When lightning strikes

Hope for the best, plan for the worst. It’s a pretty good life mantra and one that can as readily be applied to the specific business of event planning. The multiple layers involved in organising any event or meeting – which only get more complicated the more delegates are included – mean the opportunity for potential problems is rife.

Crisis management can be defined in various ways but in Foundations of Marketing by William Pride and OC Ferrell, it’s described as “preparation for low-probability or unexpected events that could threaten an organisation’s viability, reputation or profitability”.

So just how far should people go when planning for these low-probability and unexpected events? Clearly not every eventuality can be prepared for, since “unforeseen circumstances” are just that – unforeseen. But others may be easier to plan for.

On with the show

A weather eye ?

While some crises come from event-specific incidents, others come from larger scale events. For instance, in Asia the weather can be extreme but also seasonal. Natural disasters, which are rarely an issue in Europe, may be a consideration in some parts of the region. So while there is some predictability to adverse weather conditions, unexpected storms or similar phenomena need to be taken into consideration. In some areas, civil unrest could be a worry, whereas in most countries this isn’t a factor.

Cynthia Martin, managing director of marketing services agency Crystal Edge, says: “In Malaysia, we are not faced with any major natural disasters, thankfully. Our main problem would be with the unpredictable weather. Especially for outdoor events, we have to consider the date of the event, if it falls during the rainy season. Having said that, all our outdoor events will have to factor in adequate shelter in the event that there is a downpour. Most of the other problems we face are pretty minor – the odd injury or illness of a delegate or speaker; failure of the audio/visual equipment during presentations; late arrival of the VIP, power blackouts…”??Pre-emptive action?While event organisers have to consider all the machinations of potential problems, for the destinations the remit is more contained. As Alan Pryor, deputy general manager, Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre says: “We are prepared for Centre-specific emergencies such as fire, crowd control, security, power outage, infrastructure issues, etc.”

Gene Capuano, vice-president of convention & exhibition operations, Venetian Macao cautions that there are two types of crisis: those that can have a contingency plan and those that are simply out of anyone’s hands to anticipate or control. He says: “Event organisers may have problems off-property as well as on-property, from the event planning stage to the event date.” He breaks it down into these two categories: “Off-property issues to consider would be weather, travel – such as cancelled flights and delayed flights – last-minute illness of key attendees or VIPs, or company financial or legal issues that may occur at any time. On-property issues to consider include security breaches and fires.”

So the process requires a contingency plan. Event organisers need to be able to react quickly, efficiently and appropriately when things don’t go to plan. Martin says: “This ability to react stems from anticipating emergencies, formulating contingency plans and training staff to ensure that the plans are carried out calmly. Some problems which are reasonably foreseeable, even predictable, include ensuring a doctor or ambulance is on stand-by during the event, having back-up audio/visual equipment, and tweaking of the agenda should the VIP be late.”

Capuano says: “It is crucial to have a pre-convention meeting, along with a specific discussion on security and risk management. Understanding the concerns and potential issues would be the most important. Knowing that there are so many different types of problems or disasters that can occur, you simply will not have a back-up plan for all potential issues.

“You need to consider the type of event; for example, having an outdoor dinner would mean that an alternate indoor venue needs to be prepared for potential weather changes. A specific time, usually a minimum of six hours prior to the event, would be the deadline for making a decision based on the current weather, and forecasts from the local weather department. Analysing each particular event and coming up with a list of things that could go wrong is good practice, and helps the operational teams to react better if something happens at the last minute.” ??Prepare, rehearse, debrief?The problem with contingency planning is knowing when to stop. With so many different directions and greater or lesser degrees of detail, following all the paths through to their conclusion can be the most difficult part of crisis planning.?Yap Shook Fung, director of professional conference organiser Console Communications, says: “The plan is always not to cancel the meetings or events but to relocate within the country, or to neighbouring countries, or change the date.”

