You’ve crossed every T and dotted every I in your hotel contract for an upcoming conference. You’ve taken every possible precaution to mitigate potential risk to you and your company.
But have you? There are many potential risks beyond the scope of a hotel contract, from transportation issues to attendee misbehavior and offsite venue/vendor considerations.
Attorney Jonathan T. Howe, president of Howe & Hutton, Ltd., in Chicago, says the answer to most questions about the potential for risk is almost always “Yes,” and a first line of defense is insurance.
“Insurance is the granddaddy of all prevention and risk-management efforts,” Howe says. “You must be certain you have it and that all of your vendors and operators have it as well.”
You also have to have the right kind of insurance and ensure that vendors are properly licensed. “You have to be sure that what you have is right for exactly what you’re doing,” Howe says. “And you have to confirm that the insurance and licenses your private vendors have are right for the specific service they’re providing.”
Attorney Lisa Sommer Devlin, of Devlin Law Firm P.C. in Phoenix, AZ, recommends consulting an expert. “There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ for insurance, as it depends on the types of events you’re planning, their value, whether the events generate income for the customer and many other factors. You need to sit down with an insurance broker that understands your business to review the coverage options to figure out what works best for you.”
Alcohol is one issue that requires planners to be proactive. “If there’s alcohol at an event,” Howe says, “planners should have liquor liability coverage as part of their standard insurance coverage — even if the caterer has adequate alcohol liability as well.”
Naturally, you should verify their coverage. “Ask vendors for their applicable certificate of insurance,” Howe says, “and consider asking to be co-insured on their policy. Even if you do that, you should also put an indemnification clause into any agreement with that vendor.”
Devlin says, “It’s always better for vendors to have ample insurance that names the planner and/or customer as additional insureds. The amount of coverage would vary depending upon the service or activity the vendor is providing.”
In addition to making sure that anyone serving alcohol has all the proper licenses, training and liability coverage, Devlin cautions planners to avoid having hospitality rooms where liquor is “help yourself.”
She also notes that marijuana is an issue for planners now that it’s legal in some states. “Generally meeting planners won’t be responsible for an attendee who drinks or smokes marijuana unless the planner provided it to the attendee or encouraged the attendee to drink or smoke,” Devlin says. “However, it’s a good idea to have your registration encourage attendees to drink responsibly. For events where marijuana is legal in some capacity, laws can be tricky. Marijuana is still illegal federally. Planners might consider a statement in registration materials spelling out that marijuana use is still illegal as a matter of federal law, thus the organization’s policy is that marijuana in any form is not allowed at the event.”
Howe concurs. “Marijuana is tricky even in states where it’s legal, and at this point there isn’t total clarity on how issues with marijuana will play out in courts, while alcohol laws are typically very clear.”
He also advises clearly stating policies related to use of alcohol and marijuana in registration materials. “It’s a good idea to spell that out in meeting materials, including that smoking pot, ingesting edibles and overuse of alcohol is grounds for being expelled from the conference. However,” he adds, “kicking an attendee out of a conference has its problems as well, so be sure you have talked to an attorney and know exactly what to do in the case of any attendee doing something for which he/she might be asked to leave.”
What if attendees visit an offsite function at a restaurant, decide to stay on after the function ends and drink too much, causing harm to themselves or others? Is the planner liable?
Tyra Warner Hilliard, Esq., Ph.D., CMP, attorney and professor at the College of Coastal Georgia, suggests planners include a clause in any agreement/contract with venues that makes clear when the function starts and stops and when the planner’s liability attaches and releases. “However,” she adds, “this doesn’t mean the planner wouldn’t be sued. Anyone can be sued, with or without such language. It would be up to the fact finder — a judge or jury — to determine responsibility and fault.”
Indemnification clauses, like insurance and licensing, are essential. “You always want one in any agreement or contract with a vendor, so that liability is shifted away from you should there be a problem,” Howe says.
But something else comes into play even before all that. “Beyond insurance and licensure,” Howe notes, “probably the most important strategy for planners to reduce risk is to do due diligence on every vendor.”
Take, for example, the caterer at an offsite venue. “Yes,” Howe says, “you need to have a contract with that caterer; however, before you get to that point you should have thoroughly vetted the caterer. What is the caterer’s reputation? Has the company ever been sued for negligence? What’s the caterer’s standing with local food-safety inspectors? Has the company ever been cited by the local public health department? Have clients ever complained of food poisoning? You should have also checked the caterer’s references, not just asked for them and then ignored them. You should have documentation that you asked and verified everything.”
