Expect the Unexpected: Risk Mitigation Strategies for Event Organizers

October 28, 2016

When planning a congress or conference, especially an international event, you can never plan enough. One area, however, that organizers are paying much more attention to is risk mitigation. That is, dealing with any possible risks that could affect the smooth running and successful outcome of an event.

One needs only to read the latest news to know that international issues such as civil unrest, terrorism and disease are a reality, and must be considered by conference and congress planners. Putting together a risk mitigation plan is now a job critical function but it does remain intimidating. Where to begin? The task is vast and overwhelming.

Fortunately, the partners of the World PCO Alliance have pooled together their insights and experiences to help planners better understand risk management and the critical elements of a risk management policy that is right for their event, as well as reflective of the current realities.


What does risk mitigation actually mean?

We already said that risk mitigation refers to managing any potential risks that could affect your event. More specifically, risk mitigation involves the following:

  • Identifying those possible risks that threaten your event
  • Instilling measures to address those risks before they occur so that you are ready
  • If any of these risks do occur, implement your crisis management plan
  • Protect yourself legally


Identifying the Threats

It is incumbent on conference and congress organizers to properly inform themselves of the health and safety status of the region they are considering or have confirmed for their event, and to stay informed throughout the planning stage. In addition, they must fully consider their field, conference topics, attendees, speakers and guests. Only with this knowledge will they be in a position to identify the threats as they might appear.


Instilling the Measures to Manage the Risks

What are some initiatives you can take to help you stay on top of the health and safety risks that could possibly affect your next event? The Alliance partners suggest you prioritize the following:

1. Select your destinations with caution: While you want your host city to be accessible enough for all your attendees, you want to make sure that you are choosing a destination that is relatively safe and where the threat of terrorism is minimal.

For many conference and congress organizers, this means looking at cities they might have previously passed on. Gregg Talley from Talley Management Group in the United States, has noticed a marked increase in popularity of “second-tier” destinations for international events. “Instead of first tier world capitals, for instance, organizers are looking at great, accessible second tier cities in the same country,” says Talley. “For events held in Europe, associations are starting to look more to cities in the north,” he says.

2. Talk to destination representatives: Associations, together with their event planners, need to closely evaluate their shortlist of destinations. Investigate the current political climate in the region, and, more importantly, have several open discussions with destination representatives. They will be able to provide you “insider” information that you might not have access to. Of course, they are also in the business of promoting their destinations, so you will still need to assess the information that is given.

3. Don't ignore airport security: When it comes to security and safety issues in any given city, airports are a hot point. Talley suggests that associations and conference planners ask themselves this key question: How quickly can one reach the airport and get through it? “Airport security is a big deal, and associations should look at this when evaluating destinations.”

4. Keep abreast of developments: For Americans thinking of travelling overseas, it's not enough to just stay current on news stories. Talley strongly advises conference planners to refer to State Department travel advisories. They provide the latest status on countries with travel alerts or warnings. You can consult the website by clicking here. (https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/alertswarnings.html)

5. Hire a security expert: He or she will be able to help you assess the potential threats given your group, and will likely detect things that you would never have thought of.


If things go awry, have a plan!

Assuming you do all your homework and have been diligent in selecting a destination, things can still go wrong. Imagine that you're a few months or even weeks away from your event, and something has happened. Your attendees are frightened, panicking, and thinking of canceling altogether. What do you do?

This is where having a plan comes in handy. Gregg Talley puts it bluntly: “Crisis planning has to go up three notches.”

World PCO Alliance president Kitty Wong of K&A International agrees: “You always need a contingency plan.”

So, what should be included in your plan? A stated process to execute the following:


Decide whether you go: The first thing to determine is whether to let the show go on. Industry consensus strongly favours holding the event. Notwithstanding any threat that would clearly endanger your participants and staff, it is almost always better to proceed as normal. Firstly, because the cost of canceling can be much higher than anticipated, not only in terms of money but also how the cancellation can affect an event's reputation as well as its legacy moving forward. Particularly for events that are held once every two or three years, putting off the event until the following rotation can affect any momentum achieved until that point, and could discourage attendees from registering in the future. With the stark competition existing today among associations vying for membership and attendee numbers as well as those ever-precious sponsorship dollars, this is a chance that many are not ready to take. In addition,

Show attendees that you are doing your job: Now that you've decided to proceed as normal, the priority is to reassure your stakeholders (including attendees, exhibitors, sponsors and speakers) that you are on top of the situation. The key here is transparency. The last thing you want to do is appear like you are purposely withholding vital information.

To begin with, make sure your event website includes a page dedicated to the risk in question. Address the issue head-on. Your goal is to inspire confidence by appearing confident yourself. State why you have opted to go on with the event and that you are monitoring the situation closely. Provide links to travel advisories and any credible sources on the issue, and create an FAQ section.

Provide only facts, never speculation. Present these facts in a neutral tone. Anything defensive, dismissive or emotional will not serve you well. Stay away from high-emotion or high-drama words to describe situations.

In short, you can’t over communicate in a situation like this. Keeping communication lines open and making yourself available to attendees is the best strategy.

