Industry News

On Alert: Is Your Event Plan Ready for a Crisis?

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From wildfires and other natural disasters to protests turned violent and terrorism, it is hard to look at the current headlines without finding a new reason to worry about what might go wrong at an upcoming conference meeting or an event.

Although we can't plan for every possible crisis that could happen, at a meeting or event, having a contingency event plan for a crisis should be paramount during the planning stage for every event and meeting planning professional.

Meeting and event planning professionals know, at least in theory, that the onus is on them to think ahead to what they will do if a dramatic event disrupts their best-laid plans. However, the reality is that many fall behind, caught up in the hustle of their daily work. “I don’t know how many planners really take the time to do their due diligence,” says veteran meeting planner Marla Harr, who teaches meeting and convention management at Arizona State University.

Fortunately, it’s possible to maintain the right state of readiness and preparedness without diverting your attention completely from the fun elements of an event, say both crisis management experts and experienced event planners who have learned on the job.

“Basically investing in being prepared is the No. 1 way to avoid a crisis when you can and mitigate the damage when you can’t,” says Erik Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management in Colorado Springs, Colo.

How to Incorporate Crisis Management As a Part of Your Event Planning

There are many formal steps that meeting and event professionals can take to position themselves well in the instance that a crisis occurs. Before we look at the steps to consider when crisis planning for your next event, Anne Finzer's recent experience gives us a glimpse on how a seasoned event planner can take charge and plan around the unexpected.  

On May 2016, non-profit meeting planner Anne Finzer (MPI Greater Edmonton Chapter) received jaw-dropping news—she had to move a 1,000-person gala event due to a major wildfire sweeping through Fort McMurray, Alberta.

The Edmonton EXPO Centre, where the event was to be held had to be transformed into an evacuation center. “They had to remove us from the venue so they could house people who needed a place to sleep,” Finzer says. She received the shocking news a few minutes before 5 p.m. and had fewer than 24 hours to relocate the event. As a seasoned meeting planner, and one who thrives on crisis management, Finzer promptly relocated the event to Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton. All one thousand attendees made it to the event without incident. “I love logistics,” says Finzer, president of CEO Events in Edmonton and chair of the International Live Events Association’s ILEA Live 2017 conference. “The crazier the situation, almost the better. It’s like a puzzle for me to figure out.”

Well in advance of an any event, meeting planners should speak with organization executives and employees about what crisis management plans are in place and shore up gaps, advises Bernstein. “Anything that happens can affect their reputation,” he says.

Ed Colson, owner of Ready Northwest LLC, an emergency management preparedness firm in Portland, Ore., suggests that his clients identify their top three to five threats. 

To keep event crisis preparation from becoming overwhelming task, Ed Colson, owner of Ready Northwest LLC, an emergency management preparedness firm in Portland, Ore., suggests that his clients identify their top three to five threats. “We’ve seen a lot of interest in active shooters and terrorism, and then protests,” he says. For a large event, enlisting an expert to do a security audit can help to prevent these potential scenarios from actually disrupting an event.

In the event of a crisis, every planner should know the answers to some key questions in advance, Harr says: What am I going to do? How do I train my staff? How do I take care of my attendees? “The main thing is going to be transportation: How do you evacuate?” she says, noting that you must take into account that attendees may be dispersed. “You’ve got breakout sessions.”

But formal plans can only take you so far. What enables Finzer to move quickly, she says, is the network of great relationships she developed in the industry over time. “We have such great relationships with the people we use on a regular basis that when a crisis happens, that’s who you count on,” she says.

With the wildfire creating a major disruption in the area, Finzer called one trusted contact, the Shaw Conference Centre, at about 3 p.m. the day before the event to ask if space was available, should the event need to be moved. After getting a yes, she was ready to spring into action when she found out two hours later that she would indeed need a Plan B for the gala.

“On my second phone call, I said, ‘I’m coming over,’” Finzer says. “I was over at that facility within half an hour.” The second-in-command at the conference center stayed late as they tackled the logistics.

