Over the last eight years, the meeting, travel and tourism industry has experienced a number of global incidents that have put crisis management plans to the test. From crises such as 9/11 and the current influenza A subtype H1N1 outbreak (“swine flu”), meeting planners have learned how to enact last-minute contingency plans. These unexpected events also have proven the importance of outlining a response system during the planning process and examining contracts to make sure liability issues are addressed.
“When 9/11 occurred, I was the CEO of a travel management company and we had people stuck all over the world — without a crisis management plan,” says Adam Lawhorne, now president of Meeting Incentive Experts. “I took classes with Meeting Professionals International in Chicago and drew up a contingency plan for future emergencies.”
Contingency plans are not one-size-fits all. A detailed risk management plan should be reviewed and revised based on the location of each meeting. For example, the plan for a meeting held in Miami might highlight hurricane evacuation procedures, while the plan for a group traveling to Tokyo might focus on what to do if an earthquake occurs.
“I found that the most effective crisis management plans are put into effect a few weeks before the meeting takes place,” says Marina Dixon, CMP, director of operations and business development for The Meeting Source. “A well-developed plan will allow for the use of good judgment and common sense in unpredictable circumstances.”
Reducing panic and containing liability are two crucial goals of a strong risk management plan. The plan should include a communication strategy, both for handling media relations and reaching meeting stakeholders. It should address how cancellations or postponement of meeting activity would be related to attendees, should the need arise. Also, it should outline what course of action to take if delegates are in mid-flight when an incident occurs or are stranded at the destination after the event ends.
“Having a very simple one-page sheet showing the flow of communication from the first respondent to the various risk management personnel is the one must-have for everyone involved,” Dixon says. “The communication flow document will walk the entire crisis team through the response process in a straightforward way that helps keep everyone calm and focused.”
As global incidents occur, planners should review their risk management policy and ensure that it addresses any new potential situation. The recent swine flu outbreak has shown how incidents begun in one city can disrupt travel plans and affect events taking place all over the world. Although the swine flu virus began in Mexico City, within a few weeks, the epicenter of the epidemic had shifted to U.S. soil. Many Europeans were discouraged from coming to America, but the only flights that could be rebooked without a fee were to Mexico.
“Many meetings were canceled due to overreaction — I call it ‘media flu,'” Lawhorne says. “It’s important not to panic, to tell the client your concerns and work through the solutions,” he councils. Before canceling any event, weigh the risk of holding the event against the cancellation and attrition fees that may be charged by hotels, venues and third-party suppliers.
If cancellation is necessary, it could adversely affect the budget if the incident is not covered by a contract’s force majeure clause. In the months after 9/11, many corporate legal departments were forced to argue that it was an “act of war,” since acts of terrorism weren’t specifically mentioned in contract language. In the wake of the swine flu, corporate legal departments might try to argue that the virus caused “curtailment of transportation.” To avoid any confusion after the fact, Lawhorne suggests planners customize force majeure clauses to include crises that disrupt events around the world and/or are specific to the event locale.