You spend months planning a meeting and finalize plans shortly before the start date.
Days before the meeting, the corporate stakeholder wants to change the theme and replace some speakers.
“There is a reason meeting and event planning is fourth behind fire, police and air traffic controllers in stressful jobs. When things threaten to fall apart at the last minute, it may seem like a plane is going down, but you can control things with communication and planning.”
Due to the changes, you must re-brand the meeting with new signage, change programs, notify attendees and alter several other details. Your stress levels rise as you undertake “last-minute madness.”
Late changes are inevitable, and some have little or no significant impact on attendee experiences and meeting goals. But other changes can threaten to derail a meeting.
The bigger and more numerous the changes, the more they jangle planners’ nerves.
Planning is one of the most stressful professions of all even without unexpected problems. However, last-minute changes can boost planner stress to an unnerving level.
A survey of planners shows that 76 percent of respondents cite last-minute changes as one of the most stressful aspects of planning.
According to Terri Woodin, CMP, vice president, marketing and global meeting services for Breckenridge, CO-based Meeting Sites Resource, “There is a reason meeting and event planning is fourth behind fire, police and air traffic controllers in stressful jobs. When things threaten to fall apart at the last minute, it may seem like a plane is going down, but you can control things with communication and planning,” Woodin says. “Remember, everyone is looking to you to lead them and if you freak out, so will they.”
Some last-minute surprises occur more frequently than others.
According to Maralynn Adams, CMP, owner and senior event director of Campbell, CA-based The Corporate Event Group, LLC, ”Changing agendas is very common, which can affect how many meeting rooms I need, timing and resources — and possibly my sanity, “ Adams says.
She cites a particularly stressful example. “Recently, a client suddenly needed six additional meeting rooms a few weeks before the event, and you can’t just pull those out of the sky.”
The meeting space in the hotel was booked. “We ended up having to use suites for meetings, which increased costs considerably because we had to book for two nights to secure availability,” Adams says.
She adds, ”Hotels typically won’t comp sleeping rooms as meeting space like they will for meeting rooms, especially when they know that you’re desperate,” Adams says. “And paying to change out the furniture in suites is no fun, either.”
Common late changes Woodin has faced include cancellation or addition of sleeping rooms; changing F&B counts and meeting space counts and sets; sudden changes in weather forcing outdoor events to be rushed inside; protests impacting the arrival and transportation of attendees; and cancelled flights.
A.J. Bownas, CMP, general manager of Washington, DC-based CSI DMC, says one the most common and frustrating late-occurring problems results from changed airline reservations.
“We provide support for arrivals and departures and, having put manifests together, it is expected that 20 percent of these flights will change,” Bownas says. “With VIP groups it’s more like 50 percent. A casual ‘I switched my flight’ has effects with greeter schedules at the airport, driver schedules and making sure manifests are updated for everyone in the chain.”
Bownas has also handled seemingly countless last-minute head-count changes.
“It is often the case that numbers creep up after registration for an event has ‘closed’ then drops off the day prior to the meeting and onsite,” Bownas says. “That’s why it’s important to get past meeting history to know if a group generally gets a 20 percent no-show rate, is always sold out or needs to add VIPs the day of the meeting.”
The most difficult last-minute changes are those that hardly ever occur and those out of a planner’s control.
According to Woodin, “These are ones that involve security risks, weather, strikes, etc. because there is only so much you can do, like managing what is in front of you.”
Bownas cites an example of a situation out of his control.
There are times when attendees show up at the last minute to gain entry to popular private tours or venues that are very protective about who enters.
“On these occasions, we give as much fair warning to attendees as possible, reminding them of deadlines for submitting details on attendance, and beyond that we have to respect the rules that are in place,” Bownas says.
Danielle Miles, manager of conferences and meetings for Minneapolis-based metroConnections, responded to a very unpredictable last-minute occurrence that nearly ruined a meeting.
“A water main broke shortly before the meeting was set to begin at a hotel,” Miles says. “I needed to source hotel rooms elsewhere. Luckily, I had taken 20 minutes out of my site inspection at the hotel we booked to also tour an adjacent property and meet with them. I knew before the panicked call from my client that the neighboring hotel had similar function space and room capacities.”
So, Miles called the nearby property. “It quickly provided accommodations for much of our group,” Miles says. “Once the water issue was resolved, we were able to resume the general session part of our program in the originally-contracted hotel space with a steep discount on all services.”
