When tens of thousands of runners line up at the start for this weekend’s Humana Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Antonio, they will be protected by security measures adopted in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, event organizers said.

Race planners said they have spent hours in their own training and preparation to keep the 26.2-mile downtown route safe and secure.

“We’ve always had security,” said Janet Holliday, president and CEO of The CE Group, a marketing firm in San Antonio charged with planning the marathon. “But now we’ve added bomb-sniffing dogs. Now we think about rooftops. Perimeters are real important, and barricades, and now we’re having to spend more money on it than before.”

“The reality is there’s no real safe place as it used to be. We can’t live scared, but we have to spend time on [things like] exit strategies and do our due diligence on how to get people out if, God forbid, something happened.”

The CE Group also is involved in planning the 2018 NCAA Men’s Final Four, and other major City and corporate events.

Safety steps are increasingly viewed as a necessary part of planning large public events, often at great expense. But rigorous security planning is not just undertaken for marathons, parades, and festivals. Security experts also are focusing attention on convention centers, which, like outdoor gatherings, attract thousands of people.

More than 200 million people attend trade conventions and meetings every year, including an estimated 5 million in San Antonio. The industry itself is worth $260 billion nationwide.

“So, think about the exposure,” said David DuBois, president and CEO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE), after moderating a panel of speakers at the trade group’s annual meeting here this week.

“We’ve already raised the level of preparedness, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Something will happen.”

At the Henry B. González Convention Center in San Antonio, there are more than 1,200 doors, 500 of them exterior doors, said Scott Munson, convention facilities general manager. During a recent expansion of the convention center, magnetic lock systems were installed, and now all doors are card-key controlled.

The Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center lights up Market Street. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
The Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

“From one location, we can lock every single one if we need to or have to,” Munson said. “We have three shifts of security, 24/7, and over 165 surveillance cameras in the building. It all ties together for one comprehensive security approach.”

When the Rivard Report attended a meeting Thursday, greeters would not admit a reporter without a scannable badge. To get a badge, guest services required a photo ID.

Until recently, every convention center and major public venue worked independently to determine security needs. Now an industry security council made up of convention center managers, service contractors, and event organizers are working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to establish a national standard for convention center security. Houston is one of two cities that piloted the program earlier this year.

Called the Exhibition and Meeting Safety and Security Initiative (EMSSI), the effort gained steam following the Oct. 1 shooting at a Las Vegas music festival that left 58 people dead and hundreds injured.

DuBois also noted an incident in May when a man who had posted threats on social media about an attack at a ComiCon event in Phoenix was arrested as he tried to enter the convention center where the event was being held. Dressed in all black, he was found to be carrying guns, ammunition, and a knife.

“No one ever wants to think of something so horrific happening at their show,” said Kevin Olsen, founder of Keyway, a security firm consulting company for EMSSI. “Historically, our industry has had our head buried in the sand. In reality, we  think of security around financial management – [as in] ‘You can get in because you paid,’ versus ‘Do you have a badge? Do you have a bomb strapped to your back?’ No one in this room ever wants to go there. And I think that’s where we’re at in our industry. We’re having to go there. You can’t even go to church in a little town in Texas, that’s not even safe.”

Sports leagues and venues are way ahead of most public meeting spaces in establishing safety protocols that protect fans, said Brad Mayne, president and CEO of the International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM), a partner with IAEE working on the safety initiative.

“It’s easy at a stadium. You have to have a ticket, there’s a gate and doors, and it’s easy to maintain a venue like that,” Mayne said. “They are built as fortresses. Convention centers and hotels are not.”

The Consumer Technology Association’s annual trade show, CES, is one of the nation’s largest, drawing 184,000 people to Las Vegas and occupying nine venues throughout the city. CES Vice President of Operations Laurie Lutz said the group had a major security plan in place even before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Then, following a coordinated series of terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, those plans were expanded to include bag-size restrictions, a larger police presence, and police canine unit. Lutz said CES shares its registration list with the FBI, which scans the names for “bad actors” prior to the event.

“Every show and every venue is unique, so we work closely with venue security on what’s needed, what else we can layer in, and some of these things are not costly,” she said. “We started off with practical and reasonable procedures and enhanced them over the years.”

Mayne told a room full of show managers at this week’s IAEE meeting that being proactive in assessing security needs is key.

“As we’ve been presenting this program, we can tell that people have some misconceptions, and … doing nothing is the worse thing you can do,” he said. “You must really step up and make some changes to your safety and security protocols.”

In a survey Mayne’s trade group conducted of more than 800 organizations, 69 percent named “active shooters” as the top threat they are concerned about. Yet 61 percent are not conducting drills to prepare for such an incident.

The venue managers’ association will submit the Industry Security Council’s recommendations for safety guidelines in December and January to Homeland Security.

Michael Sawaya, the City’s director of Convention and Sports Facilities who oversees the Alamodome and the Convention Center, said he began working on standards and aligning with Homeland Security last year. Once the guidelines are in place, he said, the City will begin taking steps to ensure San Antonio’s convention center complies with all recommendations.

Yet a state law that permits open carry of weapons make implementing security measures challenging. “Unlike the Alamodome [exempt from open carry because it’s a sports venue], we don’t restrict people from being able to carry weapons in the building,” Sawaya said.

Law enforcement officers from across Texas and beyond arrived at the Alamodome early Friday morning for the procession honoring fallen SAPD Officer Miguel Moreno.
The Alamodome Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

But groups that book the Convention Center can designate areas within the facility where weapons are not allowed. The group is responsible for informing attendees and posting signs.

“There are always different things that happen in a building of this size, but we haven’t had any major incidents,” Sawaya said. “From our command center, we can see every inch of this building. If there’s anything we find suspicious we need to act on, we’re engaged.”

The convention center security team often works with a group’s private security advisors to implement additional security measures as needed.

The CE Group’s Holliday, who has worked in the business for over 30 years, said the cost for security can run into the thousands of dollars, especially for large events. It’s an especially burdensome expense for nonprofit organizations, she said, but they can’t afford not to make security provisions, to train staff and employees, and set up a central command and communications center.

“I worry like everybody else,” Holliday said. “I love celebrations, so I’m sad to think that at festivals and marathons, people are afraid. … We just do our due diligence, remind everyone that if they see something to say something, and not give up and not let bad guys take away our celebrations.”

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...