In 2001, a Minneapolis couple, along with their 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, visited the indoor theme park at the Mall of America. It was supposed to be a treat for the kids who recently had to move schools so their father could take a new job. But things quickly went haywire when they noticed the boy had been separated. With no meeting spot agreed beforehand or any idea how this could have happened, the family was thrown into their worst nightmare.

Thankfully, about an hour and a half later, the boy was found safe at the security post. A good Samaritan who saw the kid wandering had dropped him off there. It was the best news of the year for that family. While they had a happy ending thanks to a kind stranger, many other similar experiences have ended much, much worse.

Of course, no one plans for themselves or their kids to get separated or lost in the crowd, but it does happen, every day. In those instances where someone goes missing in a public place, you will need a proactive plan. That’s where a meeting spot (or safe spot) will come in.

A meeting spot is essentially a place for everyone to meet up should one or more persons get separated. It's better to have a meeting spot and not need it than to need it and not have it. This article will take it a step further to educate you on how to effectively navigate meeting spots under pressure.

Importance of Having a Meeting Spot in Crowded Places

No one goes to a public event, a shopping mall, or other crowded areas expecting to be separated. But it can happen, whether it's a momentary distraction for adults or the curiosity of kids. It's quite common to find lost kids in crowded areas. It's best to prepare for it. An effective way to prepare for this is to establish a meeting spot when you get to such places.

A meeting spot approach can be a life saver for several reasons. First, it makes sure everyone can find their way back to the others in case they get separated. Establishing and implementing a safe spot saves you worry, time, and stress. Additionally, you won't have to go blindly searching for a member of your group if you establish a meeting spot. Instead, they will come to you.

Also, it allows the remaining members of the group to keep calm and not panic. Simply head to  the safe spot to reunite with the separated person(s). Picking a meeting spot shows your family how to respond, where to go, and most importantly, leads to a much more pleasant outcome.

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Selecting Your Meeting Spot

The first step to having a meeting spot is to decide on one when you enter a crowded place. But it's one thing to set up a meeting spot, and another thing to do it effectively.

Have a ‘Standard’ Meeting Spot in Mind

This is the first step. Pick a safe spot to meet in case you are, for any reason, separated from one another. Before you arrive at the destination of the crowded place, you should already have this spot in mind. It doesn’t matter if you have never been to the place prior. All public properties have some standard spots, like a front entrance or Security Post, etc., in common.

When selecting a meeting spot, find one with a distinctive feature, such as the reception desk, or a water fountain. A unique spot will stand out more than a nondescript bench or one of many booths.

If young kids are involved, pick something or a place with bright colors or lights that will appeal to them. Also, the ‘fun-ness’ makes it easy for them to remember.

Make Sure Everyone Knows the Meeting Spot

Picking a meeting spot is only the start. Next, you must ensure that every member of your party knows the selected safe spot. Emphasize the detail of the meeting spot until everyone, including the kids, understand every bit of it. Say it. Repeat it. Then, ask each person where they are to meet to ensure they truly got it.

Bonus: Have a Code Word for Children

As an added safety layer, for the kids, come up with an emergency code word. Make sure to pick 1-2 words they can easily remember under duress and one only you and them would think to use in an emergency. It can be fun like ‘SpongeBob’ or practical like ‘check mate’.

This code word will add an additional layer of security, like 2-factor authentication. If your child comes to the meeting spot and is waiting for you to get back, a stranger may take the opportunity to try to lead them away saying “your mommy and daddy got hurt, follow me, I’ll take you to them.” – the child should pause and ask the stranger for the code word. If they don’t know it they stay put, scream for help, do whatever they have to; but without the code word they will know they are not a part of the plan.

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Running the Meeting Spot Drill

For a meeting spot to work, everyone in your group has to understand the plan. Not everyone may grasp the plan the first time you tell them. Running a public meeting spot drill is a fun way to measure and determine how well the plan is understood. It is best to perform this drill in a well known location for the family; maybe a local store, mall, or public park.

Drills are a way to improve everyone’s muscle memory and make your plan hitch-free when the time comes. Choose a location, determine the drill details, visit it with your family, and run a drill.  

