In the world of association meeting planning, there are a myriad of disruptive challenges that occur. While most of these disruptions are unpredictable and uncontrollable, evaluating and managing the inherent risk of meetings and conventions is paramount in an age of unpredictability.
In her role as event planner, Patricia Foss-Bennie, CMP, director, conferences and publications at Municipal Maryland League, has personally witnessed everything from floods and other weather-related events to the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as protests and picketing, equipment failure, facility issues like staffing shortages and more.
“I’ve often explained my job as solving problems one by one daily. Honestly, my experiences have been rather tame comparatively. The biggest crisis issues are human ones, especially those impacting many, like strikes and labor/travel stoppages or rioting near a venue,” Foss-Bennie says. “But a crisis can be as mundane as when your big banquet dinner isn’t delivered on time, and as you pace by the kitchen entrance, you see someone at a far table in the back of the room get a pizza delivered as those around cheer. I’ve come to think that the word ‘crisis’ is applicable only when you are unprepared and fail to act. And at times, we all feel unprepared and have those moments of hesitation, but after the initial shock, most of us bound into our event ‘fixer’ mode.”
One specific crisis that Foss-Bennie handled early in her career was when her previous employer’s largest general session broke and the crowd was quickly moving to the main escalator to get down two levels to the expo. While people were on the escalator, it stopped suddenly.
“Thankfully, the people on it were able to hold on and not fall forward, but others were unaware of the problem and still trying to get on. We radioed an all-hands-on deck to help the building team and our security with crowd control and lead people to alternative routes within minutes,” Foss-Bennie says.
More recently, a meeting city received five inches of rain in less than one hour. The parking lot flooded and several attendees’ cars were damaged unbeknownst to attendees, who were in workshop sessions. Someone came to let staff know that water was leaking through the light fixture in one of the sessions, clearly a major safety risk.
“Our team, including contractors, the venue team, our staff and leaders and many volunteer members quickly cleared the room, shut down power in the area, reset an alternative meeting space with everything needed to continue the session and carried on,” Foss-Bennie says. “ Later, the venue worked to help those with damaged vehicles and repaired the building.”
Foss-Bennie’s main crisis management recommendation is to have a written crisis plan specific to every event you have and crafted for each venue you will use. Planners should do what they do best in this realm just as in their events role – play out every potential scenario in your head to get started.
“What could go wrong? If it does go wrong, how will you respond? How will you expect others involved to respond. What’s Plan B? Even have a Plan C. Write it all out. Get input from others once you’ve done the thinking and the writing and along the way,” Foss-Bennie says. “To be truly prepared for a crisis, get your team together and drill the plan. That way everyone understands their role, and understands every role, so they are willing to pivot as needed. It’s one thing to have a plan. It’s another to know it and to share it so that everyone not only knows it, but owns it, too.”
Becky Fowkes, director, meetings & events, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), says that, in her experience, external factors that affect travel can quickly result in “crisis” situations for the planning team.
“Canceled flights due to weather are a given, but also pilot and crew labor strikes, collapsed bridges, downed power lines on an interstate, etc. can strand speakers and mean drastic changes to a program,” Fowkes says. “We were once notified the week before an event that an entire line of a city’s transit system was going to be under construction the week we were there.”
In another situation, an AACRAO member with a long history of active leadership and service in the association passed away unexpectedly weeks before an event. Plans had to be made quickly for communicating the loss to attendees and their co-presenters, a remembrance video was produced, sessions were canceled and replaced, a celebration of life reception was planned, buttons in her honor were donated, and triggering email communication to her team had to be modified.
“It was a very hard time for the team as many of them were personally grieving the loss. The event was an overall success but there were many attendees who were emotional throughout,” Fowkes says. “A foundation has since been established by the board to honor the person who passed away and we’ve improved our operational plan for when we do and do not publish a statement when a member dies.”
Certain crisis management techniques have proven successful. Fowkes suggests association event planners consider the following:
“It’s also difficult to ‘control the message’ when all in attendance can communicate with each other so quickly via messaging and texting,” Fowkes says. “Rumors can start and can quickly get away from the organizers.”
Each crisis that occurs is unique and brings its own set of challenges. That said, one of the biggest mistakes planners make is thinking that everything will continue to be normal and run smoothly.
“Having a written and practiced crisis plan is a mandate,” Foss-Bennie says. Some mistakes she’s either made herself or witnessed include not remaining calm, not asking for help and not recognizing that you have a team.
“The venue staff, your colleagues, your vendors and contractors and your association’s members are all your partners in your event. Treat them as such, not as adversaries,” she says. “When you create your event crisis plan, ask the venue for theirs and incorporate it. Make sure your contacts have their own crisis plan and a copy of yours as well. Be the prepared leader. You’ll be very glad you did if ever you do have to face a major problem.”