Adams thinks changes involving crowding more people into existing space not designed for the increase is one of the most difficult issues.
“I’m totally down with more attendees who want to attend your event but scrambling to accommodate 1,000 people with a space and budget that you have for 500 people can make me extremely twitchy,” Adams says.
Ignoring the meeting agenda can also bedevil planners onsite at the last minute.
“A well-crafted meeting is like a game of Jenga,” Adams says. “You start yanking out basic foundational blocks and all of the items that rely on them crumbles.”
Adams cites the following example: “What if your keynote speaker runs 30 minutes over on their session before lunch?” Adams says. “Can you guess how many attendees will remember the overcooked and lukewarm food over the 30 minutes of extra content they received?”
Last-minute changes can’t be prevented altogether. But veteran planners can use their experience to anticipate potential problems and have strategies in place to keep meetings on track.
Woodin offers the following advice, especially for in-house corporate planners who deal with executives known to make last-minute changes.
“You cannot prevent most unpredictable, last-minute changes because of what causes them in the first place,” Woodin says. “However, if you have an executive that always seems to make changes onsite, then manage the person’s expectations during planning to help prevent late changes.”
Woodin adds, “Also set expectations of what can be managed onsite, including the havoc created for the facility or hotel as well as costs that can be associated with possible changes. Communication is the key.”
Also, Woodin advises, ask yourself key questions in advance.
“If flights are cancelled how are you communicating to attendees and to the hotel for rooms, meeting sets and F&B?” Woodin asks. “If bad weather causes an outdoor event to be brought indoors, does your contract already include a backup room and can you make the call early enough so the hotel staff can make it happen?”
Some last-minute corporate meeting changes are caused by the sudden sale or purchase of a business right before booked meetings take place. In that case, Woodin says, keep the following in mind when more or less space is suddenly needed.
“Businesses are in a constant state of change and hotels are full, so when an organization purchases other companies and suddenly you need more rooms and more space, think outside the box,” Woodin says. “Everything is usable space at a hotel. Work with them to modify sets and use restaurants closed during the day for a comfortable solution.”
Tracking the types of last-minute changes that occur most frequently can help anticipate and address chaos.
According to Miles, “Tracking changes is a design for operating better next time. In the over 20 years I have been planning, I’ve made many mistakes, but never the same one twice. It’s helpful to track changes and conduct a full post-meeting debriefing with internal and external planning teams on successes and improvements in the planning process moving forward.”
Adams agrees: “Tracking last-minute changes with a simple form listing the change, the date, the estimated cost if possible as well as what you did to affect things positively or even negatively can be valuable,” Adams says. “I hold a lot of that info in my head but logging them is more helpful.”
Adams doesn’t have a specific checklist that would help avoid last-minute changes, “but I do have a number of questions that I ask and items that I bring up through the pre-planning process that help guide me away from crisis situations I’ve survived in the past,” Adams says.
Having a contingency fund for last-minute and emergency issues is also helpful.
“I always have a contingency fund budget line,” Adams says. “I do my very best to use the last 25 years of planning experiences to think of all the things that could go wrong, but there are still surprises. More often than not, you’ll need money to deal with them. The fund has saved my butt and my client’s a number of times. There is always some unexpected cost or an ‘Oh, I forgot!’ item that pops up. Who thinks they’ll ever need emergency popcorn and machines wafting the smell of freshly popped popcorn into a room filled with a thousand people? It happened to me.”
Some of the trickiest last-minute issues result from requests which can significantly impact factors such as cost, meeting goals, attendee experiences and programs.
The late requests can come from an executive or stakeholder who has worked with the planner from the start, or another who hasn’t. In either case, planners must agree to the changes or explain how they can upend a meeting.
Jennifer Collins, CMP, president and CEO of Silver Spring, MD-based JDC Events, has dealt with last-minute executive changes several times. “We have worked with clients whose president or other leader would inevitably add a new session or other aspect to an annual event,” Collins says.
Collins foresaw a last-minute change by keeping her ear to the ground, so to speak.
“Once, we heard that additions would be the result of the leader having met someone at a lunch or other event when out and about,” Collins says. “So, we came to expect that we would have to add a session or speaking arrangement at some point during the event. This expectation was helpful in that we were able to provide space holders in anticipation of it occurring. It didn’t entirely make it easy, but because we knew it would be a possibility, it helped to lessen the shock.”
