Gary LaBranche: Safe, Not Sorry

Skift Take

Gary LaBranche, the CEO of the Risk and Insurance Management Society, shares what it was like to have to cancel the last day of its conference where close to 10,000 were gathered due to a nearby shooting.

A fatal shooting near the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) in Atlanta this May, where the Risk and Insurance Management Society’s (RIMS) annual conference, RISKWORLD, was being held. It gave its CEO, Gary LaBranche, no choice but to cancel the general session and closing party.

LaBranche shares that this was the most stressful four hours of his 42-year career in this episode of the Skift Meetings Podcast.

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Riskworld gathered nearly 9,000 global risk management professionals and 300 exhibitors. Ironically, given the crisis, LaBranche didn’t want to take a risk. 

The shooting occurred two-and-a-half miles away from the GWCC, and the suspect was on the loose. LaBranche issued an emergency video statement on the conference website to let attendees know that everyone at Riskworld was safe and that the closing day’s activities were being canceled. 

“We’ve unfortunately had to cancel the closing finale session simply out of an abundance of caution. Everybody in the convention center and our hotels are all safe,” LaBranche said.

Police arrested former U.S. coastguardsman Deion Patterson about eight hours after the shooting and charged him with one count of murder and four counts of aggravated assault.

As an association dedicated to advancing risk management, RIMS was prepared for such an incident. In addition to a 73-page crisis plan, RIMS also had several advance meetings with local law enforcement and the GWCC staff to address not only safety but also the coinciding Taylor Swift concert that was taking place during Riskworld. 

A Crisis Plan Should Be Citywide

One of the biggest takeaways from this incident is the importance of having a citywide crisis management plan. LaBranche said it’s a mistake to just focus on the risks that can happen in the venue you are gathering. 

Time is Precious 

Simplify the emergency plan, identify all members of the response team, and drill, drill, drill. 

In Atlanta, a shelter-in-place message had to be created. “We had to figure out how we would push that announcement out. Through our app? Through the convention website? And our crisis communication manager had to write it. And law enforcement had to be okay with it. This all took time, and time is precious in a situation like this,” said LaBanche. 

Collaboration Key In Time of Crisis

The Georgia World Congress Center is one of the only convention center complexes with a dedicated police department. LaBranche and his team had met with them before Riskworld to go over its security plan. Taylor Swift was playing on the campus, at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, during Riskworld. “The Riskies and the Swifties were sharing the same space simultaneously,” said LaBranche. 

The fact that the teams had met was helpful when they had to go into crisis mode due to the shooting. 

Cyberattacks a Real Threat

RIMS had a ransomware attack a few years ago at its convention. “The bad actors got into the server that contained all of our PowerPoints and videos for RiskWorld and held it for ransom the morning of the start of the conference. Our IT team reversed-engineered, turned the tables on them, and we got all of our stuff back. But these are actual things that happen to conventions and associations all the time,” said LaBranche.

The Power of Face-to-Face

“People have a hunger to meet. As the philosopher Martin Buber once said, ‘All real living is meeting.’ We don’t truly live until we engage with other people. And that’s when we better understand our humanity and the humanity of others. And so all true living is meeting and getting people together, which is powerful and valuable and touches the human heart in a way that being on Zoom or other video conferences just doesn’t do. 

Today, Meeting Professionals Must Also Be Risk Managers

“It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when something bad is going to happen. That’s the way you have to look at it. And you have to prepare for all threats, all hazards, and be prepared,” said LaBranche. “Not just theoretically on a piece of paper or in a file somewhere, but you need to make sure that you have a clear plan, that your team knows what its roles and responsibilities are, and then they drill on it.”

Just as gun violence impacted LaBranche’s event, there are many other incidents of this happening. You can read more about them and what you can do here.