Jeremiah Shirk, founder and CEO at Showpiece Solutions, has organized many events, including numerous presidential events, and has deep experience working with Secret Service, police forces and other city planners to ensure event safety. Shirk says one of the major concerns surrounding crisis management at events is not having a proper infrastructure in place to address issues as they arise.
“It is crucial to proactively establish a system where you and your team can communicate effectively with clients and stakeholders to quickly resolve any problems,” Shirk says. “Failure to do so can result in delayed and ineffective response, leading to potential catastrophic consequences.”
That’s why Shirk says it is important to have your infrastructure and processes in place well before the event, ensuring seamless event operations. Additionally, ensure that roles and responsibilities are clearly communicated and understood by practicing with tabletop scenario incidents.
“This proactive approach will expose any gaps in your systems that can be addressed long before an incident arises, enabling you to focus on the crisis at hand and giving you the flexibility to respond and activate appropriately,” he says.
During a past event that Shirk planned, a group of VIPs were not given proper guidance, which caused a delay in the entire program.
“However, with immediate communication with stakeholders and partners, we were able to resolve the situation and proceed without any further setback,” Shirk says. “This success was only possible because of our strong focus on communication and relationship building with outside stakeholders during the planning phase. Our transparency and trust helped us overcome this crisis.”
Shirk stresses that one of the key mistakes meeting and event planners makes is choosing or forgetting to actually plan for a “crisis” as many individuals live under the false narrative that “it always just works out,” but this approach is flawed.
“It’s essential to plan for potential crises instead of ignoring them and hoping for the best. Crossing your fingers won’t keep an incident from happening, and even if things worked out before, there’s no guarantee they will in the future,” Shirk says.
Another common mistake is having an inefficient command and control structure, which can lead to confusion and miscommunication during a crisis, making matters worse. It’s crucial to have a well-organized system in place to ensure everyone knows their roles and responsibilities.
“Finally, some meeting professionals try to handle the entire response themselves because they never implemented an effective command and control system,” Shirk says. “This ‘do-it-yourself’ approach can be overwhelming and lead to burnout quickly. Instead, delegating tasks based on expertise and capabilities can help address the crisis more efficiently. Planning is critical in crisis management as it helps avoid potential misunderstandings or errors in judgment during an emergency situation while ensuring that everyone involved knows what they need to do.”
Digital and technological advancements within the meeting and events space has catapulted the industry into a high-tech realm that engages attendees and streamlines the entire meeting and event experience. Of course, with that technology comes the potential for issues.
“Similar to our increasingly complex vehicles, few can be repaired by the amateur’s DIY efforts. If the venue’s Wi-Fi fails, is there an on-site expert to get it back on or will all your presentations that incorporate internet show and tell be toast? Is there an AV tech on site who can quickly reconnect whatever wiring links the sound between rooms, or to the vehicle broadcasting your streaming from the parking lot?” Foss-Bennie says. “Tech is amazing and adds much to how and what we do, but just like everything else we hold responsibility for, we have to ensure that the support is in place with backups as we embrace these new vehicles.”
In addition, the reach of video and attendees’ ability to share it with thousands at their fingertips has heightened reputational risk.
As a result, Shirk says it has become imperative for both planners and clients to prioritize their response processes and have strategies in place to either prevent negative situations or communicate effectively if crises do occur.
“It is essential that they are able to convey messages, such as ‘here’s what happened,’ ‘here’s our response,’ and ‘here’s how we will monitor and adjust moving forward’ to mitigate any potential harm to their reputation,” Shirk says.
In the last few years, meeting planners have had to deal with a wealth of unpredicted crises – namely, with regard to canceled events and the advent of virtual meetings. Foss-Bennie says sanitization, air quality, energy, privacy and digital security will continue as key event crisis plan elements in the post-Covid world.
“If the pundits are correct about global warming and its impact on weather and water levels, these will factor into planning. Generic templates exist now for planners’ use in crafting their organizations’ crisis plans and certainly agencies and others can craft a plan for you,” Foss-Bennie says. “I think another evolution we will see more of is that our event crisis plans will become more customized and specific toward our organization and each individual event going forward.”
Shirk says the importance of allocating resources to the planning process beyond the realm of communications leads and law enforcement partners is on the rise.
“It is key that subject matter experts are involved in identifying and resolving potential failure points beforehand. When a crisis occurs, the agility and response of your crisis management team will determine the success of future events,” Shirk says. “They no longer have a choice not to invest resources into this aspect of proactive planning.” | AC&F |