Reduce Your RiskDecember 1, 2014

Make Sure Your Association's Risk Management Roadmap Is Ready to Roll By
December 1, 2014

Reduce Your Risk

Make Sure Your Association's Risk Management Roadmap Is Ready to Roll


Would you ever imagine that the truck with your printed materials could be stolen and burned to the ground? Or that someone could sabotage your event by causing a chlorine gas leak?

Has your event ever been disrupted by demonstrations in the streets such as those around the country protesting grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island? These are not fictional scenarios.

September 11, the Boston Marathon and the current Ebola risk are all events wide and severe enough to affect the way in which planners go about their jobs, but there are dozens of more common unexpected issues that have the potential to derail events.

We live in a world of unknown unknowns. Every meeting planner knows that information and preparedness are key to putting on great events, but taking the time to put together a comprehensive risk management plan and address it often is a task that too often is eclipsed by more pressing concerns.

When the Unimaginable Happens, What’s Next?

Do you have a comprehensive risk management plan in place for your organization? If so, do you revisit it often?

These two questions send a startling number of association meeting planners who are normally proud of their dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s into embarrassed mumbles. But as the major threats to events today have grown far beyond the usually insurance-covered trio of kidnapping, ransom and extortion, a wide-reaching risk management plan and appropriately trained staff are not something that can be put off.

According to a 2013 survey by the Global Business Travel Association, less than half of travel managers — 44 percent — have crisis and evacuation plans. Only 70 percent of travel managers collect emergency contact information, and 59 percent collect crisis information related to the destination.

Concierge-level security may have been a buzz word in recent years, but the most worrisome threats to today’s meetings, particularly for associations that don’t host top executives who might be targets for kidnapping, are the hardest to identify in advance: criminal acts, natural disasters and medical emergencies.

When the Boston Marathon bombing took place, staff from the Ambulatory Surgery Center Association (ASCA) were in town setting up their annual event at the convention center on the marathon route. Even as an association whose members deal with potentially life-threatening situations daily, the ASCA was not prepared for a crisis of that scale.

“We did not have a plan in place,” Bill Prentice, the CEO of the Alexandria, Virginia-based association said during PCMA’s Convening Leaders conference this year. “We weren’t prepared.”

Crises Come in All Sizes

Though major critical incidents, such as the bombings at the Boston Marathon, receive the lion’s share of attention in risk management case studies, having a comprehensive risk management plan in place allows your team to respond to issues that seem more mundane than a terrorist attack on a public holiday, but are no less severe for those involved.

As of press time, a nor’easter is causing flight disruptions along the East Coast while the largest storm in five years hits the Bay Area in California. Though the Northeast corridor has not experienced an event on the level of Hurricane Sandy or Irene for a few years, airlines’ response to winter weather has changed, creating issues getting early arriving staff onsite and greatly hampering meeting setup and operation.

Pamela S. Dallstream, CMP, CMM, director of meetings and conventions for the Mount Prospect, Illinois-based Society of Critical Care Medicine, has had a risk management plan in place for her organization, but still finds that even responses to issues that should be foreseeable such as winter weather can change from year to year.

“The ‘polar vortex’ affected staff travel to the 2014 annual meeting, with key staff being delayed several days, so we are incorporating plans on how to get these key staff to the meeting as quickly as possible,” she says. “While all staff participating in the meeting are important, those responsible for and knowledgeable of key logistics must arrive on time at all costs.”

Dallstream’s association was also the victim of the stolen truck scenario mentioned earlier. “Our onsite registration materials were printed in the host city instead of in the headquarters city one year to save shipping costs between the city and an offshore meeting venue,” she explains. “The night before registration opened, the truck with our registration materials was stolen and subsequently burned. The printer was able to reprint all of the materials and deliver them only a day and a half late, but the money we saved by not shipping the materials was not worth the stress placed on staff waiting for the materials and explaining to the membership why materials were delayed,” she says. “We have determined that it is always better to print onsite registration materials in our headquarters city and include the materials with office equipment and supplies shipped to the meeting venue.”

The Roadmap to Your Own Roadmap

One of the oft-cited reasons for not creating an official organization risk management plan is that the time needed is significant and difficult to carve out with all the necessary parties. However, for most associations, once you do the legwork, you can reuse the same plan with minimal tweaks for years to come. Though risks, and particularly unexpected disasters, vary widely, preparing appropriately is a relatively similar process for most risks.

Creating a risk management plan involves five basic steps:

  1. Identifying potential risks.
  2. Assessing their potential impact.
  3. Determining their consequences.
  4. Identifying ways to reduce risk.
  5. Creating a prioritized list of risk management tasks.

And there are a number of ways to approach the planning process. Thankfully for planners pressed for time, a variety of resources have already set up the basics, so there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

In response to the Boston Marathon bombing, PCMA worked with members to create an emergency action plan template to help organizations walk through the essentials of crisis management before their events and create their own custom action plans. The template is downloadable online, but PCMA cautions that it is meant to be a quick-start guide more than a comprehensive planning tool.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers a set of templates from contingency plans to risk management plans to risk management “lite,” again with an advisory that a full plan is a safer and more comprehensive choice for capturing all risk. These templates and others relating both the risk management and event planning generally can be downloaded from the CDC library at

Some organizations keep a list of potential or the most common issues on file and walk through it in a contingencies meeting. If you choose to go this ad hoc route, make sure you capture these potential risks:

  • severe weather
  • natural disasters
  • terrorist attacks
  • transportation strikes
  • protests or other forms of government unrest
  • data hacking
  • attacks by disgruntled former employees or customers
  • global health emergencies
  • individual medical emergencies among staff or attendees
  • physical corporate espionage

Though not necessarily a front-of-mind resource for association planners, the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) released a SITE Foundation Study specifically addressing risk management in meeting planning in October 2013 that provides a method for creating event-specific risk management plans that can be combined well with an ad hoc approach.

