Creative Responses To Curveballs Averted Disaster At This International Event

Creative Responses To Curveballs Averted Disaster At This International Event

© Written by Philip CURLEWIS CHSIII CFE, Chief Consultant MSS 


Curveballs are common in protective security.  They range from minor, such as the boss wants to get out of the hotel for a late-night McDonalds visit, to critical like the one described here when interference by self-serving government officials nearly shut down a major international event.

Mitigating “official” interference would normally be outside the security domain.  Customarily, a company’s executives would manage delicate issues of this kind.  This time, in addition to outsider curveballs, the client threw their own curveball at the protection team leaders and asked them to intervene.  The solutions instigated averted disaster, and in turn built a trusted relationship with client.

A Really Big Show

A major global brand of high-end luxury goods held this annual event to announce and showcase its new products.  It was their premier gala of the year, and extravagant.

Attendance was by invitation only and the carefully crafted guest list of more than 2,500, included VIP customers, Asian royalty, very high net worth individuals, “A-List” international celebrities, and the media.  Due to the guest list, the need for protective security was extraordinary.

Security Preparation

The event site was one of the 2008 Olympic venues in Beijing about six months after the Olympics. It had been well-maintained and had not deteriorated in any way since the Olympics. This was its first use for a private function.

The work included:

Threat assessment – There were no direct or indirect threats whether perceived or actual.

Security assessment – The team developed a security plan which the client accepted.  It was then presented to the relevant government departments for their approval, and they did.

Fire, Health and Safety Assessment – The client and relevant government departments signed off on the guides to action and operation orders, that were requested as a part of the event and venue use licensing process

Transportation and Traffic Management – The transportation operation would convey the 2,500 guests, celebrities, staff, and media to the venue in a timely manner according to a pre-planned schedule; parking of vehicles (buses, mini-buses, 7-seater cars, and limousines); and the pick-up and departure process.

The plan also involved and required approval from the local traffic police as public roads were involved. The traffic police signed off and agreed to assign officers to control some junctions and oversee the drop-off points in a monitoring role unless an issue developed. The police Official overtime wages were then paid in advance.

On the day of the event, however, no traffic police appeared.  The protection team quickly deployed their own uniformed agents to take control of the junctions and direct traffic.  The agents were equipped with high-visibility vests and traffic control wands.

Everything went as planned.

Medical Coverage – First Aid capability was set up based on the teams assessed needs for the event and in compliance with local rules, approved, and no issues occurred.

Protective Operations for designated VIPs, and “A-List” international and Asian celebrities – Plans were developed, implemented, and actioned.  In advance of event night, all protective operations were running smoothly with no serious issues or problems except that some local Asian celebrities felt they warranted larger protection details, not because of any threat, but because they were “famous celebrities.”

When dealing with celebrities it is important to monitor their fan website and social media.  Time and time again, it was found that celebrity staff have leaked confidential operational information such as arrival time, drop-off point, pick-up point, and where the fans can position themselves, to create a “bigger buzz” for their celebrity. They also gave this information to media persons and paparazzi.

Depending on the operational situation and circumstances, and critically, the client’s master schedule for the event, the protection team substituted a few drop-off and pick-up points unilaterally and purposely did not notify the celebrity’s staff.  They feigned ignorance when they complained and cited “developing security issues” for the change.  Of course, the client was notified of these suggested changes in advance. On occasion, the client chose to proceed with a celebrity’s plan and insert their own staff to move the focus back to the event and boost the fact that these celebrities are their brand ambassadors.

GuardingTo augment the protective operations for VIPs, celebrities, and client executives,  a trusted Beijing company for basic guard services was contracted to provide outer cordon, inner cordon and venue security as well as for event vehicle parking sites.  Well in advance of the event they were briefed on the event security plans, conducted basic upgrade training, and event specific training.  Everything was in place with a high-level of confidence.

