Guest comment: Getting prepared in an age of activism

As Extinction Rebellion protests target the World Aviation Festival, and Heathrow Pause unveils plans to fly drones near the airport, travel buyers and meetings organisers need to be prepared for more activism impacting both travel and events, writes Jonathan Green

The prospect of climate change protesters storming ITM’s Conference dinner might seem far-fetched for some, but officials at Mansion House, the Royal Opera House and Intercontinental Hotel Park Lane have been surprised to find activists on their doorsteps, collapsed on the floor and superglued to front doors over the past few months.

The latest wave of environmental activism to hit Britain is in its early days, but it seems to have legs. Children used to play truant and pray that their parents wouldn’t find out that they had wagged class. Today’s students are taking a different approach: telling headteachers about their plans to stage school climate strikes and sign up their chums.

Adult activists are in on the act too.

Anyone who is involved the travel, conference and event business should be on the front foot

On 4 September, activists from Extinction Rebellion met outside the Islington Business Design Centre in London to protest at the World Aviation Festival, and are pulling together more plans to shine a light on what they call a climate emergency. Who is a target? Who knows?

Next week, meanwhile, activists from Heathrow Pause have plans to protest neat the airport.

Anyone who is involved in the travel, conference and event business should be on the front foot and be prepared for activists arriving at their door. The impact of civil disobedience on national infrastructure or at a carefully planned corporate conference should not be underestimated.

A couple of thousand well-mannered Extinction Rebellion protesters occupied (and entertained) 10,000 Metropolitan Police officers for well over a week back at Easter. Hamstrung by the politeness of protesters, the Met had little option other than to wait, watch and then carefully carry away protesters one by one.

But it will only take half a dozen activists and a couple of tubes of superglue to cause chaos at a carefully planned corporate conference.

Identifying risk
Transport emissions, particularly those from the aviation sector, are at the front and centre of the climate change challenge. And the travel and meetings industry, with its well-funded, well connected and vociferous lobby groups, is a realistic target for activists to get stuck into.

Savvy campaigners, who know that a balance needs to be struck to get the support of the public, might decide that deploying resources at corporate events, business conferences and industry exhibitions is more effective than targeting national infrastructure at this early stage.

Business travel exhibitions and glitzy dinners could well be a target. Likewise, any high-profile corporate conference, event or meeting, which offers activists the chance of public exposure and a few column inches, is at risk.

As with managing any type of risk, the first step is identifying it. Corporate security teams are the experts here, so seeking them out is a sensible first step. Get to know what risks environmental activism poses to your organisation, the resources available to help you prepare and what to do if targeted.

If a risk is identified, working with venues who have experience of managing activism might be advisable. The arms business, the oil and gas industry and tobacco firms all have a history of dealing with activists and partner with venues who know what to do if protesters turn up.

If the worst does happen and activists do descend, going all gung-ho and taking them on, like former FCO Minister Mark Field did at Mansion House, probably isn’t advisable. Ill-judged actions to remove activists that are glued onto doors might result in your prosecution and adverse publicity.

Finally, don’t expect the police to deploy in numbers and rescue the situation quick smart. Your problem is unlikely to be a priority for the Met. Remember too, it takes time for super-glued protesters to become unstuck.

During that time, expect activists to be noisy and make use of social media to promote their agenda. So, make sure everyone knows who call in the media team so a plan can be put in place – if needed.

The UK’s transport infrastructure might not be in the sight of activists right now, but re-reading business continuity plans and reflecting on lessons learned from Gatwick’s drone shutdown and the closure of air space for several days after the Eyjafjallajokull dust cloud in 2010 is probably a wise move.

At a time where an increasing number of environmental activists are prepared to use the power of civil disobedience to make their point, it’s time to prepare. Corporate events could be an easy target.

Jonathan Green

Jonathan Green has specialised in corporate responsibility and carbon accounting, as a consultant, researcher and writer for the past 20 years.

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