There are two parts to this narrative about how we took care of an A-List Hollywood star during his visits to China as a brand ambassador for our client, an international tier one luxury brand. The first is how Abate Risk Ltd leveraged personal information we gathered about him to establish a good and trusted working relationship and make his stay more pleasant. The second is how we managed the operational differences between his business time and private family time, without compromising protection and safety. This was especially important because Mr. A was a high-value paparazzi target.
In preparation for our first assignment with him, we researched media stories and the Internet to learn everything we could about him, especially information about his likes and dislikes. Among the details gathered about Mr. A, two stood out prominently.
‘Sugar Free Red Bull’
He drank numerous cans of sugar-free Red Bull every day. Sugar-free Red Bull was not available in China, only the standard stuff. This was our first hurdle. I’ll’ skip the supply and demand challenges this presented and just explain how I handled it. I had all my team members who were flying in for this assignment, including me, pack a dozen cans of Red Bull in their luggage. This took down the first hurdle and we completed the challenge. Attention to detail and lateral thinking did the trick!
The first time we picked him up at the airport he was pleasantly surprised and impressed to see chilled sugar-free Red Bull in the vehicle. Since Red Bull was not available on his 14-hour flight, client-team bonding began on a very positive note.
Think about this, no previous team had ever done this nor bothered to ask about his preferred beverage; I confirmed this fact later. That surprised me. Yes, it is something small and minor in terms of the protection operation, but in the mind of the protectee, it reflected our professionalism. We were immediately elevated to the above and beyond category. That is always a good space to be in with the client.
We all do the hard skills to different degrees of efficiency and effectiveness. It’s the soft skills and attention to detail that makes a team stand out. That one small detail helped us open a dialogue with him about his other likes and dislikes. Establishing that strong professional relationship was immensely helpful for us to accommodate his preferences in different situations.
Thereafter, over the three years that he came to Asia, we always had sugar-free Red Bull in his vehicle, hotel suite, and at all the events he attended. He said he was always happy to see us, was more relaxed in what we were doing, and trusted us in how we were running his protection detail. Only on rare occasions did he ask us why we wanted to do something.
We were quickly elevated to his ‘trusted advisor’ status. It started with something as simple as can of Red Bull. We did plenty of other small and trivial things that we did not have to do. We are fanatical about soft skills, research, and professional pride. We were not just providing a protection detail, we genuinely cared about his enjoyment and wellbeing which, in my mind, is just as important. I insist on – aim to please – in all our assignments. It is not a hardship nor inconvenient nor unprofessional to do this. It is value added, and things protectees will remember. They do not remember the protection operation nor that it was successful. That is what they expect!
Fan Appreciation – Mr. A has a large fan base in Asia and is very recognizable!
Our research also revealed that Mr. A liked being approachable to his fans. He said people pay good money to watch his movies and so, are indirectly paying his salary. It was common for him to mingle with fans, sign autographs, and pose for photos
Therefore, as part of our planning process before every event and every move in and out of the hotel, I asked him beforehand, if he wanted to spend time with fans. We had the options of moving him via the lobby and main entrance, a low key and discreet side entrance, or the underground car park – totally securable for our purposes.
His schedule did not always permit time for this extra activity, but we tried to adjust the operation as much as we could to allow for it. At times, this also included driving a bit faster or using a route we knew would have less traffic to gain time for fans while adhering to our client’s event schedule. This further strengthened the trust bond.
Together we decided on an overt but non-descript sign such as scratching his left ear if he wanted or needed extraction from his fan gatherings. We use a covert sign indicating distress/extraction with most of the public figures and celebrities we protect. This allows us to give them space to perform their public duties without our obvious and enveloping presence, while still being in close proximity to provide appropriate close protection.
We also deployed dressed down local agents to mingle in with the fans in close proximity to Mr. A as an extra layer of safety. We did that so these agents could interject themselves or run interference if any situation developed that might, intentionally or unintentionally, directly or indirectly, jeopardize his safety.