Strong relationships also helped Finzer when it came to the audiovisual side of the event. When she called her longtime vendor FMAV Canada to announce the changed venue, FMAV’s general manager took over the dismantling of the original location and setup of the new one.

“Always have and keep amazing relationships with your vendors,” Finzer says.

Clear communication with the event’s organizer was also critical. Finzer called the leadership team at Junior Achievement of Northern Alberta as soon as she could to ask the nonprofit to corral anyone they could to help with the setup of the new event. They were asked to help with anything that needed to be done, down to putting salt and pepper shakers on the tables.

The group rose to the occasion. More than 120 staffers were called to the new facility to put the event together, allowing it to proceed smoothly, despite the wildfires.

When Event Partners Don’t Cooperate

It’s great when everyone involved in planning an event—from the organizers to the venue—comes together to solve a crisis. But sometimes, cooperation is less than ideal, putting added pressure on the meeting planner.

Last October, event and marketing consultant Dianne Davis (MPI Oklahoma Chapter), owner of TulNet Meetings and Events in Tulsa, Okla., planned an international, weeklong conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It was an intimate, 75-person event for an association of high-level magazine editors and publishers, so she picked a small, independent oceanfront property that would appeal to their sensibilities. “They are super creative,” she says. “We don’t go to your basic box hotel.”

A week before the event, the hotel called. During a renovation, there had been a construction accident. A heavy air conditioner had crashed into the ballroom when it was being moved, and the ballroom couldn’t be used. Even worse, the accident had blocked access to other guest rooms, meaning the group could not meet elsewhere in the hotel.

Davis, who had worked in hotels for 15 years, knew what the property should have done: helped her relocate to an oceanfront property in the immediate area. “I made the assumption the hotel was going to manage it that way,” she says. Alas, the hotel did not. “My experience worked against me.” Instead of stepping up, the hotel team advised her, “We suggest you find someplace else.”

“I’m like, ‘Holy Toledo! We’re a week out,’” she recalls.

The hotel, citing a clause in the group’s contract she discovered was too vaguely written, said that it was allowed to move the event to another of its properties in the area. The hotel team took that to mean one in Orlando, 140 miles away.

When Davis balked at the distance—and mentioned that international travelers would need to change their flights as a result—the hotel said it would reimburse them with checks upon arrival for the added costs. With the potential tab adding up to US$75,000 to $80,000, she was not confident the hotel would actually deliver on that promise.

Davis suggested the hotel try other properties in the area. The hotel team soon reported back that after approaching 20 local hotels, it could not find another alternative.

With the event day fast approaching, Davis—who had hoped to call her client with a solution in hand—had to inform her of what was going on. “The gasp in her voice was something no planner should have to go through,” she says. The event was important to the future of the organization, and the consequence of it falling apart at the last minute would have been devastating. Stressed to the max, Davis found herself exercising at 11:30 p.m. to burn off nervous energy.

Then Davis called the local CVB. “Fifteen minutes later, I had a new hotel,” she says. It was at the Westin Fort Lauderdale—a property the original hotel said was not available. After more battles with the original hotel to extricate her client from the contract, she was able to move the event two-and-a-half days before it was to take place.

Fortunately, the Westin Ft. Lauderdale went out of its way to accommodate her group. “You could tell the Westin was like, ‘We’re going to be the heroes of this situation. You’ve been used and abused and you will not have that here,’” she recalls. That included matching the rates the original property had offered—from food and beverage costs to parking—even though the hotel team knew her client was in a desperate situation and could have tried to extract higher prices.

Conclusion

In retrospect, Davis says the experience has, unfortunately, made her warier of working with small, independent hotels. “I love the indie hotel concept,” she says. “I want to take my client to those places every time, but I will hesitate greatly before ever doing that again. If this had gone on at a Marriott or a Westin, it would have been a different story. They would have handled it properly.”

But it has also sharpened her crisis management skills. “I had a week of sleepless nights in terror, but I’m a better meeting planner because of it,” she says.


About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt
Elaine Pofeldt

Elaine Pofeldt is a freelance journalist in the New York City area who contributes to publications from CNBC to Forbes and is the author of the upcoming book The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business.