Report of Food Threat Spotlights Need for Security Efficiency

HIL ANDERSON, SENIOR EDITOR
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Oceanside, CA – A report that terrorists may have plotted to poison the food at U.S. hotels was seen by the exposition and travel industry as an example of how security measures, or lack thereof, can impact business.

CBS News reported on December 20 that U.S. officials had briefed a select group of hotel security executives on intelligence received earlier this year indicating al Qaeda was considering poisoning food at hotel and restaurant buffets and salad bars. While there did not appear to be any specific hotels targeted, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) found the general threat to be credible enough to put the word out.

The CBS report on its own was not expected to have any immediate impact on trade show attendance, but the publicity surrounding the reported threat was seen by exhibition and travel industry leaders as another example of the need for more-effective and efficient security measures.

“The information we have is still too sketchy to make any broad conclusions,” said Steven Hacker, president of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events. “The truth is, all commerce is fragile when confronting terrorism. It’s a tragic circumstance of the times.”

The report did not appear to cause any immediate disruptions of food service, particularly at major hotels and convention centers that provide banquet service for trade shows and other events. “We are aware of this alert and we are working closely with our local authorities and listening to their recommendations,” said Shura Lindgren-Garnett, regional vice president for Global Spectrum, a venue management firm that manages 26 convention centers in the U.S. and Canada.

“As of this moment, we have had no direct briefings from the DHS, but we will continue to monitor the situation along with all food and beverage providers,” said Gregg Caren, senior vice president, strategic business development, for SMG. “We’ll be vigilant on this issue, and watch for additional information from the DHS and the food-and-beverage industry trade organizations.”

In the Burning Issues panel at Trade Show Executive’s Gold 100 Summit in September, Caren was asked, “What is the industry’s biggest challenge in the year ahead?” Caren said, rather prophetically, that it is the unforeseeable and unpredictable things that we can’t imagine now.  He said unexpected news stories, such as terrorism threats, pose potential obstacles to the industry’s ongoing recovery if they effectively spook the traveling public.

Concerns related to exhibitions in recent years have been nearly entirely focused on the visa process for international attendees and the “hassle factor” of airport screening on domestic travelers, especially those who fly frequently to trade shows.

The U.S. Travel Association (USTA) released a survey December 21 that concluded business and leisure travelers were weary of the long lines and the effort required to get themselves, their carry-on luggage, laptops and shoes though the X-ray machines and metal detectors.

Roger Dow, USTA president and CEO, told TSE on a conference call that the new concerns with hotel food service highlighted the need for a more technology-based approach to security in the U.S. that would not only streamline air travel but make the entire tourism industry safer.

“There is no doubt there are a lot of bad people out there that have been looking at our air travel system and are now also looking at these other areas,” Dow said. “That’s why we need all the emphasis we can get on data collection.”

Rooting Out Security Risks
Dow said using additional data collection on airline passengers as well as facility employees in order to root out security risks ahead of time would be far more effective than adding another layer of on-site security looking over the shoulders of cooks and salad servers. “If this is not addressed properly, it could affect us all,” he said.

Strict security screening has become a fact of life since Sept. 11, 2001, but the survey released by USTA found the U.S. public has hardly embraced it. According to the online poll of air travelers conducted after Thanksgiving, the current security regime is considered to be stressful, arbitrary, and not particularly effective.

There was also a high level of support for a “frequent flyer” system that allows people who travel a lot to be classified as a non threat and zip through special security lines with minimal delay. “The system we have now says every traveler must be treated exactly the same, as if they are potential threats,” Dow said.

The USTA survey found 64% of the survey respondents said they would consider traveling more often if airport security was faster, less intrusive and more effective. Dow said such a result would be best achieved through expanded technology that classifies high-risk passengers from the rest of the flying public at the time they made their reservations, rather than relying on the current on-site screening.

A USTA task force has been studying just such a system and will release their findings in late January after the new Congress is seated.

“We think we will have a good chance with the new Congress to make this a high priority,” he said.

Reach Roger Dow at (202) 408-8422 or rdow@ustravel.org; Steven Hacker at (972) 687-9204 or shacker@iaee.com; Gregg Caren at (610) 729-7922 or gcaren@smgworld.com