LEGAL EASE: What to Do While You Wait for the Recovery

It has been a challenging fall and winter for the meeting industry: the September 11 tragedy, a recession, and the continuing threat of terrorism. It may never be like it was again, but it will get better. Meanwhile, what's a meeting planner to do?

One way to cope in troubled times is to focus on improving contract provisions. I have written about contract issues that are ripe for improvement, such as cancellation, attrition, and termination (acts of God) clauses (TM November/December 2001 and March/April 2002 issues). Those clauses should be negotiated, drafted, and implemented in a manner that reflects the new reality: Meeting planners do have more clout.

Inventory Review

But it isn't enough to focus on future meetings. Planners also should do a complete inventory and assessment of existing contractual obligations. It is essential that planners review their contracts with hotels, convention centers, bus lines, tour operators, general contractors, decorators, event promotion firms, independent planners, publishers, exhibitors, drayage firms, and any other meeting vendors.

For every contract, planners should review their obligations, the obligations of the other party, and whether their respective situations have changed since the contract was signed. They should also determine if the contract can be amended, canceled, or terminated. It is important for planners to report their findings to the people with decision-making authority over the meeting. Where possible, planners also should provide an assessment of their organizations' possible exposure depending on whether they proceed with or cancel a contract.

Even more important, for every contract, the planner ought to assess whether potential problems need to be eliminated or reduced and, if it is not possible to unilaterally do so, to consider how to work with the other party to make the contract successful or, when necessary, to renegotiate it. Believe it or not, it is possible to renegotiate a contract, and it is often in both parties' best interest to do so. In any event, identifying potential issues up front and working together to minimize or avoid those problems is a positive step — clearly better than finding out later that a group has to breach its contract.

Coping Mechanisms

Another strategy for troubled times is for meeting planners to examine their contracts and meetings to find ways to reduce expenses. For example, is it possible to change a full breakfast to a continental (or eliminate it)? Can you find a sponsor for the breakfast, reception, or other conference event? Can a promotional mailing be eliminated, or created online to save on printing and postage?

Learning to cope also means being prepared for previously unthinkable calamities. Planners need to review their insurance needs. More than ever, cancellation coverage may be a prudent investment.

Finally, learning to cope in hard times means being prepared. After all, meeting planners aren't called planners for nothing. So, plan for worst-case scenarios and have procedures in place to address them. That means developing and implementing security and loss-protection programs. Most likely, those plans need to be much more sophisticated than those currently in place. For example, it may not be enough to simply have the name of a local doctor if someone gets sick. Groups should have plans that consider far more disastrous scenarios.

If you have developed good contracts, reviewed existing obligations, revised activities, minimized exposure, insured against risk, and planned for possible contingencies, you've done the best you can to cope in troubled times. Now, just sit back and enjoy the coming economic recovery.

Jed R. Mandel is a partner in the Chicago-based law firm of Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, where he heads the trade and professional association practice.