Should attendees get food poisoning from the catered meal, for example, Howe says, “You may not be held responsible as the owner or organizer of the event if you can prove you did your due diligence and nothing came to your attention that would make you think tainted food might be a problem or that the caterer is anything less than qualified, professional and adhering to all safety protocols.”
Having alcohol at an offsite event also requires significant vetting, and the questions you need to ask go beyond alcohol liability coverage. “Have the catering employees serving the alcohol been trained in alcohol awareness so they know not to serve anyone underage and when to cut someone off? What’s the level of training for every server who will work at your event? “And,” Howe adds, “consider putting into your agreement with the company an expectation of who will be serving alcohol, how it will be served and how servers will handle any alcohol-related problems.”
The same type of due diligence applies to transportation companies. It’s not enough that the company has the appropriate license. “What’s the company’s safety record? Reputation? How does the company train and certify its drivers? What kind of background checks are done on drivers to ensure they’re competent and experienced enough to be driving your group?” Howe says these are all questions planners should ask before booking a company.
Due diligence also comes into play when something goes wrong.
“Say an attendee clearly has had too much to drink,” Howe says. “You can’t just let him/her walk out, get in a car and hope it all goes well. Should something happen, you have to show that you did everything possible to protect that person from hurting himself or others so that you’re not held responsible. You can provide transportation for him so he doesn’t drive. You can provide a hotel room if necessary and take away the car keys. Leaving that kind of situation to chance is, as the phrase goes, an accident waiting to happen.”
What about waivers? How helpful are they in protecting planners? The answer is they can be very helpful — if executed correctly. “In addition to carrying insurance and making sure the vendors carry the right insurance and licenses,” Howe says, “you should also have attendees sign waivers if they’re going to engage in anything risky such as horseback riding, a 5K or helping out in a plant for a corporate social responsibility (CSR) project. These waivers act in two ways to help planners: First, they can serve as a deterrent to attendees suing the planner/company if the attendee does get hurt. Second, they do carry weight in court if an attendee does sue — but only if the waiver is detailed, well documented and clearly spells out exactly what the risks inherent in the activity would be.”
Some legal pitfalls are not about illness or injury but can still cause planners a world of trouble if ignored. One of those is making sure you’re not infringing on copyrights or trademarks during the meeting. Taking photographs of attendees or taking video of presenter sessions for use on your organization’s website, for example, are problematic if the right precautions aren’t taken.
“These can be a copyright and/or trademark violation,” Hilliard notes. “If planners want to photograph or provide videos of a presenter while presenting, they need to include that information in the speaker contract so that, when signed by the speaker, it grants permission for the specific use(s) of the images or videography captured. However, copyrights are a bundle of rights, not a single right. So it’s important for a planner to remember that if a speaker grants permission for a single copyright use, such as use of slides, that doesn’t grant all copyrights, such as video. Likewise, there should be a notice on the registration form for any meeting that says photos are going to be taken and that by registering for the meeting, attendees are agreeing to allow their likeness to be used on the group’s website, marketing materials and so on. All efforts should be used to avoid getting non-attendees in the photos.”
Music at an event is also a potential issue. “You have the right to use copyrighted music — but only if you get the proper licensing,” Howe says. The three main organizations holding music copyrights are The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) and Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC). Sometimes you have to get licenses and permissions from more than one, so due diligence is the best practice here, too.”
Rebecca Wright, CIS, CITP, director, account operations, with Creative Group, Inc. and member of SITE’s international board of directors, lists the top three things she thinks are critical to minimizing risk outside of hotel contracts.
Proactively put measures in place to be able to quickly respond if the unexpected occurs.
Request that attendees accept a general liability waiver during the event registration process.
Attempt to partner with suppliers with whom you have worked and that meet your standards for insurance and liability.
Following up on those, Wright addresses the specific steps her company takes in specific situations.
In terms of choosing a transportation company to move attendees from one place to another, she says, “We’re selective of our supplier partners, ensuring that they meet our insurance standards. In addition, we have limitation of liability clauses in our client and supplier contracts.”
Wright’s group also includes addendums for non-hotel supplier contracts that address serving alcohol at functions as well as potential health issues at offsite venues.
The alcohol addendum “addresses liquor liability, and that supplier will be responsible for following local laws regarding liquor service, will not serve anyone under 21, and will not serve anyone noticeably intoxicated,” she says.
“We also include an addendum for non-hotel supplier contracts that addresses safety code compliance related to food, including health inspections for the kitchen. In addition, during the planning process, we gather information and outline the required protocol if a health issue occurs during program execution.”
