It’s the first day of the event and hundreds of insurance company attendees are in meeting and breakout rooms. Suddenly, people are running everywhere screaming that a gun-toting person has taken hostages in a ballroom. Do you panic because you don’t know what to do next? Or do you gather yourself, breathe deeply and implement an emergency response plan (ERP) that has anticipated such a situation? An onsite hostage situation is just one of numerous crises that can endanger the health and life of attendees, postpone a meeting, ruin it altogether, or damage the professional reputation of a planner.
That’s why planners must be prepared with an ERP to respond to any crisis. According to Allison Cooper, vice president, conference experiences, LPL Financial, “In today’s world, not having a crisis management plan shouldn’t be an option. There should be a requirement for all conferences to have some sort of security plan,” says Cooper, who is on the board of directors of Financial & Insurance Conference Professionals (FICP). “Security on site needs to be a norm before executing a program.”
Koleen Roach, director, meetings and conference management, Securian Financial Group Inc. offers this warning to planners who lack ERPs: “Unfortunately, those who do not have a plan in place will find out very quickly what the risks are when a crisis occurs. Best to not have to find out the hard way. Put a plan in place today.” Indeed, attendees and the public expect insurance and financial firms to take precautions against the unexpected.
Jeff O’Hara, CMP, DMCP, president, PRA New Orleans, deals frequently with insurance and financial firms. According to O’Hara, “Due to the types of products that these companies provide, there is an expectation that they take even more care than most companies to avoid risk. Their customers put trust in the companies for their long-term personal financial security, so it is natural to presume that these companies would ensure the utmost of risk prevention for their events.”
O’Hara adds that lacking or incomplete risk prevention is itself a risk for insurance and financial firms. “Any failure in this area gets extrapolated, especially if it gets into the public eye,” O’Hara says.
Lack of an ERP can exacerbate a crisis and threaten the safety and security of attendees. Yet, according to recent studies, more than half of meeting and event planners lack an event-specific crisis management plan. Many planners lack ERPs because they don’t have the time to create one or depend on event insurance or a venue’s emergency procedures.
Planners without an ERP who have never faced a serious meeting crisis can be lulled into a false sense of security and avoid creating a plan. However, planners who suddenly experience a crisis often change their perspective.
Roach created an ERP plan before a crisis hit and, fortunately, hasn’t experienced one yet. “We’ve had a few minor situations that we were able to sort through without too much struggle such as stolen passports, medical urgencies, misconduct, etc., but it was those few situations and awareness of other world events that have impacted the programs of other companies that made it very clear to us we needed a formal plan,” Roach says. “Thankfully we haven’t had a major crisis, but I know if we do, we are very prepared to respond.”
Planners shouldn’t wait for the worst to happen to create an ERP. Having a plan is especially important for financial and insurance firms due to the nature of the industries, says Kyle Jordan, CAE, CMM, CMP, director of conferences and meetings for the Financial Planning Association (FPA).
“As we look at preparing for all of the standard crises and risk potentials, including those that are natural and human-made, finance and insurance professionals should be aware of significant political, financial and economic factors and impacts,” Jordan says.
Jordan advises planners to be aware of sudden and unanticipated changes to financial policies and laws which can impact financial and insurance company meetings. In creating an ERP, Jordan adds, financial and insurance planners should ask themselves: “Does your organization need to prepare for different pre- and post-election outcomes? Does your organization need to prepare for a 700-point drop in the Dow Jones average, changes to the political landscape or swings in the economy?”
Most planners haven’t faced a serious crisis. However, those who have know the value of preparation.
Cooper once dealt with a hotel fire, and it validated her company’s decision to have its own on-site security. “The fire department was out there, and the hotel security was nowhere to be found,” Cooper says. “Our security team helped get the guests out of the building and back in later. Our security team also met with the hotel the following day to go through the issues from the night before and discuss where the hotel could be at risk if they weren’t better about making sure their security management plan is in place and on alert at all times.”
