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Just in Case: Tips for Contingency Planning

Succeeding in meetings means being ready when things don’t go according to plan.

Contingency planning, preparing for circumstances that may compromise your meeting or event, is a crucial part of a meeting planner’s job. These circumstances can include everything from the mundane, such as weather events and technology failures, to the extraordinary, such as medical emergencies, civil unrest and, yes, global pandemics. 

The past two years have presented many new obstacles to meeting planners, such as supply line issues and gathering restrictions. While it’s impossible to predict every scenario that may derail your event, there are some strategies meeting professionals can use to prepare for the unexpected and plan successful meetings in spite of obstacles. 

Here are some best practices in contingency planning from experienced event professionals. 

All About Backups 

You can’t foresee every obstacle to a smooth-running meeting, but you can prepare for some common events, such as bad weather and speaker absences. If it’s a problem you can anticipate, you should have a backup plan for it. 

“The best thing you can do is have a really good system of backups,” said Heather Herrig, founder, president and chief event strategist of Every Last Detail, a full-service event-planning firm. Herrig suggests evaluating every level of the event and having an alternative, from backup venues to backup vendors. 

For example, in the case of the weather, a rainy day may call for a backup venue for the meeting, but a major weather event may call for a backup date. If a speaker can’t make it, there should be a backup in place for the program’s content. Backup vendors and suppliers can save your meeting if there’s an issue with your planned food, entertainment or any other aspect of the meeting. Herrig even makes sure she’s provided alternate travel routes in case of traffic jams or construction. 

Though most contingencies will likely stem from external factors, it’s also smart to make sure you and your team have backups for each other in the case of illness, emergencies or other unforeseen circumstances. Herrig makes sure her team gets a copy of her client files and even has a strategy for distributing her meeting plans if something should happen to her. 

Having a backup for everything you can conceive of means you’ll encounter fewer problems and experience significantly less stress even if you have to go from plan A to plan B. 

Meet Expectations, but Be Flexible

When unexpected events occur, you often have to adjust your event plans. When thinking about contingency plans, you should strive to maintain the major objectives of the meeting whether the change is in venue or in speaker. After all, this is what defines the success of a meeting and keeps clients happy. 

“One of the main things is ensuring that you’re able to execute the event that you envision and deliver the value you expect to,” said Mazda Miles, chief event strategist at Perfection Events, a Philadelphia-based meeting- and event-planning company.

Since changes to a meeting or event can rack up expenses quickly, one of most clients’ biggest concerns to consider is the budget. Other concerns may include the meeting’s key information, themes and attendance. To ensure your meeting’s success in the face of difficulties, Miles recommends beginning the planning with a strategic conversation with the client about the meeting’s goals and objectives, then planning the meeting in a way that gives you a little flexibility should things go wrong. 

“As things change, we have to have considerations around how those decisions create other options to ensure we can still gain the objective even if we make a change,” said Miles. 

Herrig also recommends staying flexible when faced with contingencies because slight changes aren’t the end of the world as long as the main objectives of the meeting are met. Though having to change caterers or move your event indoors may not be what you originally envisioned, if it’s managed well, it’s usually not a big deal for your clients or the meeting attendees. 

“Be prepared to be creative, operating in the moment and finding solutions,” Herrig said. 

Make It a Team Effort

Preparing for every uncertainty can feel overwhelming. Something that eases this burden and increases your chances for success when things don’t go according to plan contributes to a strong support system. This support system can be internal, such as assembling your own team of planning professionals to share responsibilities and help you pull off your meeting.

“Contingency starts in communication early on and making sure you’re not the only one who knows what’s happening,” said Herrig. 

Meeting venues and suppliers are also a crucial part of your support team, so it’s important to choose ones you trust and maintain a good relationship with them. According to Laura MacIsaac, direct of sales at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, many convention centers and hotels already have plans in place to tackle issues such as medical emergencies, severe weather and technology malfunctions, and this can make all the difference.

“Having a supplier partner who is well versed in these things and can help you navigate these circumstances is going to be key,” said MacIsaac. 

She recommends asking venues and suppliers upfront about their own contingency plans and what they can guarantee. If they don’t have detailed answers for you, they may end up being a hindrance rather than a help if things go awry. Whether it’s a mild nuisance, such as malfunctioning audiovisual equipment or a major problem like a medical emergency, the last thing you need is the added burden of inexperienced or unhelpful suppliers. To avoid this, you can usually write certain contingency plans into contracts with venues and vendors. For example, many outdoor venues also promise indoor space in the event of bad weather. 

Planning in a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a special set of challenges for meeting and event planners. The most direct effects include cancellations due to illness, gathering restrictions and venue closures, but the pandemic has also created supply chain issues, shortages and inflation, all of which can affect your meeting. 

“In this day and age, absolutely all bets are off,” said Herrig.

Although contingency planning has always involved assessing risk, today that risk is heightened, and there are fewer guarantees that your meeting will take place the way you plan. To mitigate all this uncertainty, meeting planners need to prioritize contingency planning like never before and much earlier in the planning. 

This may involve considering hosting meetings and events virtually or in a hybrid format, both of which can present technological and budgetary concerns. Social distancing and other public health and safety regulations can call for changes in venue space or attendance. Planners need to think about the best format for hosting their meeting given the pandemic and what steps to take they can take if the meeting needs to change formats or be postponed.

“Everybody who is planning an event right now needs to have evaluated every scenario in the spectrum,” said Miles. 

Contingency planning in the time of the pandemic has proven to be more of a process than something concrete. It’s an exercise in preparedness, creativity and flexibility, and you will need to deal with the challenges that come. 

“You have to be doing contingency planning throughout,” said Miles.

Furthermore, it’s proof that while you can’t predict every obstacle to your meeting plan, you can still overcome them and land on your feet.