Challenge: To practice and make everyone adept at the plan so that when they are separated from the group in a crowded place their responses will be natural, yet methodical, leading them back to the rest of the group.  

Purpose: To prepare everyone for the possibility of getting separated from the group in a crowded place. Then subsequently to have a solid emergency plan in place that will safely and surely bring everyone together.

Outcome: To get everyone to the meeting spot safely and without hassle, as quickly as possible. Run the drill until you feel confident that the whole family would be able to re-create the outcome in a non-familiar place.

Before You Go

Select a Well Known ‘Test’ Location

While it is true that a drill is not the real thing, it remains the closest we can get to reality. So, all the test locations for the drill must have certain qualities. First, it must be a well-known place to all. This will go a long way to make the group feel comfortable. Second, you must ensure that all safety measures are in place to prevent accidents during and in-between drills. Always ensure your test locations are safe for everyone, especially children.

Pick your Meeting Spot

Since you will have chosen a location you know well, select your meeting spot prior to leaving.

Ensure whatever meeting spot you pick is easily accessible by all family members. In addition, find a meet-up spot with a distinctive feature, such as the reception desk, a water fountain, a unique store, etc.

If you have kids in the group, pick something or a place that they can easily remember, like the Build-a-Bear store, or something with bright lights or colors that will appeal to them. An interesting spot will make it difficult for them to forget.

Determine the Details

Before heading to your chosen location and starting the drill, review the details of the challenge to the group while at home with no distractions around. This will allow you to explain what you guys are doing, why you are doing it, and what the objective of the outing is.

This is where you will layout where you guys are going, the designated meeting spot, who will walk with the younger kids, how long you guys will wonder before meeting back up, etc.

When You Get There

Go your Separate Ways

Select a test location, check.

Pick a meeting spot, check.

Brief everyone about the plan, check.

Now, let the drill begin. Everyone should go their separate ways now. This, however, would happen more naturally when you get separated from the group in reality. Before everyone goes their separate ways, make sure to tell them when they are to find their way back to the meeting spot.

Recommendation: Keep an Adult or Older Sibling with Children Under 10

It’s advisable, during drills, for kids under 10 to be chaperoned by older siblings or adults from the group. It will prevent this fun drill from turning into a real-life emergency.

Meet Back at Meeting Spot at Designated Time

This is easily the most important leg of the drill. After going your separate ways, everyone should gather back at the predetermined meeting spot within the timeframe chosen. When it is time to return to the meeting spot, the person walking with the child should ask the youngin if they remember where they should go. If they do let them be the 'leader'. This will help engrain the point of the drill in their little mind.

Other Safeguards

While this article is about picking meeting points in crowded places and returning there in the event of an emergency, there are other safeguards you could also do:

  • Have your family memorize each other’s phone numbers.
  • Telling kids to walk to security officials and not strangers.
  • Having the kids know and call members of the family by their full names during emergencies.
  • Establishing an emergency code word.
  • Make sure your young kids know their full names.
  • Carry Walkie Talkies for kids that are too young for phones.

Please note that these points don’t take away from what has been shared in this article, they would merely help to supplement it.

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Reviewing the Results

This is where you gather everyone around and go through everything that happened. Did everyone return on time? Did anyone have trouble finding the meeting spot again? How did the kids do? Did they fully comprehend the point of the drill? Everyone should highlight whatever challenges they encountered and then provide solutions to make it smoother in a real-life instance.

Did Everyone Arrive on Time?

First, did everyone, after going their separate ways, return to the meeting spot on time? The reason this is important is that it shows just how easy/difficult it was for everyone to navigate back to the safe spot.

Did Anyone Have Trouble Navigating Back?

Second, check if anyone had difficulty getting back to the meeting point. Was it to vague, not flashy enough for the kids, too populated with other location guests? Consider all of these when selecting your next meeting spot.

How Did the Children do?

Pay special attention to the kids. Did they get back to the safe spot on time? Did they have challenges finding the meeting spot? Did they fully understand why they were doing the drill? Listen to their feedback and tailor responses to suit their young minds.