Emergencies – the Perfect Storm

It’s a good thing there were no incentive programmes around in 1912. A creative incentive house may have taken a high-achieving group for a once-in-a-lifetime experience on the hottest thing on the planet – the Titanic.

No one predicted the disaster, of course; in fact, the Titanic was touted as the safest ship in the world. But someone forgot to tell that to an iceberg – and the rest is history.

Business events across the globe are planned on a daily basis – conferences, meetings, incentive programmes and huge parties. A major part of the planning process is devoted to making sure the event goes off without a hitch. To ensure a perfect programme, planners include a raft of measures that are kept in the background, hopefully never to see the light of day – just in case.

There are so many obstacles that can hinder the outcome of even the most carefully planned programme. With proper contingency plans, many can be overcome but some simply cannot be controlled. Obviating the inconvenience, cost and lost productivity, however, can be controlled.

Don’t rain on my parade

Drizzle can dampen the spirits, rain can soak to the bone, a flood can wash things out completely and a tsunami can leave a trail of hideous devastation. Planning an outside event in any part of the world, perhaps with the exception of the Atacama Desert in Peru where it hasn’t rained for more than 100 years, is fraught with danger unless a wet-weather contingency plan is in place. In the monsoonal climate of the tropics, where you bank on rain at some point, prepare for the worst, and don’t ever take clear skies for granted anywhere else. And never, ever trust the weather bureau. Murphy’s law is specifically designed to enact itself at the most inconvenient time. Think back to June 1997 and the pitiful vision of British governor Chris Patten handing back Hong Kong to China. In the final stages of the ceremony he stoically stood in the torrential rain performing his last official act, drenched to the bone. Didn’t anyone think to get the poor man an umbrella?

Rain is just one weather phenomenon that can mar an event. Extreme heat, glare, snow and freezing winds do what they want, when they want. While we can’t stop Mother Nature from being a cantankerous old cow, we can accommodate her moods. Ask any of the athletes how they felt standing for hours in 50°C heat in the tunnel under the Commonwealth Games stadium in Delhi, waiting for the opening ceremony to begin. Oops, we forgot to air-condition it.

Karen Soo is the chief executive (actually her business card indicates the seriously cool title of Big Chief) of Meeting & Exhibition Planners (MEP) in Malaysia.  Some of her experiences with unforeseen circumstances have been good –  and some not so good.

“With outdoor events, there’ll always be a contingency plan,” she says. “Having said that,  we had a bad experience in Thailand where a severe storm was coming in at a great rate and we escalated our Plan B.

“The nightmare began, when the venue didn’t honour their commitment to Plan B, which was all agreed upon. And we had a large group of 120 [people]. Miraculously, though, strong winds shifted the squall and we weathered the storm for the evening’s themed dinner. And the guests didn’t know a thing about it, of course.”

Soo believes it is imperative to build in a contingency plan but admits there are some instances where cancellation, although never the preferred option, is necessary for the safety and well-being of participants.

“It’s crucial to have a disaster recovery plan and anticipate all the unforeseen possibilities. But no one can foresee natural disasters that can happen at any moment.

“We had a very difficult situation recently brought about by a natural disaster. The recent volcano eruption in Iceland occurred just as our incentive group of high achievers was to depart for Switzerland. We had to move to a different destination with only two weeks of preparation – starting from ground zero. We couldn’t risk the chance of our high achievers, who are all business owners, being stranded indefinitely in Europe. It was just too uncertain,” she says.

To exacerbate the misfortune of cancellation or deferment, insurance does not always pay up. Generally, insurance companies don’t provide cover for a scenario that is classified as a natural disaster. Flooding and washouts are considered as Acts of God, and in a highly litigious world, the insurance focus for large events is based more on public liability – providing cover for accidents that may occur during the course of the event.

It’s the clients who wear it financially, especially if they are calling the shots. One large client of MEP was particularly concerned about the possible effects the recent H1N1 epidemic would have on its participants. Erring on the side of caution and avoiding risk of contamination and possible legal action, the client made the prudent decision to cancel with less than seven days’ notice. Hotel cancellation charges and other associated costs were considered well spent in the face of such risk.

Planners such as MEP provide valuable professional opinions to their clients to obviate the risk of cancellation.

