Festival Security After Route 91: Elaborate and Expensive - But Not Foolproof

          

Remie Geoffroi

Six months after Anna Rae Travnicek’s boyfriend, Travis Reed, pushed her to the ground at the Route 91 Harvest festival and shielded her body with his own as bullets rained down around them, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and bouts of anxiety.

“My heart is still broken,” says Travnicek of surviving the attack in Las Vegas. “After the shooting, I wasn't able to listen to Jason Aldean -- it was a trigger,” she says. Though she adds that the trauma of that October night won’t keep her from going to concerts “or trying to live my life.”

Many in the live-music industry have expressed a similar resolve, even as they acknowledge that the concert business will never be the same after deadly attacks on Route 91; the Bataclan in Paris; the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.; and Ariana Grande’s Manchester, England, arena show, which was attacked by a suicide bomber.

As the 2018 outdoor festival season approaches, concertgoers will encounter increased security measures and -- as a result of their implementation and fees paid to the growing group of security consultants that recommend them -- higher ticket prices. These precautions may make festival crowds feel safer, but privately, many in the live industry express skepticism that there is any foolproof way to protect outdoor audiences from a terrorist like Route 91 killer Stephen Paddock, who meticulously planned an onslaught that no one had anticipated.

“Much of what is being done is to create the perception that people are safe and to limit liability, but it’s really difficult to stop a determined individual who takes the time to plot one of these attacks,” says a source in the festival space who requested anonymity.

As another industry insider points out, Route 91 organizers had spent a year preparing for active-shooter scenarios, but did not foresee a sniper attack from above.

Live Nation president of country touring Brian O’Connell, who co-founded and promoted Route 91, confirms this: “Of the 8 million [what-ifs] that cross your mind when you promote shows for a living, that is not something that ever occurred to me,” he says.

Now that the attack has become the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, security firms that specialize in risk assessment for live-event spaces are developing protocols to prevent another. Although these firms are reluctant to discuss specific tactics because “we don’t want the bad guys to know our plan,” says one security expert, they increasingly involve the latest in surveillance and detection technology. Mike Downing, chief security officer with Prevent Advisors, a security firm owned by sports and entertainment facilities company Oak View Group, says that his firm is exploring artificial intelligence-directed camera systems that track and assess thousands of people at once, along with tethered drones that can stay aloft in a stationary position for days at a time. (Coachella plans to use drones to monitor the festival site for suspicious packages and activity.)

Military-style approaches are also on the table. David Yorio, co-owner of New York-based Citadel Security Agency, says he has had discussions about deploying sniper towers at events and high-powered flood lights that would be used to locate and blind assailants, especially those launching attacks from nearby buildings. And Rick Mueller, president of North America for AEG Presents -- which stages Coachella, Panorama and New Orleans’ Jazz Fest -- says event planners are increasingly reaching out to the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of State for advice.

LiveStyle (formerly SFX), which produces the Tomorrowland and Electric Zoo festivals, relies on an in-house security/risk assessment executive with an anti-terrorism background who operates out of a mobile command center. Bomb-sniffing dogs are also employed, according to president/CEO Randy Phillips.

Reports that Paddock had also booked hotel rooms overlooking the Life Is Beautiful Festival in Vegas and Lollapalooza in Chicago before staging his assault on Route 91 have also forced event producers to acknowledge this new risk and significantly widen their security perimeters to surrounding buildings. Bob O’Neill, president of the Grant Park Conservancy, which administers the Lollapalooza site, says festival organizers are working closely with hotels near the park to share security and communications strategies to guard against a similar attack. Paddock had rented a hotel room that overlooked the intersection of East Balbo Drive and Michigan Avenue, and O’Neill points out that when there’s “an extreme-weather incident, as we’ve had in the past, that area is wall-to-wall people leaving the park. It’s horrifying to think about what could have happened,” he says.

The cost of the technology, staffing and preparations that are being rolled out in anticipation of the summer season is steep. Security spending for major festivals could increase by $100,000-$250,000 for staff and planning in 2018 -- which translates to a $2-$5 increase in ticket prices for a 50,000-person festival.

“Security has become a big business,” says Phillips. “We absorb some of it and pass some of it on to the consumer, [but] I don’t think anyone would complain about an extra couple of dollars on the price of a multiday ticket if they knew they had someone watching over them.”

“It can be a significant impact to our [profits] -- concert promotion is already a small-margin business,” says Mueller, “but we have to protect the patrons.”

There’s also a level of self-preservation involved. Lawyers for Route 91 victims and their families have filed a class-action lawsuit against Live Nation and MGM, which owns the festival site, alleging negligence in the planning of the festival and the response to the attack. One lawyer involved in the case tells Billboard that his firm estimates the two companies could pay out as much as $1 billion in damages.

Yet despite the increased security, the cold reality, according to a number of promoters, is that while these new protocols may have lessened the carnage in Las Vegas, they wouldn’t have kept it from happening. Says Downing: “An attack from an elevated position is going to be difficult to prevent if all the buildings around the site are not secured.”  

This article originally appeared in the April 14 issue of Billboard. 

Festivals 2018