When the Circus Comes to Town: How to Prepare Before, During and After Large Events

See how big events around your facility can affect you

by Stephanie Oppenheimer, APR — Major events can have a major economic impact on its host city, particularly when those events span several days: When people stay in town, they spend big on lodging and food, and they have more time to visit local businesses, take in the local flair, and, yes, spend more money.

In the years that the Olympic Games were in Sydney (2000) and in Athens (2004), for example, the direct contribution of travel and tourism to gross domestic product (GDP) in Australia and Greece rose by 18.3 percent and 12 percent, respectively (PR Newswire, April 2012). And the city and County of Denver reported an economic benefit of $153.9 million, and a regional economic impact of $266.1 million, after the 2008 Democratic National Convention (DNC), while the Minneapolis/Saint Paul host committee reported the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC) “generated nearly $170 million in new money for the local economy” (www.p2012.org).

The long-term impact can be even immense when one considers the image boost a city enjoys once they’ve earned the privilege of hosting a major event, leading to increased tourism for years to come.

But for the owners and managers of commercial property located in the host cities, preparing for a major event—as well as ensuring staff and tenant safety—means forethought and planning for the “what ifs.”

Read on for the inside scoop on how property professionals have prepared—and learned from—some of the biggest events.


Just about every day brings a political event to Washington, D.C., and Benjamin Comm, CPM, managing director, principal, for Cassidy Turley in D.C., has seen his share. Whether it’s a World Bank meeting, a months-long Occupy DC protest, inauguration, marches on Capitol Hill, or even just a presidential motorcade, every building in D.C. will, at some point, probably be in the perimeter of risk.

Planning for it, Comm says, starts and ends with communications.

“Communications is always the biggest priority, and preparing our tenants and staff for every scenario depends on it,” he said. “I’ve learned from my security team that you have to have a minimum of three security plans developed: Plan A is for low level threats, Plan B for heightened level, and Plan C for something currently brewing. But it’s no good to keep them to yourself; meet with tenants regularly to run through table-top exercises, address concerns, and remind them to expect the unexpected. Public safety resources can be stretched thin during events, and it’s important that tenants know exactly what to do—particularly when it comes to what has become standard advice: ‘If you see something, say something.'”

“Similarly,” he added, “you have to be able to interface quickly with those who are involved with the event, whether that’s local law enforcement or the Secret Service, and keep your vendors in the loop. Lastly, don’t forget about neighboring properties: They’re sometimes the competition, but during an event, there are no walls. Everyone works together, and we all help each other out.”

Comm, who is also the current chair of the BOMA International Emergency Preparedness Committee, recognizes that reaching out to law enforcement can be difficult for someone without connections, and he points out BOMA and industry networking can be extremely valuable.

“Not everyone can just call up the police chief or Secret Service, but all it usually takes is asking someone higher in your organization, or your company’s national security director or security vendor. You have to ask, because the repercussions of not doing so are too great.”

Richard King, preparedness coordinator with Colliers International, Tampa Bay, may be nearly 1,000 miles south of D.C., but he is dealing with many of the same issues as Comm as he prepares for the Republican National Convention (RNC) in August and serves on the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which was formed solely to coordinate plans and prepare.

For King, looking back was the key to looking forward: “We contacted BOMA/Greater St. Paul because they hosted the last RNC, and we asked them for details on how they prepared and what they learned. It’s a necessary exercise, because we feel the Convention is like multiplying the Super Bowl by 10 and adding in 400 buses, 15,000 protestors, 15,000 member of the media, and personnel from the Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the military and the federal government.”

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“BOMA Greater St. Paul and Minneapolis have bent over backwards for us, sharing information, conferencing in property managers for best practices, and helping us understand what to expect. We’ve also had an open dialogue with officials from Charlotte, which is hosting the DNC. This has been a study in open communications and networking.”

The Tampa partnership has also taken advantage of many of FEMA’s and DHS’ briefings and classes, all designed to help property managers and business owners prepare for the event, with open communications between all entities a critical factor of success.

One of the biggest concerns for property managers is traffic, with King’s building lying along the parade route for protestors.

“We’re giving tenants the option of closing and working from home, and we’re rescheduling cleaning crews so that they’re here during lower-risk times, running shelter-in-place table top drills, and repurposing one of our gyms as a living area for staff if necessary. Another of our buildings is turning this event into a hurricane training opportunity by working remotely, as they would during a hurricane. Others have offered their vacant space to federal personnel, so that they can use it for observation and planning. It’s an olive branch and keeps cooperation between agencies at the forefront.”

The partnership at press time was also testing “Sandbox,” a GPS-enabled app for smart phones that allows users to photograph or text an incident to the police department, who can then immediately determine the location, time and date stamp for efficient follow-up.


May Day is supposed to be a day to honor labor and workers’ rights, but this past spring in Seattle, the day turned violent, when—as reported in The Seattle Times—”black-clad protesters using sticks and bats smashed stores and automobile windows during May Day demonstrations, and police recovered homemade incendiary devices made from toilet paper rolls and fruit juice boxes.”

Aaron Blankers, property manager of Union Square, managed by Washington Holdings in Seattle, was in the building when protestors rampaged past and found himself discovering just how well their emergency plan worked.

“There were inklings that things were going to turn violent,” Blankers said, “but it was unclear what was going to happen, who was going to be involved, or where it would take place.”

