As a retail loss prevention manager, enjoying a sports figure on ESPN is one thing; hosting that sports figure at the department store where you are responsible for protection of customers and merchandise is another. It is not that special events are too difficult to manage, but many LP departments do not have enough experience—and sometimes staff and budget—to handle such events comfortably.
So, what are some common pitfalls and proven prevention measures to make your store’s special events as spectacular as the latest box office hit?
ORDERS ARRIVE FROM STAR FLEET COMMAND: Precise Planning
When store management or marketing professionals approach the loss prevention team about a special event, the first step in formulating an effective security plan is to ask questions…lots of questions. For a truly successful event, it is essential to know the expectations, know the fans, and know the event.
Know the Expectations. Ask what responsibilities in the execution of the event are expected of your team. Assume that directing stage setup, crowd control, merchandise security, customer safety, celebrity protection, including entry and exit, and line management will all fall to your team, unless otherwise clarified.
It is important to communicate with marketing, maintenance, and any other department involved in the event throughout the event’s planning and execution to avoid duplication oroversight of any necessary task. Failure by one of these teams to accomplish their objectives may force you to use your security team to fill in and complete other’s jobs.
Also, clarify who is the celebrity’s management company, that is the company responsible for the celebrity’s personal protection, special appearance schedule, and promotional materials, and secure permission to contact the company with security-related issues.
Know the Fans. Ask what kind of fans will be attracted to the event. If fans are older, the possibility of a medical emergency increases. If fans are mothers and children, the possibility of a noise disturbance increases. If fans are young men, the possibility of physical contact, such as roughhousing or aggressive behavior, increases.
Early in my career, my store hosted a national beauty contest winner for an autograph and photo session. I assumed the fan base would be young males attracted to the beauty queen and prepared accordingly. To my surprise, the store was inundated with young mothers who had their small princesses in tow, all wanting an opportunity to speak to the celebrity, obtain an autograph, and show off their future beauty queens. We were still able to conduct a successful event, but it did require some quick adjustmentsto our security detail and substantially changed how we maintained control of the event.
The celebrity’s management company can provide information about fans, expected crowd sizes, and how the celebrity prefers disruptions to be handled, or how they’ve best beenhandled in the past. The management company can also alert the LP team about any current activist group or individual that has threatened the celebrity, such as an animal rights group being angry about the celebrity’s use of fur garments.
Knowing the fan base can help you determine how many and what type of security personnel you may need, and what kind of outside help, such as EMTs and police, you invite.
Know the Event. Ask what kind of event is planned and the desired outcome. In general, special events are hosted to attract customers and boost goodwill among the community toward your store. But specific marketing goals, such as promoting a new line of products or featuring one department’s products, may influence your security strategy.
Following are some basic questions to consider.
- Is the event one for star gazers, such as a celebrity appearance, or one for stardom seekers, such as a beautiful baby contest?
- Will the event promote a certain product, a sale, or a grand opening?
- Will the celebrity charge up the crowd or provide a low-key informational speech?
- Will door prizes or awards be included in the scope of the event?
- Will the event immediately impact the number of purchases in that area of the store?
Answers to key questions such as these affect how you will plan. For example, if a celebrity is promoting her new perfume and cosmetic line, extra security is needed not only for the celebrity, stage, and line areas, but also for the displays of merchandise being promoted, which will be of great allure and easier accessibility to shoplifters in a crowded setting. If the store is hosting a fall fashion show or baby contest, such heavy coverage of merchandise may not be as necessary, but other logistics will need to be addressed, such as changing areas. If door prizes and awards are given, or if a celebrity or spokesperson will be promoting a particular item, even if for charity, secure protection for those items.
In addition to the goals store management has for the event, the celebrity’s management company will provide a specific set of information for you to consider as you plan. Theyoften address length of event, length of autograph session, special needs of the celebrity behind the scenes, number of people in the celebrity’s entourage, arrival and departure information, and expectations of store security. Directly speak with the celebrity’s representatives. Expressing your pleasure in doing whatever necessary to please and keep their client safe will go a long way to assure event relations and get your security plan questions answered.
The more thorough your knowledge is of the event, the more specific your planning can be. All this adds up to your event becoming a stellar success.
CALLING LIEUTENANT SULU: Using Local Law Enforcement and Medical Professionals
If you anticipate a large gathering of customers, meet with local police, fire and rescue squad, and/or emergency medical technicians. These groups can provide your team additional support, usually at little or no cost. Most of the time, they are glad to help because they can meet the celebrity.
A word of caution—sometimes they want to help too much. One time, a store I served was planning a speech and autograph event by visiting royalty from a different country. The local police department was eager to help by placing a detail of sniper teams on top of the building. We respectfully declined the offer. The threat level did not warrantthe detail, and a fully armed SWAT team certainly would not be customer-friendly. Clearly specify your needs and expectations, such as the date and time of the event, the number of personnel you need, and the role they will play in the security plan.
