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Event Risk Management: Mitigating Hurricanes, Tornadoes, and other Forces Majeure

To this day, the single most impressive interview story I’ve heard from a potential meeting planning candidate was the one who outlined her event risk management and disaster response to a hurricane that made landfall during her annual conference.

I’m from Oklahoma. We had a standing line item in the city budget to rebuild when the tornadoes blew through. I’m cynical about the weather.

And still, as she described how orderly her team operated to move 3,500 people from the convention center to the buses for shelter and evacuation with high winds working away at the roof? Chills. The calm professionalism in her story juxtaposed with the crazy visual imagery said more about her character and planning skills than any bullet point on her resume.

Event Risk Management for Conferences & Meetings

Forces Majeure (or “greater force”) are those things you hope you never encounter but know you have to account for. Like terrorism, labor strikes, and emergencies we haven’t yet identified but know they might come, having a plan for disaster is just part of the plan.

Emergency disasters can have an overwhelming impact on meetings and events. It’s not just your venue space you need to account for, it’s transportation, travel, sleeping rooms, shelter, food, beverages, sanitation, evacuation plans, communication, and always at the heart of it all, the people.

Due to the increase in terrorism attacks,  the amount of event risk management sessions and case studies we can learn from has also increased in the meeting professional’s conference offerings. But attending those sessions don’t always provide a template to prepare you for the instance. Which is why we’ve put together 5 tips to help you prepare, respond, and improve your disaster and emergency plans.

Start with identifying potential risks and threats

This is that meeting that many people don’t like to have. The one where you sit in the room and talk about all the things that could go wrong.

“Don’t let the perfectionism and control get in the way of thinking of threats.” Karen, a meeting planner for a large education conference in the DC metro area advises. “We want to imagine the best outcomes always, especially if senior leadership is in the room. This is not that meeting. We use sticky notes. Have people write their ideas down and put them on the wall. If you don’t say it out loud, it’s not as scary.”

Upside of this meeting? The response to many of the scenarios you outline will be similar. Which means you’ll likely start seeing patterns emerge from those sticky notes.  Which you can then group together and streamline into a more manageable four to six emergency response plans rather than an individual response to each situation.

“We would group the risks into buckets: the ones we had a known response plan for, the unpredictable ones we weren’t sure about, and the far-fetched but still could happen instances.” Karen said laughingly. “Like when that volcano in Iceland erupted. Our event was in San Francisco. It didn’t matter. We had attendees coming from all around the world. We needed a response in our plan because it was a threat to people who had to fly over and around it.”

Plan for People

Your attendee experience remains a priority, even in the face of disaster. Sounds silly? Maybe, but one of the largest challenges in handling a disaster or emergency during an event or conference is often plenty of people. What to tell them, where to put them, how to manage them, how to feed and shelter them, etc.

Collaborate Meetings interviewed John Copenhaver, head of FEMA for the Southeastern United States between 1997 and 2001, where he handled emergency management preparations for conventions.

“You’re typically going to have a lot of people in a small area and you have to be aware of all potential problems. That could be everything from an active shooter to a power outage or natural weather event,” he says. When responding to an emergency or after one has already happened, most plans are designed to maintain order and prevent panic. Copenhaver said in his interview that the keys to protecting people and property are effective communication and instructions.

Meeting planners must have multiple lines of communication open to reach attendees and deliver updated information. He recommends using any and all means of communication including social media, text messaging, direct phone calls and announcements at facilities. “You should figure out your response in different situations. The worst thing you can have is something happen at a convention for which you have no script or rehearsed response to,” says Copenhaver.

Plan for Disruption

Planning for disruption takes at least two scenarios:

Scenario 1: As Hurricane Harvey devasted the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, the North Texas convention centers and city venues made plans for disruptions. Both the Dallas and Fort Worth Convention centers as well as Irving, Arlington, and other local centers welcomed refugees, just as Houston and others had back when Hurricane Katrina hit. Local Airbnbs’ offered complimentary nights and hotels around the metroplex made space.

Now, for one tiny selfish moment, imagine you were the tradeshow or conference that had reserved event space in the hotels, convention centers, or conference venues that are now being used to house refugees. Or even worse, you had booked space in Houston or Corpus Christi at a venue that is now currently underwater and not expected to recover for four to six months. At best.

Yes, I’m terrible for even saying it. But, your organization or company is about to be out of a lot of money if you hadn’t planned for this type of disruption. Lost registration dollars from attendees who are no longer attending, lost sponsorship and exhibitor dollars, lost attendee experiences from people who won’t get to connect in person OR a very changed attendee experience if you’re able to replicate your planned conference in a completely virtual form. Lost money to supplier-partners who have already put in time and labor. The costs go on and up.

This is where that Forces Majeure clause in all of your written contracts and insurance comes into play. (Yes, you need the insurance. Just buy it already)

Many planners breeze over this clause, more focused on the attrition or concessions clauses. But it’s just as valuable, if not more if disaster strikes. This clause offers protection and release from financial obligation if for some reason, due to forces you can’t anticipate or control, the event cannot go on.

The prudent event planner has a force majeure clause in all contracts (even your attendee registration contract) that clearly states outcomes, obligations, options, and in some cases, potential timelines for refunds. And another clause that clearly outlines what and how it happens if you need to contest a portion of the contract. Work with an attorney who can advise you on a templated response for each of the standard contracts you enter into.