For Wright, much of it comes down to due diligence and putting protocols in place well before the conference. “Creative Group, Inc. employs a three-pronged approach to duty of care for our clients and program participants. This approach includes preventative, active and post planning methods to respond to potential or active threats to the safety of our attendees.”
Preventative actions, for example, include, “The gathering of emergency protocols and information from our local suppliers and host properties. This information is provided to the onsite team of all managed programs prior to operation for reference or use in the event of a crisis. Onsite, the management team will identify/confirm whereabouts; determine risk; and coordinate the communication between the onsite authorities, client and Creative Group senior leadership. And post-conference there is detailed incident reporting, coordination of external communications with senior leadership and, if necessary, we arrange for post-incident resources for affected individuals.”
In terms of specific potential problems, Wright is well prepared. “We have protocols in place for onsite response in the event of an attendee accident. Accidents that occur are documented and the details forwarded to our attorneys and insurance providers.”
There’s an action plan to deal with stolen property, too. “During the planning process, we gather information and outline the protocol required if property is stolen at a venue. And onsite staff has heightened awareness to property that’s left unattended.”
If attendees are engaging in any risky activity, there are waivers. “Attendees are asked to sign a liability waiver with Creative Group when participating in an activity with some inherent risk. Additionally, they may be asked to sign a similar waiver by the DMC or CSR supplier. For activities we think are too high risk for attendees but the host company still wants to offer, we ask the company to sign a waiver holding us harmless.”
Wright’s best advice for other planners is, “Partner with suppliers you know and prepare for the unexpected during every step of the planning process.”
One way for planners to take some worry out of finding the highest quality, most reliable local suppliers is to work with a DMC. DMCs know the local area and they know the top vendors and venues. As Joshua Jones, DMCP, regional president, Hosts Las Vegas, Hosts Seattle and Hosts Southern California, notes, “One of the most important reasons to work with a DMC is that we are risk mitigators.”
However, he adds, planners need to engage in open, honest conversations with DMCs regarding potential risks in all areas of the meeting. That said, “We also understand that sometimes the best planning of risk avoidance is not exempt from incidents happening and how we handle those incidents is critically important. Part of our principles include all of our DMCs to have an emergency preparedness plan for our groups. Proactive procedures and communication planning can help minimize impact when it matters most.”
When it comes to transportation, Jones lays out appropriate steps. “When moving attendees from one venue to another, it’s important to check the levels of insurance with the transportation companies, ask what type of driver background checks are done, how and how frequently are drivers trained and find out the age and regular maintenance schedule of the fleet. All transportation companies should have full emergency plans in place.”
As for serving alcohol, Jones notes, “It’s important to make sure bartender and server ratios are within recommended guidelines. This allows for more eyes on guest consumption and prevents over-serving. Having adequate and substantial food at the event as well as coffee, tea and other non-alcoholic options is imperative.”
While working with trusted caterers and venues with solid reputations and practices doesn’t categorically prevent such issues as food poisoning, it does minimize risk. Additionally, Jones says, “Tracking the time food is out for consumption, staggering food and choosing items that hold up better than others are all things that can be done to help reduce the risk of food issues.”
Attendee accidents can and do happen, and it’s the response that matters. Jones says having a field staff onsite helps. “This adds another layer to risk mitigation. Field staff are trained on how to handle incidents as well as emergency preparedness. They’re also briefed on how to work with the venue or activity to ensure medical response is called if necessary, processes are being followed and reports and photos are recorded.”
Can you over communicate when it comes to attendees watching their property? Probably not.
“It’s important to over communicate to attendees that items should not be left unattended,” Jones advises. “In addition, hiring proper, well-vetted security can help deter potential criminals, and doing a sweep of rooms, vehicles and venues after attendees have departed is also a good practice to avoid guests’ personal items going missing.”
Like our other experts, Jones thinks due diligence is critical. “We invest a lot of time and resources in the vetting and training of suppliers to reduce risk. We start with a dive into the basics: insurance levels, types of coverage, who is covered, financial strength, etc. We also look into internal policies and training they provide to their teams; are they aligned with the service levels and execution we have? In many cases we work with partners to go through our own training to ensure delivery of the types of experiences our clients expect. Internally, we provide extensive quarterly training for internal teams and field coordinators.”
Not surprisingly, Jones believes in the value DMCs bring to the table in terms of risk management. “They’ve already done the work for you. As local experts, they have properly vetted each supplier. They know a supplier’s service level, have identified potential risks and verified insurance coverage. They know their history in the city and genuinely care about your program and attendee experience.”
All of that is true, and the reason many planners work with DMCs. But as our legal experts know, planners still should perform due diligence as necessary for every single program. Managing risk should be a priority with every single program as a best practice.C&IT