Last year, O’Hara experienced a crisis with an insurance group that illustrates the need for planners to work closely with DMCs before and during a crisis.
“At close to midnight on a Saturday, there was a fire in the hotel, and it was evacuated,” O’Hara says. “Hundreds of people were on the street in the middle of the night while the fire was extinguished. The meeting planner, following the company crisis plan, determined that she needed to find alternate accommodations.”
The planner then called O’Hara’s operations manager, who quickly went to the all-night grocery and picked up a load of bottled water and snacks and brought them to attendees.
“Eventually, attendees reentered the hotel, and the insurance group’s planner found another property to take the group in the middle of the night,” O’Hara says. “In the interim, my operations manager was on the phone securing buses to transport the group to the new hotel. By the time they returned to their rooms for their belongings, we had coaches waiting out front to bring them to the new hotel. The only way this could happen is by having a local DMC partner on the ground that has the contacts to secure buses to transport 400 people in the middle of the night during an emergency.”
While planners need ERPs for readily identifiable crises, they also need the plans for run-of-the-mill problems that can escalate into issues that threaten meetings.
Intoxication would be an example. According to Cooper, “Most of our incidences stem from over-intoxication. Instead of a having a home office person who may have a relationship with the inebriated client deal with the situation, we have our security guys escort them to rooms and pull them aside to have conversations, etc.”
While the intoxication issue may be relatively common, it’s the rarer threats resulting from violent social, criminal and political incidences that have increased the need for ERPs. Here are key actions to take when creating an ERP:
Brainstorm. Meet with the planning team and stakeholders to discuss problems that could possibly occur.
Assess. “Evaluate risks based on location, attendee profile, amount of movement the group will be doing, travel time involved, any risky activities and an assessment of the stability of the local government,” Roach says.
Know entry and exit points. Can people access the venue via loading docks, climbing fences or through other points?
Evaluate on-site security. Find out what emergency plans, procedures or protocols properties and venues already have in place. Is there an on-site security staff and what are their responsibilities? How will you control the access and credentialing of attendees, volunteers, VIPs, entertainers and others?
Determine potential threats. Create a list of possible emergencies that could happen and plan for each one. Possibilities include terrorism, the sudden death of an attendee, medical emergencies, demonstrations, protests, injuries, fires, active shooters, power failures and extreme weather.
Roach says, “Have you clearly thought through a strategy based on the type of crisis — hurricane, earthquake, terrorist attack, strike, etc.? Will it require a satellite phone, solar-powered phone chargers, quick access to cash, knowledge of where local land lines can be found in case mobile towers are overloaded and a plan for getting attendees out of the situation quickly?”
Get the hotel’s ERP. Require that hotels attach a copy of risk management plan to RFPs. If there is no written plan, ask the hotel how it responds to crises. Ask if the property has the staff to handle basic security tasks such as keeping non-attendees out of meeting areas.
Make evacuation plans. How will you ensure an orderly evacuation from properties and are there enough exits to do so in an orderly fashion? Include an evacuation plan for every meeting room, especially large rooms.
Know local shelters. Have hotel and venue specific plans for evacuation and sheltering in place.
Anticipate changes. Have alternative itinerary alternatives in the event of an emergency that requires changes but not cancellation. Include back-up plans for speakers and outdoor events.
Review. Walk through emergency plans with meeting and hotel staff.
In addition, keep the following tips in mind when creating an ERP.
Tightening budgets can make it difficult to get management and stakeholder support for crisis management planning, but planners must make the effort.
According to Roach, “The single most important element is to have executive level buy-in and full support in creating and implementing the plan. If you do not have the support of your executive team, any plan you create simply won’t work.”
Don’t depend on the hotel or venue to provide crisis plans and procedures. Risk management should be a team effort that includes properties and venues.
Provide a copy of the ERP to all planning team members and train them how to implement it. A good plan may be of little use if staff doesn’t know how to quickly implement it.