Scenario 2: You’re onsite and disaster strikes. You now have in front of you a total disruption of your event in a way you couldn’t have anticipated.

And though you realize your response will never live up entirely to the extremity of what you’re facing, you do have a plan. Right?

The event planners from the Ambulatory Surgery Center Association (ASCA) were moving onsite to the MCC when the Boston Marathon bombing happened.

“We did not have a event risk management plan in place,” Bill Prentice, the CEO of the Alexandria, Virginia-based association said during PCMA’s Convening Leaders conference the following year after the crisis. “We weren’t prepared.”

ASCA was adjacent to the bombing. Their attendees weren’t part of the explosion, but they still faced the consequences of the aftermath. And though their show went on, it left a mark on everyone involved for better and worse.

In response to the bombing, PCMA and MPI worked with the membership and consultants to create a quick start event risk management plan, which outlined the five basic steps you should enact to plan to face a disaster and resources you need to be aware of:

  1. Identify potential risk
  2. Assess potential impacts
  3. Determine consequences
  4. Identify ways to reduce risk
  5. Create a list of risk management tasks

Planning for disruption means several things: getting through the crisis itself and then managing the business past the crisis. Think short and long term in your approach to planning for disruption.

Then keep it up to date, make the pertinent people aware of it, and help your staff and volunteers stay vigilant and ready to enact it.

Plan for Communication

We touched on communication briefly earlier however it truly deserves attention on its own.

In a disaster, the natural instinct is to lock down or run away from what you’re facing. This is the wrong way to approach a crisis communications plan. People need information in times of crisis. Because if they don’t get it, they’ll start making their own up.

Take those scary emergency scenarios. Pick one. Start assembling a team of people who will need to be part of or aware of the communication response. Start writing. The National Mining Association has a great template you can follow if you need it.

As Mr. Copenhaver mentioned earlier, “The worst thing you can have is something happen at a convention for which you have no script or rehearsed response to.”

Questions you need to answer as you’re assembling your communications plan:

–Who is your media spokesperson?
It shouldn’t be the event planner. You’ll have other things to do.

In many instances, it is the CEO, Executive Director, President of the Board, or Chief Communications/Marketing Officer. If this person doesn’t handle crisis well, it’s vital to say that at this meeting you’re having and find another visible face that can handle what will be a lot of pressure and questions from attendees, scared people, and the media.

–Who is your media spokesperson backup (and her/his backup)?
In a disaster or emergency scenario, things we don’t want to happen, often happen. It might mean that your person assigned to speak to the media is unavailable for a variety of terrible reasons. Have a couple of backups trained and ready for action.

–Who is the emergency management contact?
This is the person who coordinates with the emergency management team managing the actual crisis. This hat is more frequently worn by the lead event manager. They help pass along current messaging between response teams.

–Who is the emergency management contact backup (and his/her backup)?
In a disaster or emergency scenario, things we don’t want to happen, often happen. It might mean that your person assigned to coordinate is unavailable for a variety of terrible reasons. Have a couple of backups trained and ready for action.

–What is the expected timeline of the response?
Time will both speed up and slow down in the face of an emergency. What’s your immediate response? Your follow up response? Your check-ins? Your holding responses (for those times when you don’t know or can’t say).

–What’s the protocol?
Your protocols for announcing bad news? For non-answering the questions you can’t or won’t?

–What channels are you responding on?
Are you using the mobile event app? Social media, email, phone, television, video, newspaper, letter, etc? What did you have pre-prepared? What do you need to ensure is written and in line with the pre-prepared responses? How are you dealing with incoming questions and dialogues?

–Where are your alignments?
What the larger emergency response team requesting you say or not say?

–Where will this plan be stored? Who is carrying the paper records on site? Who has the back up printed docs when you go onsite?

–When is the last time this plan has been updated? Who was involved in the updating? Does everyone who needs to be involved or aware been made so?

Plan for Flexibility

Yes, you’re going to have a plan. It’s going to be a good plan.

And it still probably won’t live up to expectations if you ever have to use it.

During the 2010 Tennessee floods,  the Cumberland River flooded more than 10 feet of water into Nashville. Major venues such as the Grand Ole Opry House and the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center faced major damage and were shut down for months. On my last site visit in Nashville to Gaylord, they were still showing off where the water rose up in the trade show hall.

Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville CVB, shared with Collaborate that Opryland was able to evacuate all the guests from the 3,000-room hotel and shelter them at a local high school. The CVB helped visiting meetings get their members out of town or cancel conferences. This included the Healthcare Financial Management Association, which relocated its 5,000-attendee conference to Las Vegas. “I am not sure we had a good enough plan beforehand. We did have a good enough staff that we responded instantly. I think our flexibility got us through it,” says Spyridon.

Spyridon goes further in his interview, saying “The CVB and the city’s other tourism venues were not prepared to go without power. The CVB office never took on water, but it still lost phone service and power for three days—at a time when it needed it the most. Spyridon says his staff “went into makeshift mode” to get the job done, but the CVB has since set up satellite locations that can be used in the event of a disaster. “We have all that now,” he says. “You can be prepared, but you just can’t know everything to prepare for until you go through something like this.”

What are some of your plans and templates that you use in case of emergency?

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