gloom, it's best to acknowledge the fact that people are traveling less and sticking closer to home.
Q: Can you give some specific ideas as to what might help?
A:Here are some things people can do to help compensate in these difficult times:
• Consider choosing a second-tier city for your event -- maybe Tampa, for example. People may feel more comfortable traveling someplace that's not considered a prime target for terrorists.
• Set up your company's meeting or conference as a regional, rather than national, event. If attendees can take a train or chartered bus rather than flying and make their travel part of the event, the idea of attending may be more appealing. Stop in different areas for meetings, meals, and site visits along the way.
• Think about teleconferencing rather than meeting in person. This option is a good adjunct activity, although it doesn't really replace all the functions of a conference, trade show, or site meeting. Teleconferencing is not as rewarding for those attending and can't replace the interaction that people receive from in-person site events. It may, however, provide a feasible short-term solution for certain business activities, like a report from the CEO, CFO, or chairperson.
• Hire a professional security company, independent of your designated hotel or conference center, and pay for extra uniformed staff so you get a highly visible security presence at all your events.
• Set up links with the home front. Give attendees' families emergency contact information for the event on laminated cards, and give attendees additional emergency instructions to follow in case problems occur locally. It may sound alarmist, but going the extra mile shows that the parent company really cares about its employees and their families.
• While attendees are on site, distribute phone cards and make sure the hotel is wired for high-speed Internet connections so people can keep in touch with their offices and homes. Consider a satellite phone system in case of emergencies.
Q: Is it difficult to persuade businesses not to cancel their events, given this climate?
A:Sometimes. We're seeing fewer companies and industries planning meetings. But domestic travel remains high, especially to our main market in Florida.
A good idea is to remind business owners and industry organizers that during economic downtown and times of concern, it is important for companies to keep their employee morale high.
Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who specializes in covering covered entrepreneurship and small-business issues