Jeff Altman is a partner at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, LLP, in Washington, DC. He practices in the areas of nonprofit and political law.
If you’re in charge of meetings, you need to consider the possibility that civil unrest, travel bans, and political turmoil could disrupt your event. Here’s some practical advice for negotiating meeting contracts in unpredictable times.
Long ago, you developed plans for a successful meeting and prayed that you wouldn’t be hit with a hurricane, flood, earthquake, or strike. Then came 9/11, pandemics, and civil unrest. Now we have controversial social laws and travel bans.
In each situation, your association’s goal is to restructure the event if necessary or reschedule it with minimal losses. Hotels and other venues are sympathetic, but they don’t want to bear all the losses if things go wrong. So when negotiating contracts, pay special attention to these key clauses:
Attrition. If your contract establishes room block, food and beverage, and other minimum commitments, this clause will likely specify the penalties for falling short. Build in flexibility to make changes as late as possible. Also make sure that formulas used to calculate damages are fair.
Force majeure. This clause will excuse your performance if certain things go wrong. Negotiate broad language to cover the situations described above. Make sure the clause allows you to reschedule or cancel if there may be a substantial reduction in the number of attendees or if it becomes impractical—not just impossible—to hold the event.
Special clauses. If necessary, negotiate special clauses to cover situations such as controversial laws or travel bans.
If your members are sensitive to controversial laws, schedule meetings in friendly states, even if doing so is more expensive. If laws change, start negotiating to move as early as possible.
If attendees are unable to attend due to a travel ban or any other reason, plan ahead to provide virtual alternatives. Allow attendees to participate remotely, or record sessions to be viewed later online. To avoid paying refunds, identify these alternatives in the registration contract and materials.
In speaker agreements, require that presentations be delivered remotely if necessary. Also specify your right to record the content for online use later.
In sponsor agreements, address the possibility that a featured speaker may not appear in person or that there may need to be substitutions for promised sponsor benefits.
Finally, event cancellation insurance should always be considered for major events.[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Plan for Uncertainty."]