The First Interference

Then nepotism reared its ugly head.  Shortly before the event, the client was contacted by other local police with the insistence that a security company in the venue’s district had to be used instead of the one which had been contracted.  District level police officials owned and controlled the replacement security company.

There was an implied threat that if the client did not comply, the previously approved security plan would be reconsidered and rejected, thus forcing cancellation of the event!  This type of attempted action should have rightly been dealt with by high-level client executives to discourage this activity.  Instead, the client tasked the protection team management to resolve the issue.

We knew nothing about nor had any experience with the new guard company, and there was no time to conduct any training.  Replacing our contracted guards with the new guards was not an option.  In addition, the other company’s fee was above market rate, and the total bill was 50% higher than what we paid for the contracted company. Nonetheless, we were stuck with local district police ‘appointed’ security guards.

It was known and clear that it was a battle which could not be won; but thought ‘the war’ could be won by formulating a compromise all could live with.  That plan succeeded.

The new security company guards would take over the outer cordon posts, except for key points such as the drop-off points, and evacuation and rally points.

They would take over the car park security.

Their Quick Reaction Force (QRF) would remain in vehicles outside the venue.  The protection teams QRF would remain inside as per the original security plan. When negotiating this point, there was confidence the other party would accept this arrangement, as it meant they could avoid the manpower cost of standing-up a “real” QRF and just accept the fees paid them for their QRF.

A supervisor and an assistant of their company were allowed in the command post, but command and control of all security remained with the protection team managers.

The purpose of their original ploy was to “put the squeeze” on the client with the aim of getting remuneration. We always advise clients that such payments should never be paid as by paying one you open the floodgates for others. In addition, there was the criminality factor covered by local laws and other laws such as the U.S. Foreign and Corrupt Practice Act and the U.K. Bribery Act.

We did win the “war” and the security plan was reapproved-identical to the original plan!!!  Additional cost for the other security company was minimal in view of the total event cost; less than US$2,000.00 against US$1.2 million for the event.

“11th Hour” Issues

It was an evening hours event.  The afternoon of the event, is always a hectic period; final decoration of the party space, catering is setting up, advance agents are checking that the design and set-up hasn’t changed, evacuation routes are clear, safe havens are still applicable, and so on through a long list of security action items.

Just as all this is in motion, a delegation of Municipal Police (rather than District Police) arrived and initiated a purportedly “official” inspection of the venue.  Not surprising to us, the venue failed the inspection when the Officers claimed that the CCTV system and other security systems were not up to municipal code. It was questioned how that could be possible.  The venue met International Olympic Committee code and must have met Municipal code at the time of the Olympics.  If was obvious that another “squeeze” was in play, and the inspection was merely a cover story.

As any extra payment would not be paid, lateral thinking was needed, as without a pass for the inspection, the event could not go ahead. The solution that was accepted was two-fold: a small official donation was made to the municipal development fund with the provision that an official receipt was provided; and a contingent of Municipal Police be “nearby” on standby and called out if necessary if the venue security systems failed. As the contingent officers were on extra duties, their overtime at the official government rate would be paid. Again, official receipts were part of the agreement and would be sent to client after the event. Once more, the event was safe and greenlighted.

But this is not the end!

Not long after that ‘security issue’ was resolved, a fire inspection contingent arrived.  In China, the fire department is a part of the police department, not a separate government agency. Although controlled and managed by the police, firefighters themselves are serving military personnel seconded to the fire department.

The additional payment requirement was on again and allegedly the venue was not up to the municipal fire code even though six months earlier it met all those requirements and even exceeded Olympic Committee code.   Once again, a compromise was thought up and offered: a contingent of fire marshals would be on standby, and would be paid the official over-time rate.

The protection team management had dealt effectively with police, fire, and security officials.  So it was thought that was it…. It was not.

One hour before the event was to start, senior local police officers appeared at the venue with a group of men and women and purportedly also police officers. It was quickly and surreptitiously confirmed that the group were senior police officers who had invited their friends to attend the party for the free food and drink, and the entertainment.

