The “possible horribles” could destroy your meeting, injure your attendees and propel you to the front of the unemployment line. So say two prominent lawyers who teach risk management and counsel meeting professionals to always be prepared for the worst. James Goldberg, a principal in the Washington, DC, law firm of Goldberg & Associates defines “possible horribles” as everything from natural disasters, transportation problems and food poisoning to heart attacks, terrorist attacks and airline strikes. He is constantly surprised at how many meeting professionals lack written plans to handle crisis situations.
So is attorney Tyra Hilliard, CMP, a consultant, who in her classes asks: “How many corporate meeting planners have company-wide crisis management plans?” Almost all of them raise their hands, she said. Then she asks, “How many companies have crisis management plans specifically for meetings?” Most of them put their hands down.
Goldberg said he frequently poses this question in his classes: “If you have a meeting out of town, do you know where the nearest hospital is?” The standard response is troubling: “Lots of planners look at you with this glassy look or say they don’t know,” Goldberg said. “I ask them why. They say the hotel usually knows. I say, ‘Who are you going to ask at the hotel?’ They say the front desk. I tell them that is a waste of valuable time in an emergency and they should have the number and other information about the hospital in advance.”
Risk management plans are more important than ever because a poorly handled crisis can yield negative publicity and word-of-mouth chatter. Such fallout can hurt the reputation of a corporation and its meeting planner, and harm the ability of independent meeting planners to attract business at a time when they need it most. Risk management plans protect attendees and prevent or minimize the disruption of events.
Meeting planners who don’t have a written risk management plan should create one, and those who have plans should make sure they are comprehensive and up to date. Lack of a written risk management plan is, in itself, a risk because emergencies and catastrophes can erupt at any meeting at any time.
Yet, most corporate and third-party meeting planners don’t have written risk management plans that they can adapt to each meeting and event. “Most corporations have plans to continue and resume business in a crisis but it usually doesn’t extend to their meetings and meeting planners,” said Hilliard.
Furthermore, most independents don’t write risk management plans for meetings they plan for corporate clients. “Third-party planners usually put together a (risk management) plan if the client requests it, but most don’t. That’s the response I get from most third-party planners,” said Hilliard.
The most common responses Hilliard receives when she asks meeting planners why they don’t have a written risk management plan are: “They say they lack the time and knowledge of how to put together a crisis preparedness plan, and lack the budget to implement one. Many planners say they don’t have to make emergency plans because the hotel is prepared.”
It can be difficult for meeting planners who are short on staff and operating on tight budgets to use valuable time to write a crisis management plan and adapt it for each event. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Yes, it’s internal costing of time, and that’s money. But I don’t know how you can cut out a (risk management) plan,” said Goldberg.
Meeting planners should create a master risk management plan that can be adapted to a number of emergency contingencies. “It’s really a template. Certain parts will be standard and certain parts will be updated for each meeting,” said Hilliard. For example, she said, “Plans for evacuating employees are part of the plan but the details of who is in charge of evacuating and the procedures will change with each meeting.”
Here are some basic components of a risk management plan and the key steps to take in creating one.
The Key Components
Make a list of all the possible things that can present a risk to meetings and events. Use Goldberg’s list of “possible horribles” as a base and then add every conceivable risk you can think of. As part of the risk analysis, determine if the corporation is involved in any controversial issues, especially one that may provoke a special-interest group with a history of protests and demonstrations. Also monitor the news in the destination where the meeting will take place.
“Some people do these kinds of things intuitively. If they are having an outdoor event, most planners say they need a backup if it rains. That’s a form of risk management,” Goldberg said. “Meeting planners need to apply that same thinking to writing a crisis management plan.”
That’s what Pat Zollman, CMP, did. Zollman is regional director in the Danville, CA, office of HelmsBriscoe, a major meeting management and site selection company. Zollman and her colleagues in the regional office created the plan in 2003. The plan is adaptable for use with the company’s corporate, association and government clients, she explained.
“Basically, we put together one risk management emergency contingency plan we can use with anything. We put in everything we can think of that might be a problem. It could be a speaker emergency, medical emergency, a crime, property loss, hurricane or earthquake. For each meeting, we normally have two or three people onsite who are members of a crisis team that would put the plan into action,” said Zollman.
The plan cites an objective and strategy, and lists possible risk areas that are grouped under the headings of facility challenges, staffing (registration), accidents/illnesses, crime, disasters, property loss, records/materials, speakers, presentations (materials and audio-visual), insurance and transportation. The plan lists dozens of possible risks in each area and provides specific actions to address each potential problem.
The section “administration of plan” provides for a crisis team consisting of three permanent members and three members at each event. The section also details the duties of the crisis team before and during an emergency, and lists supplies to keep on hand at each meeting and event, such as a battery-powered megaphone, battery-powered radio, first-aid kit and a hard copy of emergency contact information.
The plan can be tailored to specific types of companies or other groups. For example, pharmaceutical and health care companies hold meetings and presentations that attract doctors and medical researchers. “Part of our plan for that kind of group is having a way to mobilize to get them back to their hospitals in case of a disaster,” said Zollman.
|Emergency personnel conduct a safety procedures test at DFW International Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world.|
PRNewsFoto/DFW International Airport
Prioritizing the likelihood of risks that could impact each meeting can be difficult because the attendees, venue and geographic location of each meeting can vary significantly. Still, Zollman said, take those factors into account when prioritizing risks.