In addition, we briefed Mr. A on how we would deploy, operate, and react during fan time, and discussed our positioning so he had space without us compromising his safety and without us compromising our protection operation. The Principal Security Officer (PSO) would also stand off more than the norm, but close enough to react while adhering to the Arm’s Reach Principle. Other covert and discreet tactics were also applied.
We have a different signal…don’t laugh…for when someone is boring our protectee, is irritating him or her, or the protectee has just had enough of the person. It is our standard op commonly used at cocktail parties and PR events.
When we get this signal, we do not rush in and lead the protectee away. Instead, an agent approaches the protectee, apologizes to the other person, hands the protectee a cell phone and says there is an important call that he or she needs to take, then leads them away. If the offending person tries to follow, a second agent will run interference with a blocking action and apology saying the call may take some time.
That person then goes on our watch list and if they try again to buttonhole our protectee, we alert our protectee and move him before the other person can get to him. In this way no embarrassment or animosity is caused, nor is there any escalation or confrontation.
On one visit to China, Mr. A’s wife and young son accompanied him, and his itinerary included private family time between public appearances and the main event, a 3,000 person VIP and VVIP invitation only party with international and local press present. That event was also on my plate for event and venue security, protection, and fire, health, and safety. (See related article: “Creative Responses To Curveballs Averted Disaster At This International Event”)
At the time, possible legal issues in the U.S. had brought more than usual attention to Mr. A so the paparazzi showed an enhanced interest in him; even American paparazzi were flying in for this event. We were aware of this attention beforehand, so our operation expanded to include working up a more extensive paparazzi response plan.
We were able to identify the local and U.S. based paparazzi in the area and how they normally operate; what vehicles they were using and where they were staging them; where they were staying, including one at Mr. A’s hotel; and their MO’s and tactics.
We also wanted to know where the paparazzi were most likely to focus their effort. We made pretext calls to various local and U.S. tabloid publications to find out what kind of pictures they most wanted and what they would pay. We learned they eagerly wanted personal time photos of Mr. A with his family, ideally at notable sites such as the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and Summer Place.
At that point we knew who the paparazzi were, what they wanted, and how they would go about getting it. Armed with that, we developed a counterstrategy to defeat them. “Know your opponent” so you can better counter and mitigate their likely actions!
I briefed our primary client – Mr. A’s sponsor for this visit – about what paparazzi problems we anticipated and our counter-response. They approved our plan, including funds for two more vehicles and drivers needed for decoys and protective screening of Mr. A’s motorcade. My justification to our client for these additions was that we did not want paparazzi annoyance and their stories to overshadow the event, nor cause unwanted distraction that would dilute the event message and purpose.
Fortunately for us, in China, the paparazzi enjoy far less press freedom than other parts of the world; they are restricted in what they can do and get away with. We took advantage of those restrictions. For example, most of the paparazzi were not registered guests of the hotel where Mr. A was staying. With the aid of the hotel we were able to prevent them from entering or even being on the grounds – most of the time. But they were persistent and knew their trade. And so do we.
I assigned two agents to conduct surveillance detection: active protective intelligence gathering on the paparazzi, and other persons found to be showing interest in Mr. A, and his family. We knew their every move.
Our intelligence operation also uncovered a hotel employee who was meeting and communicating regularly with one of the U.S. paparazzi. We notified hotel management and between my guys and hotel security, we ensured that the employee did not get near Mr. A, nor get any operational information that she could pass along to her paparazzi contact.
We could have asked the hotel to force the offending employee to take leave or suspend her. We had two reasons for not doing so. First, that might have created negative PR for our client, Mr. A, and the hotel. Second, and more importantly, we used her at opportune times to feed the paparazzi disinformation and misinformation about Mr. A’s activities and movements.
The Hunt is On. Release the Hounds!
On day one of private time, we sent out the decoy motorcade. It drove out of Beijing in the opposite direction of the sites Mr. A was to visit. The paparazzi took the bait and Mr. A, and family had a paparazzi-free day.