Our client had not been approached by any official about this in advance nor had they invited any of these people.  To make matters worse, these uninvited “guests” were not dressed for the event – a formal affair – and definitely would not “fit in.” Therefore a serious dilemma was developing.  On one hand, they could not attend the event.  On the other, they could not be offended nor cause them to “lose face” with their guests.

The protection team management consulted their own police contacts and devised a diversionary plan. We told the officials and their guests that they were welcome to attend the event.  They were pleased.  However, in compliance with security, fire, health, and safety requirements, we needed to make a record of all attendees’ personal details – officers and their guests.  We needed to record their names, addresses, official positions, and relationship to guests.  All of them chafed at this condition and we could see the annoyance level rising.  This was a risky ploy because among the group were, in fact, senior police officers, and they had “influence.”  But we stood our ground because we had an alternative offer ready.

We had already reserved a nearby restaurant where event staff could relax, have a meal, and enjoy a live feed of the entertainment on big screen TVs before they went back to work dismantling the venue after the event.  Working quickly, we arranged to partition a section of the restaurant, upgraded the food menu, and included alcoholic beverages. The major cost of the remote site was already in the budget.

We were pleased to inform the officers and their friends that they were invited to attend a private party as guests of the client at the restaurant where they would be served food and drink, and the event entertainment on TV.  There would be no need to collect and record any personal information.  They gladly accepted.

Admittedly, these are extreme – yet true – examples of problems, roadblocks, and interference that may crop up on international details. Being confrontational and attacking the problem head on as in, “We are in the right and have the moral high ground,” won’t resolve the issue and could result in arrests, fines, and embarrassment for the protection team, the client and the protectees.

Learn how to recognize these games and “potential issues,” and how to create acceptable compromises.

When You Do Not Control the Situation

On the other side of the coin, there may be situations when official action and processes, not possible ‘interference’, are a frustrating impediment that cannot be avoided and you are impotent; situations in which you cannot alter the conditions.  You will need a workaround plan.  Here is an example.

U.S. President George H.W. Bush made an official trip to China in 1989.  I was in Beijing with a U.S. client who was on a business trip unrelated to the president’s visit, but both were staying at the same hotel.  On the plus side, hotel security was significantly enhanced, including walk-thru metal detectors at the entrance. On the minus side, everything and everyone was locked down 30 minutes before POTUS departed or returned to the hotel. Compounding this inconvenience, POTUS’ schedule was not disclosed, so we never knew precisely when a lock-down would occur.

Moving to a different hotel was not an option.  We needed a contingency plan to move our client between on-site and off-site meetings.  Here is some of what we proposed, and the client accepted.

We notified all parties with whom the client had scheduled on-site and off-site meetings of the situation at the hotel and the possible short notice of delays in arriving at meetings.

We relocated several off-site meetings to meetings at the hotel.  We arranged for our client to use a hotel conference room or the hotel business lounge.

There were no obvious indicators from the Secret Service of an imminent lock-down.  However, we saw that in advance of POTUS movement, the police and other security personnel would incrementally increase manpower and start taking up fixed security post positions before the lock-down was initiated. To our advantage, we stationed a protection agent in the hotel lobby and another at the hotel driveway/main road junction. When these agents saw a security uptick, we were able to notify the client who was on a “five-minute to move” notice.  The client would then decide whether to leave the hotel then, or sit though the lock-down  This advance notice, even though it was a small window gave the client options, and more time to notify people with whom he had meetings that there might be a delay in arrival.

Our contingency plan worked; it reduced our client’s inconvenience and disruption of the meetings schedule.

Our client was able to conduct business without embarrassment or perceived insult to others due to tardiness.

Start by explaining the situation to the client so he or she understands that it is beyond his, hers, or your control.  Then devise workarounds. Most issues/problems/impediments will have possible/probable viable solutions; it is just a matter of flexibility, adaptability, lateral thinking and local knowledge.

All rights reserved. October 2020. English version only.

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