Planning for contingencies: tips for handling disasters at your meeting or event

As the years pass and the number of meetings and events that I have planned increase, the more I realize how lucky I have been not to have had some major catastrophe wreak havoc on my best laid plans. Of course there have been some challenges, but we always managed to find a solution. With every event it is important to be aware of what could go wrong and ensure there is a back-up plan to handle that eventuality.

Planning for contingencies: tips for handling disasters at your meeting or event

The first step is to make of list of all the elements involved in your event. Technical presentations, live entertainment, presenters, food service, staffing, computerized registration, deliveries, special orders, hotel venue, transportation, etc. – could any of these be affected by an even minor disaster? Vivid nightmares that often haunt a planner in the days prior to an event could become reality. Some disasters are out of your control. Like an ice storm, volcano eruption, hurricane, earthquake or tsunami, a terrorist attack, a major power outage, a union strike, a highly contagious illness, the death or melt down of the client or project manager.  Sound familiar?

One needs to play the devil’s advocate, think about the what if situation and then what to do. Here are a few suggestions:

Major disasters

What we learned from many of these paralyzing events was to have a way of communicating with outsiders. I have colleagues who found themselves caught up in the midst of such events and had to think very quickly. The safety of your delegates or participants is crucial.

Provide all participants with contact information to be used in the event of a disaster. Pick three or four reliable people in your organization who will be participating in the event and who will be provided with reliable contacts at the office. These contacts should have the names and emergency contact information of all participants and have a system in place for reaching all of the participant contacts. Those people will in turn relay vital information to loved ones and colleagues. Just knowing that your colleague or a loved one is safe will make all the difference. It will also help in knowing who is missing.

Strike action

If you think there is a good chance that the hotel or venue you have booked for your event might have a strike situation on hand, immediately advise your client. Ask for daily updates from the hotel GM as well as his or her back-up plan, and tentatively book another hotel. (You would be amazed at how accommodating some venues will be.) Ensure you receive written assurances from the hotel that you will not be penalized if you pull out because of the impending strike. You might be able to negotiate another meeting within a three-year period. In a striking situation, service can be just as good as usual, if not better, as all the stops will be pulled out for your group by management who will be providing the services.

On-site presence

One of the most important reasons to insist being on site for any of one’s events is to be there in case of a problem (and you can list them off to your client). The role of a planner on site is that of damage control. If you have planned your event with the utmost care and deliberation, nothing within your control should go wrong.

You get what you pay for

Hire the most experienced suppliers who have a great track record. They will come through for you, and if there is a problem, they will know how to fix it quickly. An unruly and unreasonable client once antagonized a supplier to such a point that the supplier asked me to take my 250 guests and leave! All my diplomacy and tact had to be used to turn the situation around. Luckily I had a very good relationship with the venue and within 30 minutes of pleading was able to rest easy and not have my guests ejected from the premises.

I try to live by the adage that there are no problems, only solutions! This makes disasters less threatening. An open, positive and flexible state of mind is required at all times. You must be able to change things in a flash if need be, to make split-second decisions. The more experience you have, the better it will be for you and all concerned.

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