Rob Stott is a contributing editor to Associations Now.
Expecting the unexpected at a conference is difficult enough. Making it trickier is that crises come in all forms—from civil unrest, to extreme weather, to terrorist attacks. Meetings experts who've managed a crisis situation share their advice.
Picture this: It's the eve of your association's annual meeting—the biggest revenue driver on the calendar. You're at home taking care of last-minute tasks when your phone rings. It's a coworker telling you to get your eyes on the nearest TV. You flip it on, and your jaw hits the floor. Your meeting's host city—the same one you're supposed to be getting on a plane to fly to in a matter of hours—is seemingly up in flames: People are rioting, burning cars, and clashing with police.
This is the crisis that Joyce Paschall, CAE, director of education and meetings at the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, faced in May, as ACOEM was getting ready to head to Baltimore for its annual American Occupational Health Conference.
Tension between the Baltimore community and local police was already at the boiling point after the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man who died in police custody. Protests, mostly peaceful, had been occurring for days, and ACOEM was monitoring the situation from its headquarters in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.
Gray's funeral was held on a Monday—three days before the start of ACOEM's preconference—and that's when everything quickly unraveled. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency, the National Guard was called in, and a citywide curfew was put in place.
"About that same time, we started getting queries from members and attendees who were seeing the same pictures we were," says Paschall. Many were convinced there was no way the meeting would happen. That's when Paschall and her team kicked their crisis communication plan into high gear.
Your association's next major conference may not have riots to contend with, but it's crucial to be prepared for the worst. A well-thought-out crisis response plan can help you quickly gather information, communicate with key authorities and your members, and make important decisions when stress and uncertainty are running high.
When a crisis situation arises, the first thing that should come to mind is safety. Will attendees and staff be at risk? Are the venues safe?
You never want to find yourself in a crisis situation, but the benefits of being prepared for one are enormous. A few tips from association and meetings pros who've been there:
"I've always been a big believer in conference cancellation insurance. It's partly the peace of mind, but more than that in many cases, and for many associations, it's a significant source of income. To me, it would almost be malpractice if one were to not have CCI."
—Joyce Paschall, CAE, director of education and meetings, American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine
"Make sure that your crisis communications plan dovetails with the city's crisis communications plan. If I was a meeting planner, I'd be sure to ask things like 'What does your crisis communication document look like? Walk me through the process. What crises have you dealt with in your city, and how did you handle it?' Hopefully you don't have to use it, but these things just come out of left field."
—Tom Noonan, CEO, Visit Baltimore
"We try to war-game things out better now than we did prior to our Boston meeting. You don't expect something like the Boston Marathon bombing to ever happen, but there are so many different things that could happen that could impede a meeting or create problems. Simulating those scenarios helps tremendously."
—William Prentice, executive director, Ambulatory Surgery Center Association
"Those were the first questions that we needed to have answered by the convention center, by the city of Boston, and by the police and other state and federal officials," says William Prentice, executive director of the Ambulatory Surgery Center Association (ASCA), which held its annual meeting there just two days after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. "Only after we had those answers could we start thinking about the logistics of the meeting, and also if our presence there would, in any way, inhibit the police and the work they were doing to try and capture the people who had done this horrible thing."
Prentice worked closely with the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority in the hours after the bombs went off to get those answers.
"Early in the process we set up hourly check-ins, so whether we had new information or not, we all got together and went through the most current details," says MCCA Chief Public Safety Officer Rob Noonan. "We really worked to arrive at a collaborative approach, to ensure safety, and make sure they felt comfortable that their events could go on and that we were capable of hosting it."
Boiled down to the simplest terms, a crisis- or disaster-preparedness plan helps an organization stay focused when external factors would make that nearly impossible. Central to it, meeting professionals say, is clear and constant communication.
Step one, ACOEM's Paschall says, is to get in touch with your attendees and vendors as soon as possible, even if it's just to let them know that you really don't know a whole lot. "You have to be their source of information, otherwise they're going to start looking elsewhere. The first thing we posted on our website was, 'We don't know much right now,' and told them that we were monitoring the situation and would let them know when we had anything to report."