It is important to include local emergency personnel for several reasons. You may not have enough staff to safely protect the celebrity, stage, customers, and merchandise. Events require more than the usual number of people on duty, and police can fill the security role very well.
Also, the event could draw so many customers that your occupancy level exceeds the limit. You want to assure that emergency personnel can help provide a rapid egress in case of the need for evacuation.
On the more probable side, one of the fans may have a medical issue during the event. When you couple crowded lines, long periods of standing, and the excitement of meeting a favorite celebrity, it is not unusual for a customer to faint or feel dizzy. Having emergency personnel to handle this—rather than your purposefully positioned security staff—will minimize the disruption of the crowd and your security plan. The ill customer will be skillfully cared for, as the other fans continue to confidently enjoy the event.
Police and emergency personnel can be invaluable in making your event safe and smooth. Don’t forget to recognize and thank them for their service.
BUILDING STARSHIP ENTERPRISE: Creating an Effective Staging Area
Selecting the stage location is one of the most important decisions the loss prevention manager faces in planning a special event. Given that most retail stores are not designed to handle large crowds concentrated in one area, choices for stage placement are minimal. It is best to position the stage against a solid wall, or at least provide a large screen or drape as a backdrop to the stage. Having fans completely encircle an open stage is a recipe for disaster. This also allows the celebrity and prep/prop crew the privacythey need.
It is best to contain the crowd in front of the stage where most of the attention should be focused anyway. In the stage front, assure a clear path for egress of the crowd, and, if planned, for the celebrity to come down into the crowd. To the side or back of the stage, plan a secure path for the celebrity to enter the stage area.
If merchandise is to be displayed close to or on the stage, work with marketing or merchandising staff to place products strategically, not in the way of the planned line, entry, or exit areas, and not so close to the cashier that customers will be crowded.
The stage should be 18 to 24 inches high, and if an autograph session is planned, a small secretarial desk should be placed on the stage close to the front edge. The stage allows the celebrity to address the crowd while he or she is standing to give the presentation, then he or she is able to sit for signing autographs. The desk places the celebrity at eye level with the fan who stands in front of…not on…the stage.
The desk acts as a barrier between the celebrity and fan, allowing for close proximity, but not fullcontact. An overzealous fan trying to hug and kiss the celebrity is exactly what security personnel try to prevent. A desk on the stage helps you complete this mission.
It is effective to create roped off areas for both the autograph line and the media in front of the stage. Depending on the scope of the event, you may also want to provide clearly marked or roped cashier lines or roped off merchandise areas.
SECURING STARSHIP ENTERPRISE: Assigning Positions for the Event
At the minimum, four security associates are assigned to the stage area. One will protect the back of the stage to prevent fans from trying to gain access to the celebrity, and also to maintain a clear exit route at the end of the program or in the event of an emergency.
Another associate should be positioned at the exit side of the autograph line in front of the stage to keep fans moving and maintain the barrier in front of the stage. Another associate should be positioned at the entry point of the line in front of the stage. This associate maintains line control and uses behavioral analysis to assess the fans andinitiate any actions, or communicate to emergency personnel to initiate an action, to prevent a disturbance.
A fourth associate should walk up and down the line of waiting customers to prevent line breaking, observe fans’ behavior, and build relations with customers through communication.
Additional associates or emergency professionals can assist in the “green room” where the celebrity waits, can serve as security for the crowd of casual observers who are not in line for autographs, can watch merchandise, can provide assistance to customers with medical or behavioral issues, and can simply serve as positive representatives of the store by interacting in a helpful way with the crowd and answering questions.
Keep in mind the role each associate will play in guarding the stage area, organizing or directing people, or interacting with the crowd. Consider the personality of your staff, and assign positions accordingly. A very intense and analytical staff member would be an excellent choice for the backstage position, while a more extroverted, motivating personality may serve well at the entry point of the line.
CORRALING CLING-ONS OR KLINGONS: Line Management through Communication
It is the hope of every marketing department that an event will attract more customers than there is time for autographs. While this is one measure of a successful event, it can also cause some very disgruntled fans.
Prevent having dissatisfied customers by clearly communicating where the line is for autographs and length of the autograph session. Before the autograph session, tell the crowd where the line begins and instruct them to be respectful of other fans by not lingering at the signing table too long. Give any special instructions about purchasing items tobe autographed, for example, music CDs or books.
Conservatively estimate the number of fans the celebrity can meet and provide autographs. Communicate this number clearly to the fans before and again during the autograph session. That way, fans get in line with the hope they will receive an autograph, but also with the emotional preparation that they may not.
If at all possible, do not cut off the line earlier than you have communicated. That immediately creates bad feelings and, unfortunately at times, bad behavior.
A store I served once hosted a well-known male soap opera star for an autograph session. As a security team, we had successfully negotiated his entrance on to the stage throughhundreds of excited women of all ages who wanted to touch or get close to the TV star—including a larger woman intent on kissing the celebrity. It took several associates to prevent that.
