Meeting Mentor Magazine

March 2023

Emergency Planning

Public Venues Share Valuable Lessons
After Facing Civil Demonstrations

Most groups don’t think about public demonstrations or “civil unrest” when they craft an emergency plan. So heed some smart best practices and lessons learned from panelists during a recent International Association of Venue Managers webinar. (Click here to access the full webinar for free.)

From Leslee Steward, general manager, Paramount Theatre, Oakland, Calif.:
“There are situations you can’t prepare for and must use your intuition.” She determined that the best course of action in response to an active demonstration during the East Bay Symphony opening night was to “pretend we’re not here.” All the lights were turned off outside and the doors briefly locked. The Oakland police department knew 3,000 people were inside, but demonstrators did not, so “they kept going” past the theater. Then the doors were unlocked. “There was no need to alarm the audience. Everyone had a job to do, and we all worked together as a team.”

From Allen Johnson, CFE, CPM, executive director, Amway Center, Orlando, Fla.:
Early inbound intelligence from social media and local police, and outbound communication via social media are critical. A “rally” was set to start a few hours prior to an Orlando Magic game. “What we didn’t know were the number of protesters, length of the protest, or if it would be peaceful or combative.” Entrances were changed and staff repositioned. Patrons were notified on social media to “expect heavy delays when navigating to parking locations.” As a result, most of the 14,000 people going to the game that night “didn’t even see the protest,” which dispersed peacefully.

From Adina Erwin, vice president and general manager, Fox Theatre, Atlanta:
A crisis communication plan is key. The theater team had established a protocol with local police ahead of time for text alerts about demonstrators in the vicinity. In this case, they were headed towards the theater when most of 4,400 patrons were already inside for a concert. The incident command team (department heads) went into “civil disturbance mode.” The “die-in” by demonstrators at the theater’s arcade was short, and they soon moved on. A crisis communication plan isn’t only for essential radio traffic with public safety agencies. “Two or three people should be identified to speak to the media should they come on premises.” And every emergency plan should cover “shelter in place” and “evacuation” scenarios.

More best practices:
Develop relationships in advance. Reach out to first responders and have conversations with venues. You don’t want to meet them the day a civil disturbance is planned to take place.

Formulate response and recovery plans. Make sure all staff are trained and know the rules of engagement. Understand when a venue will step back, when it will get the local police involved, when it will have to shut down. Then, have a plan to get back up and running. And if your venue stages periodic triage scenarios, take part and practice what may happen.

Identify an alternate leader in charge. In the case of the Fox Theatre, the manager on duty had to hold doors closed, which meant he couldn’t hear the radio and didn’t know what was going on inside or outside the venue. Since he couldn’t leave that post to manage the venue’s response to a demonstration, he needed an alternate. Since then, one is identified for every show there.

Support a non-aggressive, low-profile approach. Instead of SWAT gear, the Orlando police department used bicycle officers. In Atlanta, uniformed police downplayed their presence as they walked along with protesters, while units shadowed the march one block east and west, should it turn violent. These efforts kept protests from escalating. — Maxine Golding

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