Security top of mind at Dairy Expo’s home

Jan Shepel

MADISON - Flags stood at half mast on the grounds of World Dairy Expo to honor the victims of the Las Vegas shooting, but the horrific incident did little to stifle the annual five-day dairy event or change its security.

Flags between the Exhibition Hall and New Holland Pavilions stood at half mast during World Dairy Expo to honor victims of the murderous events in Las Vegas earlier in the week. During the five-day cattle event that drew as many at 14,000 or more attendees per day (with hundreds of visitors from 70 countries) organizers say they are ready with safety and security plans to keep everyone safe.

“I guarantee you nobody stayed home from World Dairy Expo because of what happened in Las Vegas,” said Alliant Energy Center’s Executive Director Mark Clarke, who had held that post for nearly five years. Before that he was General Manager of World Dairy Expo for five years.

The Alliant Energy Center holds 10,000-person events here all the time, he said, and there are often multiple large-scale events held there simultaneously so they are proactive on security planning and training.

“We train our staff on what to look for — strange behavior, people trying to enter areas where they aren’t supposed to be, things like that — and we work with a lot of agencies,” he said. The staff at the Alliant Center, which includes 31 full-time and 200 part-time people shares joint training with the Dane County Sheriff’s Department. In addition, Clarke said, World Dairy Expo brings in its own private security staff.

There are uniformed sheriff’s deputies on the grounds during the show as well as undercover officers and FBI agents who stay behind the scenes but help coordinate and participate in security for the show.

“We try to blend and balance visible security with undercover security,” he said. This show, with its large attendance and international slate of visitors — there were 1,725 international visitors from 84 countries on Thursday — calls for a tailored safety and security plan. Local, state and federal authorities all help create that overall security plan. “We do work very closely with all levels.

“This isn’t the kind of thing you get together a week before an event like this,” he added, noting that everything was in place before the Las Vegas shooting. “Our staff and security people have trained and worked all year on this but they do take note of events like that and incorporate that into their security plan. We have held active shooter training.”

The facility under Clarke’s care holds as many as 400 events per year, with a million people in total passing through its gates. Trade shows held there include everything from 2,500 head of cattle to 600 horses to more than 2,000 sheep on the grounds.

World Dairy Expo is one of the three largest events of the year for the venue, and it uses every square foot on the grounds as well as taking over an adjacent dog park that is not part of the Alliant Energy Center. The venue is also home to the Dane County Fair which brings a lot of children and young people to the grounds as well as a huge variety of livestock.

Matt Clarke

The county fair, as well as events like the Kids Expo where there are a lot of children in attendance, require a slightly different set of security criteria. “We train our staff to look and listen for different things when kids are involved,” he added. “Some events are more international and some involve more alcohol consumption. We adapt and take a different mind set for different shows. Every show is unique.

“But the shooting in Las Vegas reminds you that we need to be conscious of all kinds of threats. It’s our obligation to assure our attendees, guests and customers as safe an experience as possible,” he said.

In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, when a man allegedly knocked out high-rise hotel windows so he could spray an outdoor music festival with automatic rifle rounds, Clarke said he asks himself “could that have happened here? It gets you thinking and we try to learn all we can from it.”

One of the aspects of the Alliant Center’s security plan involves flow pattern. World Dairy Expo has four entry points and staff members at the gates are the “very first line of defense” for an event. “They are equipped with radios and we always tell them that if there’s something that even looks half suspicious to call it in,” he said.

Though World Dairy Expo is open for five days, the security plans cover much more than that. “We don’t have the public here during what we call ‘ingress’ — when the show is getting set up — but we take that piece very seriously too,” he said.

In the time since he began as manager of World Dairy Expo to now, Clarke has seen a lot of changes in awareness and in different situations that have presented themselves in terms of security and safety both domestically and internationally.

Back then, the biggest concern was bio-security in the wake of high-profile animal disease outbreaks in Europe and England. That aspect is still important for a show like World Dairy Expo, he said, although it’s human nature to let it slip from memory a bit.

 “World Dairy Expo does a heck of a good job in that area, with animal identification, health papers and working with the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s people on policies and protocols. It’s not something you really see, but it’s an important part of security here too.”

In addition to the large events that have traditionally been held at the Alliant Energy Center — World Dairy Expo and the Midwest Horse Fair — additional new events have been added. Two large livestock shows were new to the county-owned venue in 2017.  The National Junior Sheep Show brought in 2,200 head of sheep and the National Junior Goat Show brought 2,500 goats to Madison.

The grounds were also home to the Crossfit Games this year as well as national baton twirling and tumbling championships. Clarke said the Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau has done great work in bringing some of these new events to the venue he manages.

The multiple-use New Holland Pavilions, which were finished in the fall of 2014, were a game changer, Clarke said. World Dairy Expo was the first show to use them. Since that time the pavilions have provided a way to bring many new events to the grounds — and to make sure the people there have a safe and fun event.