On day two of private time, we sent the motorcade out but this time, only half the paparazzi followed. The motorcade went for a while and then stopped at a petrol station and the drivers opened all the doors and pretended to be cleaning the vehicles. Seeing the vehicles were empty, the paparazzi returned to the hotel. Meanwhile, we used a different vehicle the paparazzi had not seen to get Mr. A, and family out of the hotel via the underground car park. We took him to a pre-arranged location where he reunited with the original motorcade that had moved on from the petrol station after the paparazzi gave up the chase. Again, a no paparazzi day!
The hunt intensified and the paparazzi were far more dogged. Whenever Mr. A and his family entered the hotel lobby, our surveillance team saw a corresponding movement of paparazzi outside the hotel grounds, getting ready to move. “Correlation of movement in attack recognition” came to mind. A lesson learnt as a young agent!
On the third and final family day, we knew that our other evasions would not work again without a potential for confrontation and negative escalation. Rather than an elaborate ruse, we used a common, effective, and simple tactic.
In full view of all, Mr. A and his family walked through the main lobby on their way to board the pre-staged motorcade at the main entrance. One of the paparazzi in the hotel lobby spotted Mr. A, and jumped up with his camera at the ready. We had earlier identified this photographer, but he had a room at the hotel so he could not be ejected. Knowing this, we concocted a plan to thwart him using hotel security staff who were more than happy to help.
The plan was, that if the person acted out as paparazzi do by getting too close to our protectee, and this one did, our team would ignore him, and hotel security would intercede. Not only did we foil the photographer’s effort, we sidestepped the possibility that a bad PR angle could be engineered or exploited such as, “Celebrity Goons Manhandle Press!”
Initially Mr. A. thought hotel security were manhandling a fan, but before he could get annoyed, we told him the photographer was U.S paparazzi. He smiled and said thank you, boarded his vehicle and we were off for a day of sightseeing.
The paparazzi followed, but unbeknown to them, our other two vehicles followed. As the motorcade approached the planned off ramp, it remained in the inside fast lane. Our covert vehicles then moved up to take blocking positions in the adjacent lane next to the paparazzi vehicles. At the last possible moment, the motorcade swerved across three lanes of traffic…in a safe manner…and exited the off ramp. Our blocking vehicles had mirrored the paparazzi vehicles when they sped up or slowed and kept them trapped in the inside lane, so pursuit of the motorcade was impossible. The next exit was several miles down the highway. Mr. A and family were not bothered by anyone the day they visited the Great Wall and the Summer Place.
Later, Mr. A told us that he and his family had enjoyed being involved in the counter-paparazzi operations. We always briefed them beforehand to get their buy-in and understanding.
Mother and Child
When we learned that Mr. A’s wife and son would be with him on the visit, we did more personal research. We wanted to know all we could about Mrs. A and the child, their likes and dislikes, and family dynamic. Critics might say that we did not need to do this extra work since Mr. A was our focus. I disagree and say it would be a mistake not to. We could have skipped this step, and no one would have noticed. But that is not how I operate.
Mr. A’s comfort, well-being, and performance while serving as our primary client’s brand ambassador would be directly affected by his family’s presence, so we went above and beyond again. Furthermore, it cemented our professional relationship with the couple, and increased the level of trust between them and my team. That enabled us to be far more effective in dealing with the added challenges of this visit that I have already described, and more.
For instance, there were client events at which it was not appropriate for his young son to attend or were past his bedtime. For those occasions, our client asked the hotel to supply a baby-sitter. I thought there was a better way.
Because the wife and child would be with Mr. A, I had added two female agents to the detail. Both these women had international experience and understood Western and Asian cultures and mindset. In addition, one of the women was married and had a child about the same age as Mr. A’s son.
This gave me an idea that I first broached with the agent; extra duty-babysitting. I asked if she would be comfortable with this assignment? Without hesitation, she said yes.