Ultimately, a group of protestors convened close to Blankers’ building took the path of least resistance toward one of their targets—a federal building located a few blocks away—and Union Square sustained broken windows and minor damage in the process.

“We weren’t the target, but we were along the path that led to their targets,” he said. “They were going for anything that would get attention by breaking windows, and it was scary to see them come through when so many people were outside during lunch hour.”

In response, Union Square, which spans a full block, put the building into partial lockdown and put the security team at the building’s perimeter to observe without interacting with the protestors.

“Our plan was very helpful, and we were able to go into a partial lockdown of the affected areas within moments, as well as increased awareness at other, unaffected entrances. We used email to communicate with our tenants, although depending on the track this incident took, we were prepared to use our emergency public address system if necessary.”

Looking back, one of the actions that tenants were most impressed by was Washington Holding’s response after the event: “There was nothing we could have done to prevent the actions of the protestors, but we could control our response time,” Blankers said. “Within two hours of the incident, all the broken glass was cleared, windows were boarded up, and painters were already on the job painting the plywood to match the trim. All of the windows were replaced in less than 48 hours. It was a great reminder that a strong relationship with vendors who have the right supplies on hand is a huge, huge part of any good plan.”


All the world’s a stage when it comes to the Olympics, and this year, all eyes were on London. Richard Kauntze, chief executive, British Council for Offices, viewed this year’s Games as the U.K.’s biggest security operation since WWII.

“It was a huge logistical exercise, with an enormous military presence,” he said. “Everything had to be as tight as possible, just as it was during the Royal Wedding. But we have to remember that we are a free society, so there has to be a balance between security, the design of our buildings, the police, and letting people come and go without an invasive, over-the-top level of security. People need to be able to go about their business, so we have to be mindful of the fact that we can’t have every building with airport-style levels of security.”

With that balance in mind, many of the U.K.’s most sensitive government and military buildings are designed from the start with a very high level of security, but more mainstream buildings manage risks in more isolated and sensible ways.

“Without question, having a good relationships with the police came into play at lot, both before and during the Games. Olympic Park is very close to our biggest banks and insurance companies, which can be targets, so a lot depended on constant communication between ourselves, the police and our tenants. We also depended on our biggest line of defense—intelligence. It’s what’s going on behind the scene that’s most important, and although screening is crucial, the real front line is intelligence. We have to stop them before they arrive, and we’re generally very good at that.”

Kauntze quickly points out that there were reams of technical detail available for safeguarding buildings, all of which was tested and practiced for many months before the Olympic flame ever reached the city. But he philosophizes that London was flattened during the war, citizens survived the blitz, the country came through and moved on.

“It’s important to have a business-as-usual philosophy,” he said. “There’s no such thing as 100 percent security; no matter how strong your fortress, it will never be impregnable. So always remember that we’re fighting for our freedom, and always remember that with life comes risk.”

Planning for the Unimaginable

Some things, it seems, you just can’t completely plan for. Take the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., for example, or the bigger-than-life impact that the “Occupy” movement had in some cities. It’s clear that we’re living in a changing, different world, but it’s also important to note that American society doesn’t lend itself to extreme security measures in public places, and it likely won’t ever be ready for that level of change.

So what can we do?

Plenty, says Mike Coleman, vice president of AlliedBarton Security Services:

  • At a minimum, dust off your emergency plans, recognizing that the standard plan may no longer be appropriate. Update your lists of service providers, from janitorial through emergency service suppliers, and make sure that appropriate contracts are in place. The old standards don’t apply in today’s world; be ahead of the game with an updated plan.
  • Tap into the many excellent resources out there, such as BOMA’s preparedness committee, which is closely linked to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). They can teach you how to conduct drills, table-top training programs … soup to nuts planning scenarios. Law enforcement agencies used to be very protective of their information, but they’ve realized that they can be far more effective when they’re more closely engaged with the private sector, so the resources available to us have really matured. Take advantage of these relationships and associated resources.
  • Reach out to local, regional and federal law enforcement and first responders and keep those relationships strong. You have to be linked, and you have to be engaged. Start by inviting sector police officers into your building, with an open invitation to use your restroom, write reports in your building, take a coffee break, etc. When firefighters come out to a call at your building, offer them a bottle of cold water. Schedule Law Enforcement Appreciation events; when the private sector recognizes the efforts of law enforcement, it builds bridges. Forming relationships with local Business Improvement District (BIDs) personnel can be equally advantageous.
  • Look at your geography, and identify potential exposures for known and unknown events. Plan for different levels of escalation for every “what if” scenario.
  • Meet regularly with your service providers, talk about how you would respond to an emergency, as well as how you would expect them to respond. Make sure that your security service providers will have access to what you need. Engage all of your staff and all of your providers; it’s key to a comprehensive plan.
  • Get in touch with those who have gone before you: If a major sporting or political event is coming to your city, reach out to cities that have hosted in the past. Go back multiple years, and ask for their words of wisdom. There’s a lot of information to be shared, and there’s not reason to reinvent the wheel. Take advantage of already established best practices!

About the Author: Stephanie J. Oppenheimer, APR, formerly the assistant vice president of communications for BOMA International, is principal of Skylite Communications, a freelance writing and editing company based in Falls Church, Va.

BOMA Magazine is the official magazine of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International. It is a leading source for the latest news, issues and trends affecting the commercial real estate industry.