She suggested setting priorities in these four areas:
- Low probability of occurrence/low consequences. Example: It might rain at a meeting in Arizona.
- Low probability/high consequences. Example: A gunman takes an attendee hostage.
- High probability of occurrence/low consequences. Example: There is a 70 percent chance of rain during a meeting in Miami.
- High probability/high consequences. Example: A company that protesters are targeting due to a controversial issue holds a meeting that includes its top executives.
Don’t assume that low probability/high consequence risks such as natural disasters, riots, bomb threats, missing or kidnapped attendees, serious illnesses and a fire won’t impact your meetings.
Zollman dealt with a fire only once during her more than 20 years as a meeting planner but plans as if it could happen again.
The fire occurred about 10 years ago when she was planning meetings for another company. A fire erupted during the middle of the night in the part of the hotel that housed about 40 managers and administrators who were attending her meeting. A few participants were injured during the evacuation and were taken to the hospital. The fire was confined to a small part of the hotel and the group continued its meeting the next day.
Zollman’s former meeting planning company had no detailed written risk management plan and hadn’t spoken with the hotel about its plan in advance. Although the meeting continued and the fire did little damage, Zollman learned the hard way that she should always be prepared for a serious fire that could injure attendees.
Fires aren’t the most common meeting risks. What kinds of risks occur most frequently? It depends on the group, experts say. Meeting planners should obtain demographic information about each group to help assess potential risks. For example, heart attacks or illnesses are most likely to strike at a meeting with significant numbers of senior citizens. A security situation involving non-attendees could occur at a meeting where a popular musical entertainer performs.
Meeting planners should also ask attendees to provide emergency contact information. “You don’t want to find an attendee sprawled on the floor and not know who to call,” said Goldberg.
Illnesses are one of the most common risks. “I’ve had situations in which local doctors wrote prescriptions for ill attendees,” said Dana Eckoff, CMP, president of Professional Planning Group, a Denver-based meeting planning firm. “Typically, somebody has pain or another physical issue. We already have the name of a doctor and pharmacy, call in the prescription, and send somebody with the attendee to pick it up,” said Eckoff.
Eckoff advises planners to, as part of the risk management plan, “Know the telephone numbers of hospital, emergency rooms and doctors that the hotel uses. Know who in the hotel handles emergencies and that person’s cell phone number. Know what ambulance services and hospital contacts they have.”
Priorities in every risk management plan should include guidelines for dealing with people who become inebriated at a party, dinner or reception. Risk management consultants advise meeting planners to observe those consuming alcohol as well as watching for minors who drink at meetings, incentives and events, specifically when attendees bring family members.
However, meeting planners with RDL Enterprises, a Sacramento, CA-based meeting and conference planning firm, once had to deal with a person who posed a threat from the privacy of his room.
The incident occurred several years ago at a meeting of about 60 attendees. “A guest of one of our attendees got drunk in his room,” explained Karl Baur, CMP, project director for RDL Enterprises. “He began to call room service, the front desk and other departments in the hotel and was abusive and threatening. He was loud enough to disturb guests in rooms on either side of him and across the hall.”
The man did not heed pleas to stop, and the hotel wanted the situation resolved immediately. The company decided that it was best to defer to the hotel’s plan for handling out-of-control guests. “We told the hotel to do what was necessary to protect the guests and staff,” said Baur. The hotel called the police, who immediately removed him from the hotel.
Such scenarios illustrate that risk management plans should sometimes include contingencies that involve law enforcement officials and hotel security. Such contingencies may include ejection of non-credentialed meeting crashers, heated arguments, physical fights, verbal abuse and intoxication.
Develop The Plan
When adapting the plan to specific meetings, make partners of the hotel or venue and staff. Acquire from the hotel information that is needed to complete a risk management plan for the meeting. Give the venue a copy of your plan, and get a copy of the venue’s plan. “You want to know what that plan is so that you can dovetail your plan with the facility’s,” said Goldberg.
Make sure the risk management plan includes details such as the exact location of emergency equipment, including defibrillators and first-aid kits, and the names and phone numbers of staff trained to use the devices. “If somebody has a heart attack or other problem you don’t want to run around in circles looking for a defibrillator; you want to know exactly where it is,” said Goldberg.
During the site inspection, ask hotel staff to show you where emergency equipment is located and get a walk-through of evacuation routes. Include the information in the risk management plan.
The plan should also include information such as details on providers of local emergency medical care. Many meeting planners have had to deal with sick attendees. “Usually when I ask a classroom of professional meeting planners (in a graduate course) how many have had a person die at a meeting, about 10 percent of them raise their hands,” said Hilliard.
Communicate The Plan
Share the plan with your staff, she advised. “Anybody on your staff who responds to a crisis must be able to understand and use the plan,” said Hilliard. Added Goldberg: “The plan is no good unless other people know about it if something happens to you or you become unreachable.”
Update plans at least once a year and after each time a crisis plan is implemented. “After each emergency, ask what you did right and wrong, what you worried about that wasn’t a big deal, and what you worried about that was a big deal,” said Goldberg. Adjust the plan accordingly. C&IT