Any meeting holds inherent risk. But for association planners, the challenges may be complicated by the independent nature of membership. Unlike in the corporate world, where employees must adhere to company policies and procedures, association planners may have little control over their attendees, who in many ways are on their own. While corporate planners can take advantage of everything from company travel policies and communication channels to in-house employee training in traveling safely, those charged with planning meetings for associations have fewer such options at their disposal.
At the same time, the importance of managing risk is no less an imperative for associations than for any other type of meeting.
“With everything going on in the world, you need to keep your folks safe,” says Karen Bilak, CMP, director, convention and conferences for the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry in Falls Church, Virginia. “It’s important to have a game plan. There are a lot of things you might deal with that you never thought would happen.”
“With everything going on in the world, you need to keep your folks safe.”
— Karen Bilak
Bilak and other experienced meeting planners know that preparedness is the key when it comes to managing all levels of risk, from threats to physical security and safety, to venue snafus.
“Things happen, and we need to be prepared to handle anything that might come our way,” says Addy M. Kujawa, CAE, the CEO of the American Association of Orthopaedic Executives in Indianapolis. “Most of us have not been through a Hurricane Katrina or other event that caused us to cancel a meeting, but if it happens, a disaster manual is essential.”
She cites developing such a manual as a basic key to managing risk. “Being able to grab our manual should something happen and be able to follow the procedures that were written when we were not in crisis will be extremely beneficial to us and to all our attendees, vendors, guests and speakers,” she says.
Sometimes people dwell on the more dramatic possibilities such as a venue getting hit by a tornado or a hurricane, Kujawa says. “But far smaller things happen more often and can really negatively affect your meeting.” She points to keynote cancellations as a typical such problem.
“Keynoters are usually a big draw and replacing them last minute can be tough,” she says. “So we always have a few contacts at the ready, just in case.”
Kujawa also recommends having a plan or protocol for dealing with people whose emotions have gotten the best of them.
“We’ve had more than one occasion of a member, vendor or speaker just becoming overwrought about some issue, whether it was something we could even address or not,” she says. “Knowing what to do in those situations, including where to go and who to call, is really important.”
Kujawa adds that losing information can be a crisis of a different sort.
“For info such as bios, presentations, speeches, scripts and awards, a backup and a backup of the backup are critical,” she says. She and her staff duplicate several sets of key information on flash drives that different staff members carry, and they also use SharePoint. “We want to be sure we never have to recreate something while we’re at the meeting.”
In the event that the unexpected occurs, staying calm and falling back on previous preparations are vital steps, according to Kujawa. “Stay calm, get support and follow your manual. Being prepared is your best asset, along with knowing who to surround yourself with for the support and clear heads you’ll need.”
With the many details involved in planning meetings, dwelling on security may seem like one more mundane task. But its importance should never be underestimated.
“Though event managers have a seemingly infinite number of things to worry about when planning a conference or meeting, risk management is an extremely important part of the event planning process and should not be taken lightly,” says Christopher Tarantino, CEO of Epicenter Media & Training in Rochester, New York, and an expert on crisis communications.
He notes that failing to plan for security, natural hazards or any interruption to a meeting will directly affect future attendance, ROI and sponsorship. Event managers need to take into consideration natural disasters, potential terrorist and criminal threats, as well as public relations and crisis communications implications that could arise during their event, he says.
“Further, event organizers should understand that even the risk of such events could dissuade participants and sponsors from supporting or attending the meeting,” he adds.
And of course the ultimate emphasis should be placed on the safety of attendees.
“Unless people and property are safe, nothing else matters,” says Joan L. Eisenstodt, a Washington, DC, meetings and hospitality consultant who provides training in security issues. “A group can plan the best content, have superb entertainment and food and beverage, and if one thing — like food poisoning, assault, fire or anything else happens — that will mean that the meeting or event stops or continues under very different circumstances.”
She notes that too often planners say that nothing has happened before so they fail to prepare, or they believe that the facility is responsible for security. “They are only part of the equation,” she says. “We have to play an active role.”
When planners think of emergencies or crises, they tend to think of weather, which is actually easier to deal with than many other situations because of the availability of predictions, Eisenstodt says.
“There is nothing safe about asking people to travel and be in a crowd,” Eisenstodt says. “Our jobs are to ensure that we have thought of as much as we can to keep people and property safe.”
Eisenstodt recalls situations ranging from deaths and severe illnesses at meetings to her own accident where her hand was caught in a hotel door. The result was a deep gash requiring a trip to the emergency room, which turned out to be 35 minutes away.
She also cites an incident at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Vegas where the fake palm trees caught fire, as well as a situation where another hotel had a shooter in the lobby but the facility lacked an active shooter plan.
“I look at the shootings and knifings and how easy it would be for anyone to get into a meeting facility, since they are almost all public and anyone can walk in, and how there are few shelter-in-place or active shooter plans,” she says.
Eisenstodt says a good staring point with any event is destination and site inspection. This can include research about destination infrastructure, the availability of AEDs, the number of people trained in CPR, and evacuation and shelter-in-place plans.
She also recommends writing a crisis plan that is integrated with the destination and sites.