I then asked the hotel for details about their recommended babysitter. I needed to do that since she would be one of the authorized inner cordon personnel, and we would not approve her without doing our own security vulnerability assessment and vetting.
Her bio was fine, and nothing in our vetting disqualified her. Moreover, I had no reason to doubt she was a good babysitter. I was, however, a little uneasy about the cultural differences in childcare but again, that was not enough to stop the hiring.
I took the leap and spoke with my primary client, Mr. A, and hotel management about this arrangement. I presented my idea delicately and diplomatically to ensure no one got bent out of shape or felt slighted.
From a security standpoint, it was better. From the child’s recognition and comfort standpoint, it was better. I reminded everyone that my two women agents had accompanied Mrs. A and the child at all the official and private events and had developed good rapport. The child would definitely be more accepting of our agent since he had been with her during the day, and she knew his likes and dislikes, and how to make him comfortable. Rather than a stranger appearing on the scene, albeit a trained professional nanny, it would also give Mr. A, and more so Mrs. A, a higher-level of peace of mind. I finished by telling them about my proposed babysitter agent’s personal life, and that there was no extra cost for her to do this.
My offer was accepted, and positive, unintended consequences evolved. The A’s enjoyed more “mummy-daddy” time in the evening after their son’s bedtime. They had more time for Beijing sightseeing, dining out, and our client was incredibly happy that they could add PR events to the official itinerary. It was a win-win for all.
I didn’t need to do this. From the security standpoint, the hotel babysitter was acceptable. In my mind though, it was a desire to go above and beyond to increase Mr. and Mrs. A’s wellbeing, comfort, and enjoyment; not just serving as a protection detail. While it wasn’t my motivation, this small enhancement turned out to be another positive differentiator that elevated my team above others.
Years later I was visiting with an old friend who was the Food and Beverage Manager at a major five-star International hotel in Hong Kong. He told me that Mr. A was staying at his hotel. This time he was representing another company and they had arranged for his protection. I asked my friend if he had sugar-free Red Bull in stock, had he placed it in Mr. A’s suite, and had his protection team requested it? He said NO to all. Obviously, Mr. A’s protection team had not done their homework.
I asked him to buy a supply of sugar-free Red Bull to stock Mr. A’s suite and vehicle. I would pay for it. After some persuasion, my friend agreed to do it. There was an immediate positive reaction from Mr. A. Since the protection team didn’t know anything about it, Mr. A asked the hotel. My friend got major kudos and the General Manager was ecstatic about Mr. A’s praise for his hotel initiative and attention to detail. Once more, a very small thing that creates major goodwill and elevates the protectee’s “happiness quotient.”
My friend did tell Mr. A it was my doing. He said Mr. A smiled and nodded. He remembered, even after a few years, during which he must have had numerous different protection details.
Later, after Mr. A departed, my friend told the General Manager how he knew about the sugar-free Red Bull and what I had done. Shortly after that, the GM invited me and my wife for a complimentary dinner at our choice of the hotel’s restaurants. It was a thoughtful gift, and I accepted since I had no conflict of interest in this instance.
Over the years, I have protected the full spectrum of clients. My preference is C-Suite executives followed by high net worth individuals and families. Celebrities and socialites are not as high on my list. But regardless of preferences, I always give it my all for those under my care.
For me, it is never a matter of just going through the motions. Nor will I not tolerate complacency. I have never fallen into the trap of cutting corners to increase profit, born from the insidious attitude that “nothing will happen;” something I see far too often in this profession. These attitudes and practices are at the top of my disgust barometer.
After all these moons, I am still passionate about this profession and always strive to perform to the best of my ability, expertise, and knowledge, with professional pride – but not ego! As I age, I know I am wiser, a little more jaded, far more cynical, and stoic. Yet I still work with a smile.
I always plan for the worst, and hope for the best…after having applied all the tools and tricks of the trade I have learned…and are still learning. So, every day between those benchmarks is a good and successful day.
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.
Cover photo licensed under CC BY-NC-ND