Six Tips to Reduce Risk at Your Event

Image by melinda257 from Pixabay

By: Jena Tesse Fox

As she began her session “Risk Management: Five Six Things You Can Do Right Now” at PCMA’Convening Leaders conference in Chicago, meetings industry trainer and consultant Joan Eisenstodt asked the room full of meeting planners if they knew how to secure the classroom doors in case of a threat in the McCormick Place hallways. No one did. Did anyone know if the building had defibrillators to help a heart attack victim? No again—but convention attendees aren’t generally expected to know these things. A planner, however, must know every detail of a building’s security and safety systems, and must be ready to act if something goes wrong. 

Meeting planning, Eisenstodt said, is not unlike surgery, and no less important. “We save lives by knowing how to plan for risk,” she said. “What I want you to think about is that you are responsible for lives...What we do is about ensuring safety of others.”

Before getting to her main tips, she offered a lagniappe (her sixth tip): “There should be a back-up plan for every single thing,” she said. This includes speakers, staff, vendors, and suppliers, any or all of whom might not be able to do their job when needed for any number of reasons. (There should even be a back-up plan for the chosen venue.) More importantly, the plan should be in writing. 

For example, if a speaker cancels at the last minute, a planner has several options, including finding a replacement from among the crowd or reaching out to a local speaker’s bureau, organizing a round-table discussion, or arranging a facilitated moderated discussion. In this situation, it is vital that the planner knows who will be available as a back-up and who has expertise on what topics. 

Step One

When the goals and objectives for a meeting are first put to paper, contingency plans must be included. At every follow-up meeting, they must be addressed and updated. “Explore all possibilities,” Eisenstodt said. In the list of goals and objectives, include risk assessment and analysis; coordination with any local CVBs, the venue and the vendors; planning with local government officials; and following up regularly to be sure everyone is on the same page. 

Step Two

When selecting (and inspecting) a destination or specific venue, there are several factors to consider, including the nearby medical infrastructure; venue ownership (is it foreign-owned, like the Dorchester properties that saw strikes last year?); local climate and environment; and transportation concerns (will buses be needed? Will attendees use public transportation?). 

When selecting a destination, set up a Google Alert to be aware of potential hotel tax increases in the chosen area, and to see if there may be labor actions on the horizon. 

During a site inspection, meet with the DMO; the vendors’ and the venue’s Loss Prevention team; emergency responders (city, county, state, federal); even the Red Cross or private emergency service providers. They may all be needed.  

Also consider the destination’s infrastructure (water main breaks can close down major streets and block access to venues), laws (including in regards to guns, taxes and any pending legislation) and crime (check Google regularly to see what neighborhoods are safe). Be aware of other groups that are planning events for the same area around the same time, and consider how the two groups might affect one another. (Is the other group controversial? Will they attract picketers?) “I cannot do my job if I don’t know these things,” Eisenstodt said. 

Step Three

When developing a contract, be sure to provide a business foundation, define terms and contingencies, communicate rights and responsibilities and include contingencies for each relationship and the co-dependent relationships. “I’ve written 10-page renovation clauses,” Eisenstodt said. 

Step Four

Have a written Crisis & Communication Plan. Eisenstodt noted that a planner may encounter arguments against such a plan (“Nothing bad has ever happened!” “There’s no time.” “We have insurance, we don’t need a plan.” “Everyone is adult, they’ll know what to do.” “The venue will tell us what to do.”), but that the best way to ensure everyone knows what they must do in a crisis is to have it written and reviewed. 

In such a plan, be sure to include the risk assessment, who will be responsible for what (if the whole staff is on-site, for example, will someone be in the office to answer panicked phone calls?) and someone to monitor social media—these days, one of the fastest ways information (or misinformation) spreads. 

Also be sure to have a post-crisis plan. After an emergency, account for all people at the event (including vendors) and then: 

  • Reconvene the group if possible
  • Communicate all available information to whoever needs it
  • Coordinate with emergency personnel
  • Complete incident report forms. (These are vital for insurance and legal purposes. Even if told by authorities or emergency responders that they are not needed, insist upon one.) 

Also, if the event is being held in a convention center, find out if the venue could be used as an official gathering space for the city in a large-scale. 

Step Five

Review all events and revise site selection, inspection checklists and contingency plans. “Don’t just fill in blanks on the contract,” Eisenstodt emphasized. Pay attention to details and know as much as possible—including how doors lock and where the defibrillators are stored.