“Understand what local authorities can and can’t do, what your hotel or convention center is prepared to do, and how you will communicate with all of them and with those attending the meeting,” she says.
Tarantino says that convention centers, hotels and other conference venues may be seen as “soft targets” since they usually feature both limited security and high visibility for those interested in causing harm or instilling fear. If risk management isn’t a priority of the event manager, it may be overlooked.
While a laundry list of possible crises can be a long one, potential problems can be grouped into several priority areas. Tarantino advises preparing first for natural hazards such as tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding or earthquakes, and then evaluating other hazards or threats that could have a negative impact on events. These might range from public relations crises to criminal or terrorist threats. And for some, a fairly simple avoidance strategy can make sense. For example, meeting managers might want to avoid scheduling major events in “Tornado Alley” from April through July or during the Atlantic hurricane season from June 1–November 30.
Michael Julian, president of National Business Investigations and Minders Protective Services in Murrita, California, says that security should be considered at some level by everyone involved in the meeting process, not just the chief planner.
“It doesn’t have to be the first priority in some instances based on the risk or threat level,” he says. “But everyone should learn to have a security mindset and make planning from a security-minded position the standard.”
In the event that the unexpected occurs, planners and those working with them must be able to move from possibility thinking to action.
“If there’s a plan in place, implement it,” Eisenstodt says. If a plan has not been developed, don’t panic. Instead, contact the facility’s security first before calling 911. “The venue will know who to call, what to tell them and how to get help most quickly,” she says.
When issues arise, a number of steps must be taken to mitigate potential negative outcomes, according to Mazda Miles, CMM, president of Perfection Events, a Philadelphia event planning firm. They include communicating with staff, stakeholders and meeting attendees, collaborating with partners or vendors, and reshaping execution logistics and needs.
“There is generally limited time to address issues when they surface, so it is key to have risk and security plans in place, or to at least have a plan for how the team will approach making critical decisions in this area,” Miles says. ”Being prepared and equipped with a way forward gives the planner a leg up in successfully navigating the crisis.”
Sometimes, an incident or even a close call can bring focus to the need for solid procedures or validate those already in place. That was the experience for Miles at a large association conference when a projector valued at about $10,000 was reported to be missing from a room.
“We immediately connected with the loss prevention department of the venue and also brought in the security firm that we had hired for the event,” she recalls. “As the lead meeting planner for the conference, I had painstakingly designed the security support shifts and post locations, and it was particularly confusing that a piece of equipment that large could have been taken out of the building unnoticed.”
Fortunately, the projector was soon found in a service hallway that led to an exit. Apparently, the would-be thief found that an overnight guard was posted in a prime position on the exit path and abandoned the attempted theft.
“We were disappointed about the attempted theft but elated that our security plans prevented it,” she says. “This incident validated our belief that risk planning is necessary in our work.”
Some simple strategies, such as gathering information and anticipating possible problems, can be undertaken with little difficulty.
“Meeting planners are not expected to be experts at safety and security regulations, but we can equip ourselves with information to be prepared to react to crisis,” Miles says. “One simple step any planner can take is to request that meeting attendees list emergency contact information and medical conditions when they register.”
She adds that every planner should obtain a copy of the emergency and evacuation procedures for a venue and review key components.
“Even if a formal plan is not necessary, thinking about contingencies in advance will give a planner an advantage when faced with a safety or security concern,” she says.
Miles also recommends using previous experience to inform risk planning. In her case, an incident at an association conference provided just an example. During the event, the host hotel, which was also the site of a major conference gala, suffered an electrical fire that displaced almost 700 guests and rendered the hotel ballroom unfit for use for the gala.
“We had only a few hours to figure out contingencies for rerouting current and arriving guests, and to determine how and where to hold the gala given that our production, décor, and partially prepared food were irretrievable,” she says. “We worked closely with our partners and vendors to successfully develop and execute a contingency plan.”
The experience proved beneficial in dealing with a similar event the following year. An outdoor pitched tent being used as an annex for overflow meals had an air conditioning unit short out, causing a fire just before breakfast. Miles and her staff promptly changed the course of the setup and operations for the meal, and seamlessly rerouted thousands of attendees to an alternate location for breakfast.
“These experiences ingrained key preparation lessons in my mind and taught me to always think about displacement, emergency and evacuation scenarios in advance,” Miles says. “I leave room for if/then considerations because I now know that anything is possible.”
Regardless of the type or level of threat, taking initiative in both planning and implementation is vital.
“The biggest sin in risk management is not being proactive,” Tarantino says. “Event managers should do their homework and understand the natural hazards and man-made threats that could impact their event.” He notes that it’s also important for meeting planners to understand the diversity inherent in attempting to manage risk. At one end of the spectrum, efforts might include checkpoints and access control measures to reduce petty theft. At the other, they might address how the event will operate under a large-scale disaster or emergency requiring immediate evacuations of the event space.
Creative anticipation of possible problems is a key part of the process, according to Julian. “Try to have imagined every scenario — such as active shooter, natural disaster or hostile attendee — and know how to react before it happens. It can be unexpected but it doesn’t have to be unprepared for.” AC&F