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When Crisis Comes Calling

When you hear the phrase “risk management,” visions of the worst possible things that could happen during your meeting — on the scale of major terror attacks like 9/11, the London Tube bombings, the Boston Marathon bombing or the more recent Paris attacks — may come to mind. And while those type of incidents are certainly things that must be guarded against, these days, it’s often the more mundane crises that stymie planners.

Follow the Scout Motto

To stave off crisis management disasters, one of the biggest things that most planners can do is to have a concrete plan in place for what to do if something happens.

“Unfortunately, at this point, maybe only 20 percent of meetings have a crisis management plan in place,” said Donna Karl Sakelakos, CMP, vice president of event operations for Tradeshow Logic. “Even over the years with the disasters that have happened, that number doesn’t seem to go up. A one-pager with some key telephone and cell phone numbers would be useful should a disaster happen.”

The Professional Convention Management Association offers plug-and-play crisis management plans for planners. However, the infrequent occurrence of events like terror attacks, tornados and earthquakes often means this emergency planning is trumped by more pressing figurative fires that planners need to put out. According to Sakelakos, it’s the more common things like ill staff members, electrical outages, bus breakdowns, road closures, flight cancellations and on-site medical emergencies that get planners’ attention.

“One of the things that was a wake-up call for me along the way was a staff member who got very ill on site,” Sakelakos said. “She didn’t have a husband, her children were grown and there was no one at home to call.” She now keeps an emergency list for all staff members who are on site and recommends planners collect emergency contact information for all attendees as part of the registration process.

Some issues can take planners by surprise and have a large negative effect on meetings, such as a parade occupying the part of the street where food truck lunch was to be held or a political motorcade blocking buses on the road for so long that attendees miss the fireworks at the marina for the kick-off party. Many of these potential problems can be uncovered and their effects averted by questioning, regularly and rigorously, the CVB, convention center and hotel about what else is going on at the time a meeting is in town.

Sakelakos recommends that planners ask one year, six months, one month, one week and one day out who will be in town before and after their group and what else is going on while their group is on site. Be particularly aware of anything that would have caused a meeting to be moved or cancelled if it had been known ahead of time, such as major construction affecting audibility in meeting rooms.

What’s Your Quorum?

While major incidents such as labor strikes or security threats may prevent an entire event from taking place, it’s also important to plan for disruptions that do not prevent the entire meeting but keep a certain crucial number of attendees from getting to or attending the event.

Naomi Angel, a partner at law firm Howe and Hutton specializing in meeting contracts, said that planners always want to “negotiate before to address a crisis rather than during or after. It’s important to be proactive, but insurance is very broad. Make sure you have an effective force majeure clause tailored to your situation.”

Some of the most important issues for a planner to cover in their force majeure clause, such as the potential for sequestration affecting a government meeting or a mass medical emergency keeping doctors from attending a medical meeting, are unique to the group and often overlooked in most basic guidelines on how to set up a force majeure clause and crisis management plan.

“The force majeure clause needs to be tailored and contain the language ‘inadvisable’ [for the meeting to proceed],” Angel said. “If the facility or supplier won’t accept that word, there are alternatives like ‘commercially unreasonable.’”

Airlines have become increasingly proactive about canceling flights and rescheduling passengers well in advance of weather issues to avoid fines for keeping loaded planes on the tarmac for too long. And while this means that planners can have much more of a heads-up about when key team and board members and attendees will be late or unable to attend their event, it has also caused missed flights to become a regular factor, especially in the winter months in the north and during hurricane season in the southeast.

Weaving a minimum number of attendees into the meeting contract is a tricky negotiating point, but one that will pay off in saved cancellation fees down the line. Twenty percent can be a good target to shoot for, but it depends on the nature of the meeting.

“For cancellation, it’s whatever you can negotiate,” Angel said. “It depends on the complexity of the meeting and whether you are talking about exhibitors or attendees.” Likewise, planners must also keep in mind which venues are integral to their events and weave the availability of each together into their meeting viability language. In the same way you can’t conduct a board meeting without key leadership, the meeting venue is useless if your hotel has been flooded and you can’t find other reasonable rooms, or if a tradeshow your meeting revolves around is canceled due to a security threat.

John Foster, a partner at law firm Foster, Jensen and Gulley, which specializes in meetings and tradeshows, says this is why including a statement of purpose in hotel and venue contracts is so important.

“There are three legal reasons to terminate a contract: impossibility, impracticability and frustration of purpose,” he said. “There’s a difference between cancellation and termination. They’re not interchangeable. The legal definition of termination is that both parties go back to zero and neither side owes damages to the other side.”

Before the worst happens, beyond having the best possible plan in place, make one of your top priorities ensuring that your organization will not accrue damages and legal hassles as a result of unexpected crises for the foreseeable future.