Begin with a list of stakeholders, including not only event attendees and contractors but also performers, potential trespassers, local residents and other members of the public. Score each potential risk between one and three for severity and one and three for probability, and multiply the two numbers to get a risk factor.

If the number is six or above, eliminate the potential for risk, shift the liability or at the least inform participants if the previous options aren’t available. If the risk is between four and six, implement any controls possible to minimize the risk.

Stale Plans Aren’t Secure

Once you have a plan for your organization, however, there is still work to be done, as association risk management plans must be dynamic or focused on a specific event.

Dallstream’s group created a risk management plan years ago, because “staff knew we needed to create a plan that would guide us in the event of emergencies, but the plan has evolved over the years with several key areas being added each year depending on what emergencies crop up unexpectedly.”

Rather than create an association-wide risk management plan through a specific set of event planning meetings, many organizations have found their best approach by folding crisis planning into their greater event rubric and planning structure, which ensures they revisit key risk issues, such as insurance updates, for each event.

“We don’t have a specific, detailed risk management plan, but we do have a comprehensive event planning structure that enables us to identify and respond to emerging issues in real time,” says Michael Cohan, director of professional development and instructional issues at the Trenton, New Jersey-based New Jersey Education Association.

 “We often uncover issues that we need to consider and then develop contingency plans on an event-specific basis, and we also regularly consult with our insurance carrier when new initiatives suggest greater exposure, and therefore a possible increase in our umbrella insurance coverage.” — Michael Cohan

“We typically engage in a comprehensive project management plan with a variety of staff that bring a diversity of perspective to our events,” he continues. “We often uncover issues that we need to consider and then develop contingency plans on an event-specific basis, and we also regularly consult with our insurance carrier when new initiatives suggest greater exposure, and therefore a possible increase in our umbrella insurance coverage.”

Coordinated Communication Counts

One of the central pieces of any risk management plan revolves around communication: collecting contact information and informing attendees of potential issues in advance, relaying important information onsite during the meeting and dispersing an action plan should the worst occur.

When a widely publicized issue impacts your event, whether weather-related or a security crisis, attendees and suppliers are naturally expecting to hear from the association on whether the event will continue or be cancelled and what the contingency plan is. In these cases, it’s important that one designated person sets the new agenda and that the information trickles through your own organization properly so it can be communicated to attendees, exhibitors and vendors.

“We utilize the same reporting structure for each event,” says Dallstream. “So, the CEO and several senior staff are responsible for communicating issues with member leaders, and other senior staff are responsible for communicating with the media. The plan details where the meeting venue staff and leadership should gather to discuss issues, how often communication will be shared with members and who will filter information out to the media and the membership.”

Once the message is clear, a good, old-fashioned phone tree is truly still one of the best ways to connect, though not the fastest. With the plethora of digital media today, your message should be communicated as simultaneously as possible though email, your website, social media and traditional media, as well as by phone. There are digital tools that now allow you to pre-record a message so that at the push of a button you can push that to attendees more quickly and easily as well.

Dana Neill, CMP, senior meeting planner at the Washington, DC-based National Association of College and University Business Officers, has found that her association’s event app has completely changed the game for emergency response, through its automatic collection of appropriate contact information.

“Our most effective way to communicate with our attendees is through our mobile app,” she says. “We can push out notifications immediately if we need to alert them about any activity or change of plans due to unforeseen circumstances. We also work closely with the hotel staff and CVBs and are informed if anything is happening that may require action on our part.”

Handling Communication Surrounding Ebola

In 2014, the need for clear communication has become particularly acute in light of recent Ebola cases. Meeting attendees, particularly those who do not travel often or, conversely, travel to places that might be or have been affected, are receiving much and often very mixed information regarding the risk of contracting Ebola.

Visit Orlando has worked with experts in security and global health in Washington, DC, to create an official Ebola response that it hopes can serve as an easy model for clients working on conferences, trade shows and conventions in the city.

Planners are advised to:

Inform attendees that all cases of Ebola thus far have originated either in Africa or among healthcare workers and there is no indication there will be sustained, person-to-person transmission in the U.S.

Communicate the profile of the event and attendees to local health officials or hospitals.

Recommend through signage or other onsite communication that attendees follow standard “flu season” precautions. including washing hands regularly, using hand sanitizer, and avoiding touching orifices, such as eyes and mouths.

Despite the fact that anti-flu measures are advised, Ebola is far less transmissible, and requires direct contact with bodily fluids or an object contaminated with bodily fluids of an infected person. Symptoms, which include extremely high fever, weakness, vomiting and unexplained bleeding or bruising, can appear two to 21 days after exposure.

During this period of sustained vigilance, planners of events that have a reasonable chance of including attendees who have traveled in affected parts of Africa can follow the policy currently in effect at Canadian boarders. At the registration desk — or through a digitally pre-distributed survey with an in-person follow-up for those who have not completed the survey — ask each attendee if in the last 21 days they have traveled in West Africa, specifically Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, or if they have come in contact with any individuals from any of those three countries.

Final Thoughts

If your association does not have a risk management plan in place or has been using something piecemeal for each event, there has never been a more important or easier time to take that step.

Whether you use the CDC or PCMA templates or work out something from scratch, make it a goal for your group to create a new plan or take the time to update and re-evaluate your existing plan in 2015. AC&F

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