“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” This quote comes from boxer Mike Tyson who probably meant it literally, but it applies just as well to situations outside the boxing ring where your plan can be derailed by any number of surprises, leaving you struggling to come up with a new one. You may think you have the perfect event response plan in place for your meetings, but until you test it you won’t find the holes.
At a tabletop crisis simulation run by Bob Mellinger, president of business continuity consultancy Attainium at the Professional Convention Management Association’s Convening Leaders 2017, the first fictional challenge participants faced was the loss of their team leader who is out sick and unable to answer questions. The whole team then has had to switch roles and hope that they have the right skills and information. The simulated emergency response goes downhill from there. Attainium’s simulations can vary from violent incidents to a mass illness that may or may not require quarantine, but the tabletop exercise asks participants at each stage to answer standard questions. The answers can help you define the missing pieces of your emergency policy and possibly change how you plan events going forward.
- What do you know?
- What don’t you know?
- What do you need?
- Who do you need to talk to?
- What are you planning to do next?
The answer to question one might seem straightforward, for example, there is a violent incident occurring in a break-out room. But participants were asked to consider what happens when the police ask how many people are in that room? Is the employee with the list of attendees being held hostage in the break-out room and unable to tell you who else is in there? It might be time to centralize the information on who is doing what, and where. Question two asks what don’t you know—probably a lot, but that uncertainty had better not include the contact info for your staff around the convention center. Mellinger pointed out that communications technology is a minimal financial investment for a great return on efficiency and safety. Some things participants discussed on this topic: Your staff may be using their phones to video speakers so buy them portable charging devices so their batteries don’t die. Make sure a group chat works before the event—some of your staff may be using Android phones and not getting iMessages, and temporary event staff may not have WhatsApp or whatever message service you usually use. Set up an additional form of communication like walkie-talkies and test them around the venue to make sure you can reach anyone at any time.
Questions three and four depend on the scenario, underscoring that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all emergency plan. Your company should invest the time to practice coping with different emergencies to keep everyone fresh and in the right mindset. Mellinger noted that the last thing you want is to text a code word and have your team forget what it means or text back, “Is this a drill?” It could be a natural disaster, or your exhibitors’ trucks are stolen, or you have a speaker who starts to sweat and then faints onstage. One participant in the drill suggested calling head office to find out insurance details, that’s not a problem on a Thursday afternoon, but it’s a lot harder on a Sunday at 11 a.m. And remember, the speaker who fainted might be your boss so relevant information needs to be available to the whole team, not just one member.
Depending on the type of crisis, your response to the last question, “What are you planning to do next?” could be a life or death decision. Do you evacuate the building and cancel remaining sessions even if you are not sure whether it is a gas leak or just an odd smell? Or your response could determine the success of your future events—do you need to retain goodwill by offering refunds immediately, or was this a one-off event with minimal disruption?
Two things of note emerged during the PCMA simulation. First, some meeting planners were concerned about attendees posting on social media. There is nothing you can or should do about this, and if you do ask people not to post about the incident/emergency they will post your request not to post. It can be helpful to appoint a team member to be a press contact and disseminate information on your official feeds to quash rumors and relay instructions, but your main job is the health and safety of your attendees. The second thing of note: Some teams took caring for their attendees so seriously they continued trying to manage the situation long past the point where the host city’s emergency services should be in charge. Just because you are good at managing situations on the fly and excel at taking care of people doesn’t mean you should do it when laws have been broken or lives are at risk. Give as much help and information to the emergency services as they ask for, but remember that you don’t have to go down with the ship.