Creative Responses To Curveballs Averted Disaster At This International Event

by Philip J Curlewis

Curveballs are common in protective security.  They range from minor, such as the boss wants to get out of the hotel for a late-night McDonalds visit, to critical like the one described here when interference by self-serving government officials nearly shut down a major international event.

In this case, Abate Risk, Ltd was the prime security contractor for the event.  Mitigating “official” interference would normally be outside our security domain.  Customarily, a company’s executives would manage delicate issues of this kind.  This time, in addition to outsider curveballs, our client threw their own curveball our way and asked us to intervene.  The solutions we instigated averted disaster, and in turn built a trusted relationship with our client.

A Really Big Show

A major global brand of high-end luxury goods held this annual event to announce and showcase its new products.  It was their premier gala of the year, and extravagant.

Attendance was by invitation only and the carefully crafted guest list of more than 2,500, included VIP customers, “A-List” international celebrities, and the media.  Due to the guest list, the need for protective security was extraordinary.

Security Preparation

The event site was one of the 2008 Olympic venues in Beijing about six months after the Olympics. It had been well-maintained and had not deteriorated in any way since the Olympics. This was its first use for a private function.

Our work included:

Threat assessment – There were no direct or indirect threats whether perceived or actual.

Security assessment – We developed a security plan which the client accepted.  It was then presented to the relevant government departments for their approval, and they did.

Fire, Health and Safety Assessment – Our client and relevant government departments signed off on our guides to action and operation orders.

Transportation and Traffic Management – Our transportation operation would convey the 2,500 guests, celebrities, staff, and media to the venue in a timely manner according to a pre-planned schedule; parking of vehicles (buses, mini-buses, 7-seater cars, and limousines); and the pick-up and departure process.

The plan also involved and required approval from the local traffic police as public roads were involved. The traffic police signed off and agreed to assign officers to control some junctions and oversee the drop-off points in a monitoring role unless an issue developed. We paid police overtime wages in advance.

On the day of the event, however, no traffic police appeared.  We quickly deployed our own uniformed agents to take control of the junctions and direct traffic.  We equipped agents with high-visibility vests and traffic control wands.

Everything went as planned.

Medical Coverage – First Aid capability was set up in compliance with local rules, approved, and no issues occurred.

Protective Operations for designated VIPs, and “A-List” international and Asian celebrities – Plans were developed, implemented, and actioned.  In advance of event night, all protective operations were running smoothly with no serious issues or problems except that some local Asian celebrities felt they warranted larger protection details, not because of any threat, but because they were “famous celebrities.”

When dealing with celebrities it is important to monitor their fan website and social media  Time and time again we have found celebrity staff have leaked confidential operational information such as arrival time, drop-off point, pick-up point, and where the fans can position themselves, to create a “bigger buzz” for their celebrity. They also give this information to media persons and paparazzi.

Depending on the operational situation and circumstances, and critically, the client’s master schedule for the event, we substituted a few drop-off and pick-up points unilaterally and purposely did not notify the celebrity’s staff.  We feigned ignorance when they complained and cited “developing security issues” for the change.  Of course, we notified our client of these suggested changes in advance. On occasion, the client chose to proceed with a celebrity’s plan and insert their own staff to move the focus back to the event and boost the fact that these celebrities are their brand ambassadors.

Guarding – To augment our protective operations for VIPs, celebrities, and client executives, we contracted with a trusted Beijing company for basic guard services.  Well in advance of the event we briefed them on event security plans, conducted basic upgrade training, and event specific training.  Everything was in place with a high-level of confidence.

The First Interference

Then nepotism reared its ugly head.  Shortly before the event, our client was contacted by other local police with the insistence that a security company in the venue’s district had to be used instead of the one we contracted.  District level police officials owned and controlled the replacement security company.

There was an implied threat that if the client did not comply, the previously approved security plan would be reconsidered and rejected, thus forcing cancellation of the event!  This type of attempted shakedown should have rightly been dealt with by high-level client executives to discourage this activity.  Instead, our client tasked us to resolve the issue.