“One positive action we took with our pharmaceutical client during the SARS epidemic is that we implemented a system whereby the doctor’s conference was convened with the help of webcams. It was very well received and business went on as usual,” she says.

Successful execution of an event is all about planning and assuming the worst.

John Hudson runs Millbank Marketing in Australia – a specialist business event company. Hudson also insists that planning for just about every emergency is a vital component to any programme.

During the staging of a major national event for a client, 1,800 delegates were flown into Sydney from more than 10 cities. One of Millbank’s key staff members became critically ill and was rushed to hospital. With appropriate measures detailed in an extensive operating manual created especially for the event, Hudson’s team not only covered the gap left by the staffer, but also had pre-planned arrangements. A total plan dedicated to her care was quickly enacted, and she was flown home following her hospitalisation. The plan was so detailed, it even included provision for her dogs to be fed back home while she was in hospital.

”The discipline was created from the outset. Millbank was dealing with a client who, as part of their operating methods, required a robust plan; that suited us too – it’s the way we prefer to operate. Every possible scenario was thought of,” he says.

“For one of the events, where we used the Sydney Showground for the gala, we had to transport 1,800 delegates who were staying at various hotels around the city to the stadium. This required a fleet of 60 coaches. The possibility that one of those coaches could have broken down and become unserviceable was real. Working with the coach company we decided to have a spare standing by halfway along the route, just 
in case. Fortunately it wasn’t required but I bet, if we hadn’t have allowed for the contingency, we would have had a breakdown and no back-up.”

Hudson also believes that identifying potential hazards, accommodating them and determining the effect they can have on a successful outcome is a critical factor in planning. “When a large group is required to cross a busy city street, for example, there’s always the threat of danger and the possibility of accident. Invariably, delegates in party mode don’t concentrate. On one occasion we used an actor to ‘clown up’ and give the delegates lessons in crossing the street. While childlike in its content, it was fun and colourful in its delivery and avoided any disaster,” he explains.

Careful planning, a questioning eye and a strong contact with a destination management company (DMC) that has its finger on the pulse are keys to organising an incident-free offshore event. A good DMC is a huge asset. Our knowledge of other countries is never as strong as of the one we live in, and reliance on a DMC that has three levels of knowledge is vital. They must know the past – what are the weather patterns, traffic patterns and political records? They must know the present – what is happening today, who is in town, are roads closed off, what time is sunset? And, they must also know the future – when school holidays are in 2013, what dates represent religious festivals in two years’ time and so on.

A DMC that is connected with their city will sagely advise you to steer away from a certain property for good reason; for example, they’re just about to head into bankruptcy. That is the sort of information every planner needs. DMCs must impart their local knowledge.

Another minefield is found in safety standards. Do the occupational health and safety standards of other countries meet the stringent regulations your client has placed on the event? What might be considered safe in some countries could well be a potential hazard in others. Fire exits, building regulations, ventilation, fencing and other variables are exactly as the word implies – variable.

And variable is not always a good thing.


Risky Business

There are some risks we can control.

You can undertake a risk assessment to estimate the potential effects of a hazard that can cause an event to fail.

After the risk has been rated by a priority system, event organisers will identify it and put procedures in place to eliminate or reduce its effects.

In order to determine a risk rating they would consider:

•       The consequences – what will happen, and what will be the extent of the harm?

•       The likelihood – what are the chances of it occurring? Once identified and rated, risks can be controlled:

•       Can the risk be eliminated? Remove the hazard entirely through new design or implementing a new process.

•       Can we substitute? Replace hazardous materials and processes with less risky ones.

•       Is everything designed correctly? Isolate or contain the hazard or through professional design.

•       Is there a proper process in place? Ensure safe operating procedures (occupational health and safety practices) are established and make sure everyone is correctly trained and monitored from the ranks up.

Based on the assessment of each risk, a strategy will be developed for the unlikely event of the worst happening. A comprehensive written Risk Mitigation Plan is a vital component of a working event model.

No one told me about that…

Industrial action, terrorist attack, hijack, volcano eruption, tsunami, cyclone, rain, snow, SARS, swine flu, bird flu, cholera and other epidemics, insect attack, pandemic, fire hazard, military coup, incoming politician, Oprah Winfrey’s in town – lock down, heightened security, pirate attack, uprising/public defiance, ship losing power, injury/illness, power outage, ventilation problems


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