Resilience and planning for contingencies are two concepts the event industry is acutely familiar with, particularly considering global occurrences within the last few years. In the face of an event such as a global pandemic that shuts all live events down, or a natural disaster that destroys the key event infrastructure; event planners often have to make tough choices such as abandoning the event in the short term and aim to run it in the near future, or rapidly re-planning the event at a different scale for the sake of continuity. A force majeure clause in a contract offers some relief to stakeholders when it comes to event planning, but it doesn’t cover everything that is lost when an event is cancelled. However, situations like these bring into perspective why events are important and necessary; for education and knowledge transfer, for communal decision-making, to celebrate accomplishments, and to bring people together as a community.
Look at Hurricane Ian, which swept through a large portion of Florida and the Carolinas and was a highly destructive phenomenon. Hurricane Nicole followed soon after with similar effects. Affecting several communities and causing people to make choices between evacuating or sheltering, they also resulted in the cancellation or postponement of several large and small events. As this immediately followed on the heels of the still-lingering global COVID-19 pandemic, the events industry at large was already reeling from two straight years of disruptions. However, the planners for several of these events were able to make decisions before, during and after the course of the storm, which ensured that their clients, audience, and vendors were made aware of the status of the event, changes to be implemented, and short-term and long-term plans for execution. Through partnerships with industry associations such as MPI, and with established AV partners such as AV-AMERICA, several events that would have been cancelled outright were either postponed or changed to a different format.
With the ability to gather safely being a core tenet of any meeting-planning exercise, executing or re-planning such events in the face of such natural disasters involves working through some key avenues:
- Venue and location procedures (e.g. venue safety plans, location commute and utility infrastructure, etc.)
- Access to emergency services and real-time incident reporting.
- Drafting and re-evaluating a safety plan to ensure all attendees are taken care of.
- Ensuring that the key messaging of the planned event has been incorporated into the new version.
- Ensuring that the audience experience is optimal.
Venue And Location
A transparent partnership with a venue is important when planning an event, in order to prioritize the ability to gather safely. Generally, the larger the scale, and the more attendees that are expected, the more insight that needs to go into the venue selection and safety planning. While it may be difficult to predict all the ways a natural phenomenon may affect an event’s venue, having a solid, well-understood policy regarding a few key items will ensure that almost any situation can be handled safely and professionally. Consider the following:
- Cancellation/rescheduling due to any force/majeure events, as well as trigger conditions during the event (such as sudden weather changes) should be fully documented in the contract. This may sometimes necessitate the involvement of external parties such as the local police and fire department, as well as evaluations by engineering and legal teams.
- Attendee safety during an event will need to be fully evaluated based on the expected capacity. This includes looking at fire code compliance, entries and exits, emergency sheltering, as well as access to first response teams.
- Clear signage needs to be made visible for all attendees and staff, with the staff having a good handle on the contingency playbook in the event of such phenomena occurring.
In addition to these, the planner and venue can also make some concessions with regards to safety when a potential, but not confirmed, disruption is identified. These include choosing ground-based AV, such as video, lighting and audio, rather than ceiling-rigged elements.
Planners should also clearly outline how attendees will access the venue (personal transportation vs commuting or communal travel), and how these may be affected by such events. Involving the venue in this discussion will ensure that any changes in attendee numbers as a result of this are well understood.
Overall, the venue and its staff need to be viewed as fully invested partners in the success of the event so that the best decisions for all parties are made, and everyone can enjoy a safe and successful conference.
A well-informed event planning committee hopes to never use any emergency services but has access to them ready to go. These include making the following key decisions:
- Understanding, and having the contact details of, the various emergency personnel serving the event.
- During a high-risk period, understanding how to read and interpret real-time reports in a way that prioritizes audience safety. These include weather reports, information from any government agencies, and consistently watching the news regarding any adverse events.
- Making everyone aware of a unified safety plan so that all directions given are clear, concise, easy to understand, and do not conflict with one another.
In addition, events such as hurricanes Ian and Nicole necessitate having a clear shelter in place or evacuation procedure, along with a way to access emergency supplies.
It is therefore in the best interest of all parties to have widespread knowledge about an event that is happening, particularly larger ones, so that assistance can get to the event in a timely manner in case of an emergency.
As discussed in a few of the previous posts, the modern era allows an event format to be flexible while delivering the same messaging and similar interactivity when this format changes. As part of contingency planning, an event planner can have the delivery of their event in this alternative format available for a quick switch. This may often involve quickly changing an in-person conference to a webinar, webcast or hybrid event. Accomplishing this will entail the following:
- The change of format and the new event coordinates should be clearly communicated well in advance, with any considerations to accommodations, travel arrangements, fees etc. pre-planned so that it is not an unpleasant surprise to attendees, vendors, presenters and the venue.
- Ensure that the key messaging of the original event is carried forward, and that the delivery format for all presentations encompasses as many elements as possible of the original presentation.
- Evaluate attendee and speaker satisfaction to ensure that the event is delivered in the best way possible.
While the alternative event format may not be suitable for all types of events or accomplish all of the original goals of the event, it may be the best choice to ensure the safety and comfort of all parties. This has proven to be especially true when it comes to events that had to pivot due to the recent hurricanes and the pandemic.
Optimizing The Audience Experience
Safety has to be the top priority when executing any in-person event. Following this, the core messaging of the event needs to be delivered in an easy-to-consume format for the attendees. Given this, when dealing with events such as adverse weather, it may require re-evaluating how the event is presented in a top-down format, rather than pivoting an existing format. For instance, an on-stage award presentation is hard to recreate in a virtual format when all parties are remote, and would require a rethink on how to make it both practical and elegant. While this is harder to do when a lot of planning has been put into a current format, having ample notice can allow for the structuring of a new event. Partnering with suppliers who can deliver in this new format is a key consideration (where a partner such as AV-AMERICA can deliver strong in-person, virtual and hybrid events).
Delivering this new format, along with some value-added items such as a unified platform for post-event content and recordings, and easy-to-use networking tools, could make it more appealing for continued use by the organization in future events. One advantage that a new, virtual-centered format has is that attendee feedback can be continually evaluated using post-session and post-engagement surveys (in ways that are not tedious). These survey results, along with the event planner’s preferences, could determine if the new format, or portions of it, would be a suitable addition to future events.
Events highlight the importance of gathering and sharing knowledge, ideas and communication. Modern standards of safety, risk detection and alternate delivery formats make it possible to deliver an event safely and in a fully featured method in most circumstances. While a contingency plan may not accomplish everything that the original event plan may have included, it will ensure everyone involved is able to weather the storm in the best format, including venue, vendor partners, presenters, and event planners.