About halfway through the autograph session, the celebrity needed to go to the restroom. From the stage, I surveyed the crowd and knew that if he immediately got up and left the stage, we would have a small riot. I asked the celebrity to wait for a couple minutes while my team members communicated to the women in line that he would return after a shortbreak. By communicating with the crowd, we were able to avert a mad rush to the stage in what could have been perceived as the end of the event. The star was not happy about being told to wait. Celebrities are accustomed to telling others what to do. But it was the right decision for our security plan.
Celebrities usually travel with high-quality reproduced autographed photos. Before the event, arrange to use these for those who could not receive an autograph in the case that the line is longer than the allotted time.
Communicate to the crowd; usually people will understand and accept the limitations and guidelines of a large group event, if they are told in enough time to emotionally prepare.
ROMANCING THE ROMULANS: Surviving the Media
People from Planet Paparazzi will undoubtedly be at the special event. The special events department will invite them, and many will come uninvited. Clearly rope off and markwhere media personnel may sit. Decide upon guidelines and limits for taking pictures, having time to interview or talk to celebrity, and interaction with the crowd. Communicate these guidelines to the media who arrive, and have security personnel show them to their area.
Dealing with the media at your event can be a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, their coverage of the event can be a great asset and can aid in the goal of store promotion and community relations. On the other hand, one misstep or unfortunate security incident can be a public relations nightmare.
You also must consider the desires of the celebrity. Sometimes they allow and want media involvement, while other times it is considered an invasion of time and privacy. Before the event, clarify with the celebrity’s management company what the guidelines are concerning the media. You must balance the desires and hopes of many parties, along with the requirements of your security plan.
“Romance” the media Martians by providing them access to the celebrity, if possible, and by helping them get good photo opportunities. During communications with the special events team before the event, arrange for someone from the store to speak to key media outlets and answer questions or provide longer interviews. That way, media intrusion into your event when it actually occurs can be minimal, yet media personnel feel they have received adequate attention and opportunities.
Just as interacting with the crowd positively can enhance relations and help reach event goals, so can catering to and communicating with media.
BEAM ME UP, SCOTTY: Entry and Exit
It would be nice if, at the end of the event, a bright light could just come and whisk the celebrity away. It doesn’t happen that way though. Your security plan must consider every movement of the celebrity while he or she is in your store.
Plan entry and exit routes ahead of time, and choose at least two alternate routes. The entire security team, including outside emergency personnel, should walk the routes and be prepared for changes.
The celebrity usually arrives early. Work with the special events team to prepare a “green room,” a room that is clean, as luxurious as possible, with bathroom and refreshment access. The celebrity will wait in the green room until presentation time. Introduce the celebrity to the loss prevention associate responsible for their safety while in the store. It is important for the celebrity to know the main person who would escort them or answer questions in the event of an emergency.
You may also escort media to the green room if interviews have been arranged. Take this into consideration as you place security personnel for pre-event coverage. One associate needs to be in or near the green room at all times, but other personnel must be available for escorting other members of the celebrity’s entourage, meeting outside emergencypersonnel and getting them into position, and greeting and escorting media or product representatives.
Upon completion of the presentation and autograph session, it is best if the celebrity can be escorted directly out of the building to their waiting transportation. An “Elvis has left the building” kind of announcement usually settles down any crowd still waiting to catch a glimpse of the celebrity.
For departure, it is most effective to use the diamond escort formation. As you lead the celebrity through the store, one LP associate is in front of the celebrity, one behind, and two on either side. The old adage, “Keep moving or you’re dead,” applies to moving a celebrity from point A to point B. Any stop in forward progress, such as the celebrity stopping for one more autograph along a route crowded with fans, allows the fans to create a dense circle around the celebrity. This situation quickly escalates out of control. Keep moving, even at a slow pace. Usually the crowd cooperates.
During an event where a store hosted an All-Pro football running back, we found ourselves among 3,000 faithful fans. Using the diamond formation and constantly moving, we were able to negotiate our way to the stage fairly well. As the event progressed, however, we realized we needed to change our planned exit route because of the size of the crowd.
Quickly communicating with the security team, we escorted the football hero out of the store and into his waiting limousine using emergency fire exits. While the celebrity was never in danger, our original exit plan would have caused too much chaos.
As with every aspect of the special event, communication about entry and exit is crucial, and flexibility and foresight are essential ingredients. Make sure your team is fully aware that they need to be alert and observant to security team/event managers, the celebrity’s representatives, and one another to assure smooth changes in the security plan, if necessary. The goal is for the audience to never be aware that a change has taken place and for them to acknowledge that security for the event was well-placed, well-organized, and well-executed.
Mission Accomplished: A Well-Executed Event
The next time you hear the term “special event,” look at it as an opportunity to help your store be successful. Using these tips, your loss prevention team can showcase your professionalism and highlight your store’s brands, staff, and community efforts.
And don’t forget to have your picture taken with the stars.