Strategies for dealing with last-minute changes may be somewhat different for in-house corporate planners and third-party planners. It can be tougher for internal corporate planners to make the case against drastic last-minute changes, and they must typically comply or persuade the executive to compromise.
On the other hand, the concerns of external third-party planners include securing repeat business from the client and protecting the planner’s professional brand with a successful meeting.
Both internal and external corporate planners can use the following tips to handle last-minute changes from corporate bosses and other stakeholders.
Keep records of last-minute changes and categorize them by type of meeting to determine which occur most often and why. For example, do the changes tend to be room counts, speaker cancellations, technology, set-ups, etc.
Create back-up plans for areas most vulnerable to last-minute changes.
Include stakeholders in key meetings to lessen the chance of surprise change demands. Getting continuous buy-in from stakeholders should be part of the planning process.
Designate an “emergency response team” to respond to last-minute changes and empower it to make quick decisions.
According to Catherine Chaulet, president of Washington, DC-based Global DMC Partners, “It may be incredibly useful to appoint a few people on your team or hire temporary staff to focus on troubleshooting changes or issues that may come up so that you have a dedicated staff ready to deal with last-minute changes.”
Chaulet says last-minute changes that aren’t actually difficult to handle may seem over-burdensome and stressful because planners have such heavy workloads. “So, pre-delegating last-minute changes to team members who have a slightly lighter workload or hiring temporary staff for this purpose could go a long way,” Chaulet says.
As a range of last-minute problems involving speakers can flare-up, use the advice below to help resolve issues.
Build extra time into the agenda, set-up, travel, logistics and other key elements.
Have a contingency plan for speakers and entertainers. When booking through a bureau, include in the contract possible replacements the bureau can provide due to a late cancellation.
Bring in speakers, especially keynoters, one or two nights before they are scheduled to speak. Allowing speakers to fly in at the last minute is asking for problems.
According to Miles, technological problems are among the most frequent speaker-related problems to flare-up at the last minute. “A presenter may have trouble loading content onto a screen, a Lavalier Microphone isn’t working, or a projector goes down and now everyone is uncomfortably shifting in their seats,” Miles says.
Having an overall program producer on hand can address such last-minute tech issues. “This role is invaluable in ensuring not only that back-up systems are in place but also that they are tested,” Miles says. “Working with presenters to rehearse presentations before they get on the big stage sets all players up for success.”
Consider in advance how to rearrange the schedule if a speaker cancels. Or have a company officer or local speaker ready to substitute.
Some planners make themselves vulnerable to last-minute changes. Here’s how: Suppose, throughout the planning process, an executive or stakeholder makes suggestions that the planner approves. Suddenly, right before the meeting, the stakeholder makes another, more significant suggestion. The stakeholder, accustomed to planner approval of changes, expects acquiescence. But giving in could ruin the meeting.
When faced with such a situation, consider the following advice from experienced planners:
Don’t be a pushover simply to avoid making waves. In planning, the customer isn’t always right.
Listen carefully to the request and use it to start a conversation about possible compromise that will avoid ruining the event.
If you disagree with the change, explain in the most professional way possible its negative impact on the meeting and attendees.
Detail what’s needed to make the changes and what can and cannot be accomplished during the time remaining before the meeting starts. In other words, reset stakeholder expectations.
The bigger and more complex the last-minute change, the heavier the stress and the greater the necessity to remain calm. Develop strategies to handle last-minute chaos. Here are tips from planning pros:
First, accept that late changes are a fact of planning life. Then, relax. According to Miles, “How you handle stress is what sets you apart as a planner. Pressing the pause button is always a good first best practice. Keeping a calm and cool front is the goal.”
Next, advises Woodin, “Breathe deeply and bring all your experiences to the situation to take control.”
Adams finds that follow-up on lessons learned after implementing nerve-wracking, last-minute changes can help anticipate potential issues and thereby reduce stress in the future.
When it comes to last-minute changes, Murphy’s Law rules. However, planners can use their experience and that of peers to anticipate obstacles and create strategies to resolve them.
As Woodin advises, “Think quickly, have alternate plans in place and connections in the destination that can help, and budget extra funds.” C&IT