Planners often wonder what the best practices are for handling conflicts that arise onsite at conferences or in the planning process.
But in the world of planning meetings, when aren’t the stakes high?
Jennifer Squeglia, CMP, an independent event professional with Rhode Island-based RLC Events, says, “As professionals and leaders in the event industry, both as hospitality partners and planners, we are faced with challenges, opportunities and conflict constantly. Think about it … we bring people together who are away from home (familiarity, family), at times surrounded by an exotic environment (challenging climates, foreign languages) and consistently wowed with creative fare and full, hosted bars. On top of that, we are doing our jobs in a world that is characterized by bizarre weather, random acts of unkindness, and all parts of a conference can be photographed and/or videotaped and exposed to millions of people within minutes. I mean … what could possibly go wrong?”
What could go wrong, indeed. Attendees caught on video smoking marijuana? Check. Keynotes who don’t show up? Check. Two attendees in the same conference having medical emergencies? Check. An irate high-level executive who puts his hands around the neck of a planner because … wait for it … the coffee ran out? Check.
These are all real-life planning nightmares. But as Squeglia notes, “It’s not the situation, but how you handle the situation.”
Often planners must decide in a fraction of a moment whether or not to call doctors or police, what kind of action to take to save an event from catastrophe and whom to rely on for assistance no matter the situation. They have to be prepared for any and all possible emergencies, and they are the ones usually held accountable by stakeholders even when the situation is completely out of their control.
“My theory is to fix the problem swiftly and gracefully with collaboration — several heads together are always better than one.” — Jennifer Squeglia, CMP
Needless to say, there are common themes in handling conflict and challenge, with the most important arguably a planner’s ability to stay calm and think through a plan even while surrounded by chaos.
But if there is one element that makes the biggest difference between success and catastrophe, one tool that every planner should take out of his or her toolbox when a dicey situation arises, it’s communication.
What’s the most common mistake many planners make when faced with an unexpected serious situation just prior to or during a conference?
“Depending upon years of experience, I would say they fail to notify their manager or a senior executive for fear of the situation being perceived as their fault,” says Rebecca Rosensweig, CMP, AVP and meeting and event planner, who recently retired. “As I gained more experience and built relationships with key executives in all the companies I’d worked for over the years, I knew when to bring something to an executive’s attention to help mitigate any damage or serious repercussions.”
Jill Harris, CMP, director of meetings and incentives with Protective Life Corporation, in Birmingham, Alabama, believes many planners neglect to follow the proper channels of communication and delegation and don’t use discretion.
“It’s important to rely on trusted colleagues and hospitality partners in order to be able to meet the immediate and constant demands of your event while also being sensitive to the situation that has developed,” she says. “It is not wise to zone in on the situation and forget about all the other actions and tasks that need to continue to move forward in order to have a successful conference. As the planner, you are the conductor who should communicate clearly with key stakeholders, ask for help where needed and make sure that communications are discreet and appropriate for the level of the situation.”
Then there’s the issue of timing. Squeglia notes that planners often try to solve a problem too quickly without really thinking it through.
“I know I can be guilty of this,” she says. “I will try to resolve something fast to get it off ‘the list.’ Taking an extra moment to really think it through and not acting rashly is critical.”
While blame is never helpful, what about accountability — either your own or someone else’s? What if, for example, someone on the hotel team screws up or an attendee misses a flight because of his or her own inability to arrive at the airport on time, or someone on your team sends out incorrect information to 1,000 attendees? Is it important to hold the right person accountable or is it more important to fix the problem?
“The answer to this question could vary depending on the gravity of the problem,” Squeglia says. “My theory is to fix the problem swiftly and gracefully with collaboration — several heads together are always better than one. And, don’t waste time blaming anyone. Once the problem is resolved, however, then address the situation with your colleague or hotel partner being as constructive as possible, making sure they understand what went wrong and learn from it. The key is to make sure the guest/attendee experience is remedied quickly but not ignore that it happened. Address it professionally and move on.”
Harris agrees. “It’s important that our colleagues and vendors are aware of the consequences of their actions,” she says. “That is how we all learn and grow. But don’t waste time in the moment with who is at fault. Once a problem arises, we work together to find a solution. It’s important that we circle back when time allows and debrief the lessons learned during each event. In a proper forum, it can be more of a discussion and negotiation to make things right and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Rosensweig points out that every situation is different, but “historically, I would bet most planners ‘just take care of it’ without anyone having to take the blame. Having pre-meeting FAQs and clear instructions regarding travel, hotel check-in times, agendas, emergency contact numbers if an attendee is stranded or misses a flight, etc., can help mitigate many problems.”
Having a Plan B and clear communication and instructions for all the “what ifs,” in fact, can make a huge difference in many situations — those that come from unexpected external circumstances, as well as those within the planning teams.
“If an attendee misses a flight, you have already sent clear instructions of whom to call and how to handle travel issues in your pre-event communications,” Harris says. “If a hotel is oversold and is walking guests, that will hopefully not be a surprise because those terms were negotiated in the contract and through open communication with the hotel during the planning…. There should always be a plan for the ‘what ifs,’ which one needs to discuss with the hotel in advance and then stay on top of during the event. Communication is key.”