ACOEM continued to provide updates throughout the week as the Baltimore curfew was lifted and adjustments were made to accommodate the event. Bottom line: With the National Guard in town and order restored, the meeting's location was safe and the show would go on.
Beyond keeping all stakeholders informed, the crisis plan should also provide a step-by-step guide for how communications come and go—who talks to the media, who checks in with the convention center staff, who monitors social media, and so on. And everyone on staff, top to bottom, should know what that process looks like.
"You have to have a culture of getting ahead of things," says Jerry Heppes, CAE, CEO of the Door and Hardware Institute. DHI was set to kick off its annual meeting in Baltimore—and was already in town preparing to kick things off—the day after the public protests went from peaceful to out of control.
"We set up a war room in the hotel and started going through the crisis plan, working on everything we could think of in terms of communications—cancellation notices, press releases, noncancellation notices," he says.
The city's convention and visitors bureau, Visit Baltimore, worked closely with DHI to provide constant updates and to set up communication with the police commissioner. "The immediate thing that you've got to do is you've got to get on the phone with each other or get face-to-face," says Visit Baltimore CEO Tom Noonan. "Both sides need to work toward one common goal. That goal wasn't necessarily that they had to hold their meeting; rather, it was that we would fully support them in their decision either way."
Given how events unfolded that week, and with a majority of its attendees still at home, DHI eventually decided it was best to cancel.
"Membership was very understanding, and we had [conference cancellation] insurance, so the financial impact wasn't an issue for us. But as staff, you don't realize just how much you pour your heart and soul into something until it's taken away," says Heppes. "The impact on us and on our industry, and on the city of Baltimore, is substantial."
Weather can also throw a wrench into meeting plans. After serious flooding ravaged parts of North Texas in late May, the Texas Association of School Boards had to decide whether to go ahead with its 2015 Post Legislative Conference and Summer Leadership Institute, both scheduled to be held in Fort Worth a few weeks later.
The flooding subsided and the shows went on. But TASB was prepared for any outcome after having gone through an exercise in extreme flexibility with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
That year, TASB's Joint Annual Convention with the Texas Association of School Administrators was scheduled to take place in Houston days after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Houston, which was hosting displaced New Orleans evacuees in the city's George R. Brown Convention Center, said it would be unable—understandably—to fulfill its commitment.
"Then about a week later they called back to say they could host our convention after all," says Kathy Dundee, assistant division director, meeting planning and event services, for TASB. "So we moved forward with the convention as planned."
Then along came Hurricane Rita. For the second time in a week, the groups were forced to adjust their plans, this time deciding to move their event to Dallas a month later. "Within that time we had to announce this to all attendees; find, secure, and contract with enough hotels; and contact all our vendors. We basically started all over," Dundee says.
Coordinating all of those moving parts was no simple task, and the groups did lose some attendees and vendors, but Dundee credited the meetings teams for having "catlike reflexes in a very difficult spot."
ACOEM and ASCA faced similar situations. Because of Baltimore's curfew, ACOEM had to relocate several evening events. And in Boston, the manhunt for the bombing suspects resulted in a shelter-in-place order that forced ASCA to move an offsite reception into the hotel where attendees were staying.
Ultimately, Paschall says, it's important to relate every decision you make back to your organization's mission.
"When we were going through this process, I wasn't thinking of it as the mission, but since then it's struck me that that is the reason to keep going," she says. "We're all different from one association to the next. But we're all the same in that we're trying to further a particular profession or industry. Having members get together and having them share with and educate one another is how you do that."
By following its crisis plan, ACOEM ensured its meeting could go on and succeed. And its impact went beyond the association itself, says Paschall.
"This type of event brings an economic impact to whatever city it happens to go to—we figured about $1 million for the area," she says. "By continuing, we were able to make a difference for that community—and maybe, if only for those three days we were there, provide a little bit of a distraction to get their minds off of what was going on around them."