We knew nothing about nor had any experience with the new guard company, and there was no time to conduct any training.  Replacing our contracted guards with the new guards was not an option.  In addition, the other company’s fee was above market rate, and the total bill was 50% higher than what we paid for the contracted company. Nonetheless, we were stuck with local district police ‘appointed’ security guards.

We knew it was a battle we could not win; but thought we could win the war by formulating a compromise all could live with.  We succeeded.

The new security company guards would take over the outer cordon posts, except for key points such as the drop-off points, and evacuation and rally points.

They would take over the car park security.

Their Quick Reaction Force (QRF) would remain in vehicles outside the venue.  Our QRF would remain inside as per the original security plan. When negotiating this point, we were confident they would accept this arrangement, as it meant they could avoid the manpower cost of standing-up a “real” QRF and just pocket the money we paid them for their QRF.

A supervisor and an assistant of their company were allowed in our command post, but command and control of all security remained with Abate Risk, Ltd.

The purpose of their original ploy was to “put the squeeze” on our client with the aim of getting bribes. We always advise clients that bribes should never be paid as by paying one you open the floodgates for others. In addition, there was the criminality factor covered by local laws and other laws such as the U.S. Foreign and Corrupt Practice Act and the U.K. Bribery Act.

We did win the “war” and the security plan was reapproved-identical to the original plan!!!  Additional cost for the other security company was minimal in view of the total event cost; less than US$2,000.00 against US$1.2 million for the event.

“11th Hour” Issues

It was an evening hours event.  The afternoon of the event, is always a hectic period; final decoration of the party space, catering is setting up, advance agents are checking that the design and set-up hasn’t changed, evacuation routes are clear, safe havens are still applicable, and so on through a long list of security action items.

Just as all this is in motion, a delegation of Municipal Police (rather than District Police) arrived and initiated a purportedly “official” inspection of the venue.  Not surprising to us, the venue failed the inspection when the Officers claimed that the CCTV system and other security systems were not up to municipal code. We questioned how that could be possible.  The venue met International Olympic Committee code and must have met Municipal code at the time of the Olympics.  If was obvious that another “squeeze” was in play, and the inspection was merely a cover story.

As a bribe would not be paid, lateral thinking was needed, as without a pass for the inspection, the event could not go ahead. Our solution that was accepted was two-fold: we made a small donation to the municipal development fund with the provision that we were given an official receipt; and a contingent of Municipal Police be “nearby” on standby and called out if necessary if the venue security systems failed. As the contingent officers were on extra duties, we would pay for the overtime at the official government rate. Again, official receipts were part of the agreement and would be sent to client after the event. Once more, the event was safe and greenlighted.

But this is not the end.

Not long after we resolved the security issue, a fire department contingent arrived.  In China, the fire department is a part of the police department, not a separate government agency. Although controlled and managed by the police, firefighters themselves are serving military personnel seconded to the fire department.

The squeeze was on again and allegedly the venue was not up to the municipal fire code even though six months earlier it met all those requirements and even exceeded Olympic Committee code.   Once again, we offered a compromise: a contingent of fire marshals would be on standby, and we would pay the over-time.

We had dealt effectively with police, fire, and security officials.  We thought that was it. It was not.

One hour before the event was to start, senior local police officers appeared at the venue with a group of men and women and purportedly also police officers. We quickly and surreptitiously confirmed that the group were senior police officers who had invited their friends to attend the party for the free food and drink, and the entertainment.

Our client had not been approached by any official about this in advance nor had they invited any of these people.  To make matters worse, these uninvited “guests” were not dressed for the event – a formal affair – and definitely would not “fit in.” We faced a serious dilemma.  On one hand, we could not let them attend the event.  On the other, we could not offend senior police officers or cause them to “lose face” with their guests.

We consulted our own police contacts and devised a diversionary plan. We told the officials and their guests that they were welcome to attend the event.  They were pleased.  However, in compliance with security, fire, health, and safety requirements, we needed to make a record of all attendees’ personal details – officers and their guests.  We needed to record their names, addresses, official positions, and relationship to guests.  All of them chafed at this condition and we could see the annoyance level rising.  This was a risky ploy because among the group were, in fact, senior police officers, and they had “influence.”  But we stood our ground because we had an alternative offer ready.