But what constitutes a Plan B? For Rosensweig, it has many parts.
“I strongly believe many problems can be avoided or mitigated by having clear FAQs, pre-event travel tips, contingency plans and clear and concise executed legal agreements spelling out ‘walk’ clauses, Force Majeure, etc.,” she says. “There should also be clear communication with your support staff and team regarding what the onsite work expectations are and consequences if someone misbehaves on the job.”
Thinking ahead to anticipate problems is much of the job for planners, says Squeglia.
“The devil is in the details. Always think about ‘what if’ and have a plan in place,” she says. “Collaborating with your peers and supplier partners throughout is critical. Planners should also communicate their expectations and event details and not assume anything. It’s also important to ensure that everyone on the team understands their role and responsibilities.
“One thing I always say during a hotel pre-con is that stuff happens all the time, and if a situation arises, I insist they let me know what the issue is,” Squeglia continues. “We can resolve it together much more effectively than apart, so it’s also our role as planners to be approachable. In the end, it’s a partnership, and an event cannot be successful without a hotel team that is 100 percent behind you.”
As for what’s out of your control, Squeglia’s recommendation is to plan for the worst and hope for the best.
“Obviously, you cannot control weather, and you really don’t know what that will be until just before the event, so it’s crucial to always have a solid weather backup plan in place,” she says. “I’ve never worked an event where everything was perfect, and your ability to remain calm, think on your feet and use your resources effectively are critical when things do come up. Regarding a hotel being oversold, I am vigilant about ensuring that ‘no walk’ clauses are in my contracts. I stay in close contact throughout the entire planning process, having full knowledge of the hotel’s occupancy over my event dates.”
Sometimes, conflict arises due to the inappropriate actions of executives, managers and other stakeholders, making a planner’s handling of the issue especially tricky. If a situation involves the poor conduct of a high-level executive or direct superior, a planner may be reluctant to report the problem for fear of being fired.
For Harris, the path forward in such situations is unequivocally clear. “My advice happens to be one of the core values of my company: ‘Do the right thing.’”
Squeglia echoes that recommendation. “Doing the right thing is always the right answer,” she says. “It may not be the easiest path to take, but it’s definitely the best one. I suggest collaborating with your company’s main point of contact to help resolve the issue. Don’t try to handle it alone, especially if it’s a top executive.”
Rosensweig also suggests contacting someone within the company. “I strongly support reaching out to an HR representative to discuss the situation and make sure you have all the facts, not just hearsay. It’s important to build trust with the executives in your company and to find mentors so there’s someone you can go to if the situation involves a manager or top executive.”
What if board members get into a shouting match or tempers flare at a conference? The first step, these planners say, is to make sure the scene is not within public view.
“Find an open meeting room and figure out a way to get them in there and get the door shut without them even realizing you are there,” Harris says.
“This has never personally happened to me,” Squeglia notes, “but I would do my best to move the conflict out of a public space as soon as possible and separate the people involved in the conflict. If need be, contact security.”
Rosensweig, however, has experienced such situations firsthand and a remedy became part of her ongoing planning strategy.
“If things were getting out of hand, I would suggest to the executive or employee that we have a private room where the conversation could continue. I have been in a situation like this more than once in my past, and it became a standard requirement in all my contracts that we have an executive ad hoc room for private conversations.”
There’s also the issue of problems between planners and the hotel teams they work with, such as the conference services manager. Because this relationship is so integral to successful conferences, planners must be very careful in how they handle such conflicts.
“I would typically involve the sales manager with whom I had negotiated the contract, as well as the head of banquets or conference services, to help resolve the issues and, if necessary, request that a new CSM be assigned to our program(s),” Rosensweig says.
Harris points out that if you have a long-standing relationship with the hotel, the sales contact and executive team would probably have a solution ready before a planner even says anything.
“But if they don’t,” she says, “be very specific about the quality and service expectations you have and how they have not been met. Specific instances and situations will help the team identify the best person to be your support going forward.”
Squeglia, who started her career in the hotel business, also suggests talking to others on the hotel staff. “I would escalate the situation to the director of sales, my global sales partner and/or the hotel’s general manager. I would do my best to resolve the situation through collaboration,” she says.
These are just a few examples of issues that go sideways at a conference. There are endless possibilities of conflict and challenges a planner might face, which goes back to Squeglia’s initial point: “It’s not the situation, it’s how you handle the situation.”
So what’s the best advice for planners who find themselves faced with an unexpected and serious issue at a conference?
“Remain calm, use your discretion, be respectful, communicate clearly and use your resources — your business partners and, in particular, your hotel partners,” Squeglia advises.
“Trust your partners, colleagues and hospitality partners,” Harris says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help and guidance.”
For Rosensweig, too, it comes down to relationships. “Reach out to your team, to the experienced planners, managers and other co-workers with whom you have built relationships,” she says. “Bottom line: Meeting and event planning is a relationship business. I still have good, strong relationships with CSMs, global sales executives and hotel executives with whom I did business at the beginning of my career 35 years ago! I strongly recommend to any new planner that it is important to build relationships and alliances and to get to know the executives whose programs you support. That is key to a meeting planner’s success.” C&IT