Imagine this: On the eve of one of the largest events you have orchestrated in recent months, you receive a call from the caterer, who is in tears because their refrigeration system has failed, and the food they have prepared for tomorrow’s event is ruined. What do you do? With the right contingency plan in place, you should be able to quickly move to Plan B.
Predicting the outcome of an event is like forecasting the weather: You think you know what’s going to happen — then it doesn’t. Unforeseen circumstances and non-evaluated risks are inherent components of the meetings and events industry. In fact, many of these inherent risks — if left unidentified, unchecked and unexplored — can make or break your ability to effectively handle crises when they occur.
Let’s face it: You can’t plan for everything. Jessica Connolly, director of global events at Hubilo Technologies Inc., says natural disasters, health scares — such as the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, political issues, employee shortages or keynote speakers not showing up, are just some of the crises that occur frequently within the meeting and events arena.
“The health and safety of your attendees must always be the top priority. When you know your event may be impacted, make an educated decision on the next steps to take,” Connolly says. You must first understand what is happening — are there governmental rules and regulations in place? Monitor the situation constantly and get your team in place by keeping them informed of what may come and what their tasks are to execute. Create a risk assessment to include attendee impact, business impact and internal staff impact. Review this with your stakeholders to make a well-informed and educated decision.
Sometimes, you need to make quick decisions during a crisis. Remain calm — if you lose your cool and make a rash decision, it may backfire on you. Connolly advises fellow meeting planners to prepare for unexpected things to happen, things that are out of your control. Be agile and flexible, and work closely with your team to provide the best outcome for your attendees.
Experts also agree that not recognizing a crisis in its early stages is the most common mistake meeting and event planners make. React quickly and decisively, and most times your attendees will never know there was a situation. Always put together an emergency/contingency plan. And remember, the best contingency plan is the one you don’t have to use.
“Not all crises are so major. Things like a broken A/C can irritate attendees who are suddenly feeling hot and suffocated. Your keynote speaker could not show up,” Connolly says. “Dealing with these things are stressful, but have great communication with your venue staff. This is important when you are selecting the venue for the event.”
Also ask the venue’s team how they deal with these types of crises. And for all of your event sessions, have a Plan B as part of your event pre-planning. The idea is to plan for a speaker not showing up, or a presentation or video not working. “These things happen. Be ready for them so you manage through the stress a little easier,” Connolly says.
Erin Mills, CEO and founder of Strat House and a more than 20-year veteran of event planning for companies such as Viacom, McDonald’s, Shopify and many others, stresses that health and safety have been first and foremost on the minds of everyone in the events world. “Since 2020, we have to continuously plan for and consider COVID protocols, vaccination requirements, compliance with health regulations on local, regional, state and national levels, as well as our client policies and procedures — it’s a long list,” Mills says.
But another emerging issue is how to smoothly return to in-person events after so long away. As Mills explains, there are so many dynamics at play in the return to in-person events. What is the level of risk planners take by going 100% in-person? What are the social anxiety levels of attendees after so long away? How has an attendee’s ability to participate responsibly in person changed since they last gathered? How depleting and exhausting will attendees find gathering physically to be when they are largely used to remote-work settings, and how do planners ensure they aren’t contributing to that exhaustion?
“Before COVID, there were a host of issues of course — weather, technical snafus, missing speakers — but the safest and most productive planners realize early in their careers that very little is in their control,” Mills says. “As before, a good rule of thumb or best practice is to prepare for everything you possibly can in advance. Once you arrive on-site, you will be met with surprise, opposition and challenge, and that’s the beauty. You don’t know exactly what will happen, and this can result in incredible magic for your clients and for those attending.”
Adele Cehrs, CEO of the Convincing Company, has taught crisis communications and business at Princeton, Cornell, George Mason and Georgetown universities. Cehrs says the best event planners know that something always goes wrong. The most experienced and prepared planners in the industry have a well-mapped-out plan to deal with everything from speaker cancellations, COVID-19 outbreaks, mean tweets and social media posts to hotel issues, food-borne illnesses, assaults and even deaths.
The trouble with most crisis plans Cehrs sees is they are often outdated and ill equipped to handle modern-day-event planner crises that are bound to occur. And while updated policies and procedures may help, they are just a guide, and should be used with careful consideration.
“These policies are often written by the executive or legal team in a vacuum before the issue occurs at the event. Oftentimes, they don’t take into account how to message an issue or what to say to attendees,” Cehrs says. “They rarely think of how to handle the court of public opinion, which will largely fall on the shoulders of an already-overwhelmed event planner. To avoid this fate, crisis templates, frameworks and strategies are available and should be tailored to their audiences in advance so they aren’t caught off guard. Be sure to ask to be part of these strategic planning discussions.”
Let’s start with the basics: “look books” denoting who’s who, security boards detailing credential requirements, proper site plans with evacuation routes, escalation procedures, having a security detail and medical personnel on-site. “This may sound like Event Planning 101 — because it is. Risk management begins with fundamentals,” Mills says. “But the fundamentals alone are not sufficient to protect you. You have to have the right team, with the right level of experience and an ‘appetite-for-risk’ mindset.”
It should come as no surprise that assessment is the first step toward crisis resolution. You must consider all stakeholders involved in the event and the level of impact the crisis will have on them. Other steps to take include:
Have a plan for medical emergencies (first), shelter (second) and food and water (third). This will give you time to handle the other aspects of the crisis more efficiently.
In most instances, facilities, hotels and other venues have emergency plans in place for evacuation, medical emergencies and weather. Knowing these plans in advance is more than a good idea — it’s your job as a planner.