Form a crisis management team: Forming a crisis management team is important, especially when you consider that, according to experts, how one responds within the first hour of a crisis is critical. Nothing is worse than not having a team ready to act, so ideally, assemble this team ahead of time, with the following key roles in mind:

  • Team Leader: This individual will oversee the crisis management team, and is the one who decides what public announcements to the media, if any, are made.
  • PR Representative: Responsible for managing the public relations aspect of crisis management, your PR Representative will provide guidance on speaking to the media and will coordinate any related communications.
  • PCO Representative: Assuming you are working with a PCO, have one of their staff included on the team. They should be kept abreast of what is going on what decision options are and get their recommendation. Obviously, they will be managing any logistics on their end.
  • Destination Representative: Pick a local representative from your selected host city with whom you will maintain regular contact throughout the period leading up to and during the event. Remember, they are where the action is, and are in a unique position to give you timely updates.

Your attendees and other stakeholders will appreciate knowing that you have a crisis management team in place that is ready and equipped to handle any arising issues, so do inform them. Moreover, this will further reassure them that things are under control.

Stay on top of the situation and adjust responses accordingly: While adopting the calm and neutral position recommended above is the ideal starting point, you might have to become more proactive in managing any fear or uncertainty expressed by delegates. Responses might include providing more detailed information or even making media statements. While talking to the media is usually something most conferences want to stay away from, it may become necessary if organizers are being pressed for answers.

In addition to providing information on the congress website and (potentially) to the media, you may have to get creative so that the show can go on. Japan-based Congress Corporation has faced its share of unexpected issues, including diseases and inclement weather.

Says Congress Corporation's Managing Director Kaoru Shibuta: “Particular cases we have dealt with in the past are the SARS incident in 2003 and MERS about 2 years ago. These types of disease outbreaks can play havoc with international conferences.”

Technology proved to be a life-saver in both cases. Facing the sudden cancellation of speakers, the PCO mobilized efforts to bring speakers to the congress through tele-conferencing, a common technological feature today, but not at the time of SARS. Congress Corporation also coordinated to have people who were already at the conference give lectures or present papers on behalf of those speakers who could not travel.

For Kitty Wong of K&A International, technology also saved the day when the Iceland volcano erupted four years ago, during a major meeting of 4,000 attendees that she was organizing. The volcano paralyzed European air traffic, making the delivery of the printed conference program from London an impossibility. What to do? “We had to go paperless,” says Wong. “We uploaded all the papers onto the conference website and gave attendees unique access codes. It was a huge endeavour, but well worth it, and necessary.”

Congress Corporation also has plenty of experience in dealing with extreme weather conditions, particularly the typhoons for which Asia is known. “In the past, we have taken special measures to set up monitors in the conference center lobbies so that participants can watch the news and obtain the latest information. We have also staffed counters where information on alternate ground transportation information is available.

It is clear that responding to crisis situations is far from easy, but partnering with a reputable PCO can make all the difference. Conference and congress organizers should make sure their selected PCO can demonstrate sound knowledge in crisis management. Says Shibuta: We are able to give our clients concrete advice and examples of how it is possible to turn a difficult situation around, working together to set up contingency scenarios, which would go into action in case something might actually occur.


Protect Yourself

Thus far we have largely addressed appropriate responses on the part of organizers when faced with a crisis. There is also the issue of legal implications during a time of crisis, and, more importantly, when the hard decision to cancel an event has been made. What's written in your contracts with congress venues, hotels, PCOs, DMCs and miscellaneous suppliers?

Says Caroline Knies from MeetAgain: Cancelling or cutting a congress short is every organisation's worst nightmare. Whilst there will always be practical measures to reduce the risks of cancelling the congress, circumstances could arise that are beyond your control. That's why we recommend our clients take cancellation and abandonment coverage.”

As a congress organizer, cancellation and abandonment insurance will help protect the financial investment you have made, in two main areas:

  • If a problem arises and you incur additional expenses to keep your congress running – for example you need an alternative venue at short notice
  • If you are forced to curtail or abandon the event halfway through, the policy can refund an appropriate proportion of your expenses.

You can also choose add-ons such as coverage for lost profits, adverse weather, enforced reduced attendance or additional terrorism coverage.

Another issue for conference and congress organizers to address in contracts is the famous force majeure clause. Typically comprised of a standard paragraph or two, all too often, this clause falls short of providing adequate protection to the parties involved. How do you evaluate the quality of this clause in your contracts?

  • Make sure to include concrete examples that apply to situations where performance of the contract may be terminated without liability by either party.
  • Don't factor in total termination conditions only, but also those that would provide for partial termination. Thus, even if an event has not been completely cancelled but attendance has dropped by a significant percentage, then the parties' respective obligations should reflect this change.

When it comes to the legal implications of health and safety, some countries have adopted actual laws. Legislation enacted in April of this year in New Zealand states that “persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) have duties to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the workplace is without risks to the health and safety of any person”. 

Says Jan Tonkin of The Conference Company, New Zealand: “It is imperative that we compile a comprehensive health and safety management plan prior to every conference or event that we organize. This involves consulting with all the suppliers involved to obtain their individual plans and then summarise them into the management plan. That plan includes all suppliers’ contact details, a description of each potential risk, its probability, its impact, how to control the risk and who is responsible for its control.”

In conclusion, conference and congress organizers must factor in risk management when it comes to planning their events. Begin with ensuring that contracts make provisions for such risks, and adopt a proactive approach that will keep you and your staff alert to potential threats that could compromise the organization and/or outcome of your event. This forward-thinking attitude refers to not only being on the lookout for risks, but to have a plan in mind should these threats become realities. A sound plan includes forming a crisis management team that is ready (and trained) to act when and if necessary, communicating openly with attendees and other concerned parties and finally, a willingness to make the hard decisions that are best for the safety of everyone involved and the legacy of your event.

Have any more questions about setting up a risk management strategy that has you and your event covered? The Alliance is here to answer them, so please contact us.

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