Martin says: “After every event, we have a debrief session internally to review all areas of the event on any possible flaws and how we can improve for future events. We have always worked on a model whereby consistent feedback is obtained from our clients on the areas that were covered, and areas that we can improve moving forward. This feedback is important to ensure that we match their expectations and that the working experience is good for both parties.”

Never discounting anything when brainstorming for potential emergencies is essential, argues Pryor. He says: “ The most important element to any crisis is preparation. This means having early warning systems in place and predetermined action plans that can be adopted immediately if, or rather, when an emergency occurs.”

From a destination’s perspective, the safety of the guests is paramount. Capuano says: “So, evacuation planning and knowing where to put hundreds if not thousands of people, if they have to be evacuated from the current location, is crucial. ?“It’s necessary to have staff that are well rehearsed to follow through, without panic, and understand how to move large amounts of people through doorways, keeping them calm and knowing what to tell them while something is happening. So, you want to keep the ‘directions’ to a minimum. Knowing the chance that something will happen may not help; we must rely on analysing the current situation and deciding what is most important course of action.”??The show must go on?So what have people been faced with when emergency plans and crisis management systems have actually been put into practice? Needless to say, it’s the weather that crops up most often.

Martin says: “The most common problem is if there is an unexpected downpour, and we have to usher guests to the sheltered areas. We have established a set of processes as guidelines for all the staff in their planning and execution of events.”

At Venetian Macao, Capuano has similarly had to manage downpours. He says: “There have been many events held at the poolside during past summers. In summer, the weather is unstable with thunderstorms that come and go quickly. It can be very dangerous for outdoor guests, close to water with lightning. Therefore, we have had to move parties from the pool deck into meeting rooms at the last minute in order to ensure the safety and protect all of our guests.”?If humanly possible, events don’t get cancelled although they may be rearranged. Pryor says: “There have been instances when an event did not materialise due to non-adherence to the agreed contract by the event organiser, or when the event organiser/PCO has had to cancel due to reasons beyond the Centre’s control. Fortunately, these are few and far between.”

But there was a significant regional health scare that impacted Martin, and no doubt many others. She says: “In 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a serious form of pneumonia, caused a worldwide scare, particularly in Asia. Infection with the SARS virus causes severe breathing difficulty and sometimes death. During this time, all events were cancelled to stop the spread of this highly infectious disease.”

SARs temporarily halted business events

Ensuring all the parties involved in any event are included in planning and preparing crisis management contingency plans is crucial. So from organisers to venues to clients, action plans should be agreed so that emergencies can be dealt with. Channels of communication should be agreed so the right people are consulted and kept in the loop if an event does have to deviate from its planned course. The last thing you want to happen is delays in decision-making because someone can’t be reached who has to sign off a change.

Capuano says: “These are the most important issues because you want to make sure that one unit takes control and guides everyone through the process of dealing with an emergency situation. This will put the guests at ease and eliminate error due to lack of planning between the venue and organiser. In our case, we are the facilitators and will take charge, as the venue, of emergency situations. We are trained to know exactly what to do and when to do it.”

Luckily, full-blown crises are few and far between, but brainstorming worst-case scenarios and being prepared for them is a crucial part of any organiser’s plan. ??

Crisis management checklist

• First of all, consider the common things that go awry.?

• Pay attention to the detail.?

• Have early warning systems in place to see when an action plan needs to be implemented. ?

• Test the action plans to make sure they are suitable and relevant to the specific event.?

• Have a pre-convention meeting to discuss emergency processes.?

• Decide on the appropriate methods to respond to both the reality and the perception of the crisis.?

• Agree which lines of authority and communication channels should be used during a crisis.?

• Prepare a contingency plan in advance and have it agreed by all involved parties.?

• Make sure you’re working with the venue’s emergency plan, not out of sync with it. ?

• Use the venue’s experience with previous incidents to see how they were best handled.?

• If something does go wrong, debrief on it so that you learn for future events and meetings.


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