Remain flexible, as some inexperienced event producers may get caught up with the problem and lose focus on the answer. Remember, be ready for anything.
Safety first. Search for any obstacles that can cause injury. Have emergency numbers always handy. Also, look for possible problems when on-site, such as candles having been moved or burning down to a point of being a fire hazard.
Familiarize yourself with evacuation plans of the facility. Long before the event is to be held, ask for the facility manager or owner to send you their evacuation plans. You and your team should thoroughly study the plans so that, in case of an emergency, you can escort the event attendees by using the designated evacuation route, quickly and safely.
There are so many potentially unwanted outcomes in the meetings and events business. Mills says that being skilled enough to plan whatever you can in advance with all contingencies in place is important. “And though it may sound strange, I think a ‘healthy-distrust’ mindset will help you grapple with any crisis that may happen within the event you’re planning,” Mills says. “Why? Because having the understanding that everyone you are working with is human, and therefore things will go wrong, folks will make mistakes, and that a lot of what will happen will likely be out of your control, will ensure that you are thinking more competitively and that you have a back-up plan for when things go awry.”
Another way to prepare is to get to know your audience. Mills says planners should ensure the event registration process captures important information, including dietary restrictions, accessibility needs and even pronoun preferences, so you can provide for the safest experience possible, physically and psychologically.
Other questions to consider are: Have you fully contemplated the health and safety of your guests in such a way that you are minimizing the chances of an actual crisis once the event is underway? Have you thought through all issues around accessibility — and not just physical accessibility? Have you planned to accommodate attendees with neurodiversity issues who may be sensorially challenged?
Another important part of thwarting risk is ensuring you properly vet all event content in advance. Require your speakers to do table reads, outlines and share their slides or other content in advance to ensure you are philosophically aligned.
“Also, don’t fall into a ‘the-show-must-go-on mental trap. When met with adversity, it’s OK to pause, reassess and reconsider plans entirely, versus plowing through, as was done for years,” Mills says. “Lastly, don’t just have ‘a’ contingency plan. Often one is not enough. Expect multiple challenges and have multiple solutions at the ready. Having a Plan C and D may sound superfluous, and in the best-case scenario, you don’t need them, but you will have them there just in case.”
Proper training is paramount to ensuring a meeting planner weathers any event or meeting crisis. How your on-the-ground staff deals with risk is often going to be the most important factor in ensuring no problem with crisis-management scenarios.
“Often risk is never realized because it is intercepted by skilled event teams who know how to troubleshoot in real time, and who have been thoroughly trained,” Mills says.
She advises planners to ask themselves: Does my team have adequate context about the event, the audience(s), the goals and objectives? Do they know enough about the production at large to effectively solve a problem that may arise? Have they been spun through an FAQ? Have they seen the marketing material or attendee communications?
“Too often, producers keep details on a ‘need-to-know basis,’ which does little for the team assembled. Instead, treat them like a stakeholder and a guest all at once,” Mills says. “This creates vested ambassadors for the experience you’re producing, and for your clients themselves by sharing and communicating properly with your team.”
Cehrs adds that, although unfair, meeting planners are sometimes the last to know if there is a crisis going on because they are mired in logistics. Not knowing what’s happening makes it harder for meeting professionals to manage issues, and that can quickly spiral out of control. “Many times, the marketing and communications departments work in silos and don’t communicate issues to the meeting planner about things that could negatively impact the event,” Cehrs says. “Having a process in place for open and honest communications between departments can make all the difference. This requires a pre-planned letter to coordinate with the department heads in advance of the meeting or event.”
As more events offer a hybrid option, the chances of crises emerging within the virtual world is growing. Most often for virtual events, the crises revolved around technical issues. Did your speakers lose their Wi-Fi? Did your technology fail?
Connolly says if your speakers lose their Wi-Fi connection, most may have a back-up solution of using cellular data to call in and participate. “Others may not, so have that back-up plan of a “holding” slide in your presentation, or a rock star host who can jump in and talk for a few minutes while you get organized,” Connolly says. “Most importantly, you want to partner with a tech provider that you trust, a support team that will have your back and help you through any challenges during the live event.”
During any virtual event, Connolly recommends planners have skilled content moderators attending to the live chat and other real-time engagement mechanisms. Ensure they have pre-scripted talking points to steer conversations in the right direction, and a clear escalation protocol in place to deal with any unwelcome commentary.
“For virtual events in particular, everyone’s inclination is to mitigate technical risk — to create redundancies for dropped internet, plans for botched livestreams, solves for the poor tech of at-home presenters, etc.,” Connolly says. “While this is all important, it’s an incredibly short-sighted definition of risk, boiling it down to just the technical aspects of a virtual event. Event producers need to be as concerned with people fails as they are technical fails.”
That’s why Connolly stresses that planners need to understand that their job as producers is the psychological safety and well-being of attendees, serving them across many dimensions of diversity and providing access and inclusivity to all aspects of their events. The nature of virtual events, and the ability for participants to hide behind avatars and aliases, makes them inherently riskier than [live] events, relative to psychological safety. “To that end, I strongly encourage a clear code of conduct to be established and socialized in advance of — and again, during — a virtual event,” Connolly says.
Indeed, Cehrs points out that people are becoming more comfortable and can sometimes make inappropriate comments or ask difficult questions that can be seen by all attendees if not property managed.
“The ‘work-from-home’ lifestyle has made some people more isolated, and it can be triggering for attendees who ask questions and don’t get responses,” Cehrs says. “To account for this, make sure each question is accounted for, and if not answered in the virtual setting, follow-up after the event is concluded.” C&IT