When bodyguards around the nation flocked to San Diego recently, the talk was all about paparazzi, terrorists and the latest tech gizmos, with seminars like "Surviving the Kill Zone — Human Factors Are the Key."
Guards trained in martial arts showed the latest techniques for subduing nightclub troublemakers, joked about the challenges of guarding celebrities like Paris Hilton and compared notes on the latest technology borrowed from the military.
The 29th annual Executive Protection Institute Conference this month came at a time when demand for bodyguards has soared in lockstep with increasing global unrest spurred by wars and economic turmoil and rising public curiosity about the private lives of celebrities.
"The more uneasy the country is, the more work we tend to have," said Jerry Heying, one of the event's organizers and executive director of the Executive Protection Institute, a training school for guards based in New York. He surveyed the platoon of bodyguards stuffed into a sea-green Holiday Inn conference room and said, "We are more relevant than ever."
Despite a struggling economy and efforts by the federal government to cut its dependence on private security contractors, the domestic private security industry has grown in recent years.
Industry experts and security-company owners say much of the demand is a result of increased crime caused by economic uncertainty as well as companies cutting costs by farming out guard work to outside companies.
Robert Perry, a private security expert, dates the increase to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and said that post- 9/11 was a "boom time for everyone in the bodyguard and security industry."
Growth averaged about 15% from 2001 to 2006 and slowed down to about 5% in the years after, according to an annual report compiled by Perry's firm, Robert Perry & Associates, which specializes in security-company mergers and acquisitions.
About 10,000 security-guard firms now operate nationwide and 1,000 firms within California, according to industry experts. But they caution that the fragmented, unregulated nature of the industry means that precise numbers are impossible to nail down.
Of the 103 professionals at the conference, many stressed the difference between armed bodyguards who protect the famous or wealthy and can earn more than $200,000 a year and unarmed security guards who patrol schools, malls and offices and earn far less.
It's not just the looming threat of terrorism that has companies and individuals eager to hire professionals trained in protection. Technology has been both a boon and a headache to bodyguards and the clients they serve.
"It's been a double-edged sword," said Kent Moyer, chief executive of World Protection Group, a security company based in Beverly Hills that serves mostly celebrities and the extremely wealthy. Moyer, who was personal bodyguard for six years to Hugh Hefner and his family, said the dangers to his clientele have multiplied as fans have become more adept at finding personal information about celebrities.
"I tell my clients to never put their own names on a deed when buying a house, to always get mail in a post office box and never at home," Moyer said. "But some of them won't and won't stop using Facebook or Twitter. Which means you are possibly telling someone crazy where you are or what you're doing in real time."
Guards also laughed about the challenges of working with high-profile celebrities. "I got a call from a movie studio to provide protection for Paris Hilton. I said no, no matter how much money it is, I'm not doing it," said one. "Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, they'll call you at 2 in the morning."
On a lunch break from the conference, four fellow bodyguards sitting in a nearby restaurant nodded vigorously in agreement.
Heying, whose firm protected Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen during their brief stint at New York University, said, "Now with Google Earth, the paparazzi or a rabid fan can go on if they have an address and see exactly what someone's house looks like. It can be a nightmare."
But some technology leaps have made it easier for bodyguards and the private security firms that employ them to keep a handle on complex or large operations. Or simply make sure that clients are getting their money's worth.
Previously classified military gadgets — like Blue Force Tracking, a global-positioning-system-enabled system used by the military to help locate friendly and hostile forces — have been adapted for use by private security firms, said Jonathan Havens, a former diplomatic security special agent for the State Department and now a security consultant with a small firm in Columbus, Ohio.
"Now companies are using some of this domestically," he said.
Unlike Britain or China, the U.S. has no overarching regulatory agency tasked with licensing and monitoring bodyguards and security firms.
Each state determines its own standards and licensing requirements, which vary widely, said Jeff Flint, executive director of the California Assn. of Licensed Security Agencies, Guards and Associates as well as the National Assn. of Security Companies.
After Sept. 11, state governments realized that private security guards, not public law enforcement, protected an estimated 85% of the crucial infrastructure around the country, Flint said.
"Standards went up and ultimately hopefully public perception," Flint said. California requirements for security guards are among the most rigorous, with minimum training of 40 hours and eight hours of continuing education a year to earn and maintain a license. The number of licensed security guards in the state has risen steadily over the last six years to 248,486 currently.
But minimum training was not what the people gathered at the conference had in mind. As the Friday drew to a close, men and a few women gathered in two adjoining hotel rooms, drinking beer and exchanging war stories of paparazzi and temperamental starlet clients.
And one other thing: The participants weren't too wild about being called bodyguards. Said Heying: "We prefer to call ourselves protection specialists."