Don’t have a one-size-fits-all ERP. Tailor the details of an ERP to each hotel and venue.
Designate staff responsibilities. According to Cooper, “Make sure you have the right people managing the plan on site. Sometimes corporate security isn’t enough, and they aren’t trained adequately for true emergencies.”
Work with CVBs and DMCs, some of which have faced crises before and can provide valuable assistance during an emergency.
In addition, Jordan suggests planners learn from peers who have created successful ERPs. “One of the most pertinent key questions that I ask is, ‘What are others in different industries doing with their crisis and risk management plans and what can we learn from what they’re doing in those market segments?” Jordan says. “Although we’re finance and insurance meetings, there are strategies and tactics that we can learn from those performing healthcare meetings, religious meetings, government meetings, etc. We can’t let the biggest obstacle of our own risk management planning be tunnel vision that is solely focused on crises in our own industry.”
No ERP can be successful unless it includes a detailed communications plan component. According to Roach, “Regardless of industry, a communications plan should be at the forefront of the planning process for event professionals. I don’t think you can single out the financial and insurance industries as having an especially different or unique set of parameters when it comes to developing and implementing a crisis communications management plan.”
Roach’s basic approach to developing an ERP communication plan is the following: “There is the overall communication plan that defines who the key contacts are (executive level, security, conference team, HR, communications, etc.), the order in which they are contacted in the event of a crisis and who makes the ultimate decision on how it should be handled,” Roach says.
According to Jordan, some planners lack a crisis communication plan or have one that is incomplete.
“I think the most overlooked part of a detailed crisis management plan is what happens when we don’t have access to a communications section,” Jordan says. “The crisis communication plan should include redundant backups at the physical destination, at the central office and digitally if we are to be truly prepared for all responses and all types of communications.”
Jordan was prepared with a communications strategy when an issue threatened the FPA’s 2,000-attendee annual conference.
“We had a labor stoppage at our host property,” Jordan says. “We partnered in advance with the property to talk through strategies and options to mitigate any service impacts. We instituted daily service recovery meetings with the property to ensure we were addressing participant’s concerns related to the work stoppage.”
Jordan adds, “Although we couldn’t mitigate all of the service impacts, being upfront about our concerns and offering customer-centric solutions to our supplier partner helped us work through the situation.”
Make it easy to understand. “An easily communicable crisis communications section is the key to the execution of the crisis management plan,” says O’Hara, who has read the plans of several insurance and financial firms.
O’Hara adds, “It does no good to have a great plan on paper if the people on the ground are not clear on what to do with it and who is responsible for each action step in case of a crisis.”
Rank-order potential crises that may have to be communicated.
“Potential crises should be grouped in sections based on severity, and the communication plan for each level of severity clear and easy to execute,” O’Hara says. “It should include who needs to know what, who makes each level of decisions, and how do you reach the decision makers 24 hours a day.”
List contact information. Include contacts for meeting, hotel, CVB and venue staffs. Also include emergency contacts for attendees, emergency service providers, police, hospitals and vendors.
Include at least three ways to contact meeting staff during crises — cell phones, two-way radio and a hotel or venue’s public address system.
Create a phone tree that allows each staffer to call a pre-established number of key people and attendees to speed up communication without one person having to call everyone. Include provisions for contacting attendees who haven’t arrived on-site after a crisis happens.
Be prepared to communicate emergency contact information to attendees via email, text and signage at events. Include a media communications strategy and designate a media spokesperson.
Even the best plans can’t always prevent or mitigate a crisis. Any kind of crisis can happen any time during any meeting, large or small, and planners must be ready with meeting-specific ERPs.
A plan can make the difference between life and death, prevent or reduce injuries, stop a bad situation from worsening and help protect planners from lawsuits.
However, an ERP is ineffective without the leadership to implement it quickly and calmly while handling panicked attendees.
Planners’ actions or lack there of during the first moments of a crisis can make the difference between an interrupted meeting and one that is completely ruined. I&FMM