We had already reserved a nearby restaurant where event staff could relax, have a meal, and enjoy a live feed of the entertainment on big screen TVs before they went back to work dismantling the venue after the event.  Working quickly, we arranged to partition a section of the restaurant, upgraded the food menu, and included alcoholic beverages. The major cost of the remote site was already in the budget.

We were pleased to inform the officers and their friends that they were invited to attend a private party as guests of the client at the restaurant where they would be served food and drink, and the event entertainment on TV.  There would be no need to collect and record any personal information.  They gladly accepted.

Admittedly, these are extreme – yet true – examples of problems, roadblocks, and interference that may crop up on international details, especially in countries where the rule of law and/or compliance is weak, or corruption is common. Being confrontational and attacking the problem head on as in, “We are in the right and have the moral high ground,” won’t resolve the issue and could result in arrests, fines, and embarrassment for you and your protectees.

Learn how to recognize these games and “squeezes,” and how to create acceptable compromises.

When You Do Not Control the Situation

On the other side of the coin, there may be situations when official action and processes, not corruption, are a frustrating impediment that cannot be avoided and you are impotent; situations in which you cannot alter the conditions.  You will need a workaround plan.  Here is an example.

U.S. President George H.W. Bush made an official trip to China in 1989.  I was in Beijing with a U.S. client who was on a business trip unrelated to the president’s visit, but both were staying at the same hotel.  On the plus side, hotel security was significantly enhanced, including walk-thru metal detectors at the entrance. On the minus side, everything and everyone was locked down 30 minutes before POTUS departed or returned to the hotel. Compounding this inconvenience, POTUS’ schedule was not disclosed, so we never knew precisely when a lock-down would occur.

Moving to a different hotel was not an option.  We needed a contingency plan to move our client between on-site and off-site meetings.  Here is some of what we proposed, and the client accepted.

We notified all parties with whom the client had scheduled on-site and off-site meetings of the situation at the hotel and the possible short notice of delays in arriving at meetings.

We relocated several off-site meetings to meetings at the hotel.  We arranged for our client to use a hotel conference room or the hotel business lounge.

There were no obvious indicators from the Secret Service of an imminent lock-down.  However, we knew that in advance of POTUS movement, the police and other security personnel would incrementally increase manpower and start taking up fixed security post positions before the lock-down was initiated. To our advantage, we stationed a protection agent in the hotel lobby and another at the hotel driveway/main road junction. When these agents saw a security uptick, we were able to notify the client who was on a “five-minute to move” notice.  The client would then decide whether to leave the hotel then, or sit though the lock-down  This advance notice, even though it was a small window gave the client options, and more time to notify people with whom he had meetings that there might be a delay in arrival.

Our contingency plan worked; it reduced our client’s inconvenience and disruption of the meetings schedule.

Our client was able to conduct business without embarrassment or perceived insult to others due to tardiness.

Start by explaining the situation to the client so he or she understands that it is beyond his, hers, or your control.  Then devise workarounds.

PSC member Philip J. Curlewis, CFE, CHS-III, has over 38 years of international experience in executive protection, security consulting, crisis management and investigations.  He was a member of the British Royal Military Police for eight years with a range of duties in the United Kingdom, Central America, Germany, and Hong Kong.  Since 1989 he has worked in the private security industry in Asia.  In the early 1990s, he and his team were the first international pioneers to provide security and investigative services in “Greater China.”

As the owner of Abate Risk, Ltd he personally led or supervised over 19,500 assignments that have taken him all over the world including high threat environments, conflict and war zones.  His clients include high-profile banking, finance, and insurance; sports and entertainment; NGOs; and charitable organizations.

In late 2019, he moved to a corporate position as Senior Consultant at Megastrength Security Services Co., Ltd so he could pass along his experience and knowledge through teaching and training. MSS is a wholly owned subsidiary of Henderson Land Development Co., Ltd, a diversified blue chip company founded in 1976 and listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

He speaks fluent Cantonese, basic Mandarin, and Thai.

[email protected]

Cover photo by Alasdair Elmes on Unsplash

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