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Meeting Disasters: Smart Strategies to Save Your Event

Two experts provide worst-case scenarios that actually happened and the workarounds that saved the day.

In a recent MeetingsNet webinar, Betsy Bondurant, CMM, CTE, president of Bondurant Consulting and a 30-year meetings veteran, and Michal Skalski, an account manager at Creative Group who has planned events all over the world, gave examples of event catastrophes they have dealt with and shared practical strategies to handle them if they happen to you.

During the webinar, a poll of the meeting planner and hotel industry participants showed that only 58 percent had an emergency plan in place to cover things like medical problems during a meeting—and that is a reasonably foreseeable event. In addition, the chance of your meeting being disrupted by a hurricane, volcano, or wildfire may seem like a remote possibility, but the last few years have shown that unprepared planners can be in for a nasty surprise.

Michal Skalski began the webinar by sharing an extremely unlikely disaster, but nonetheless one that could easily have derailed an incentive trip.

Situation: Abrupt Hotel Management Change

A Fortune 500 client had booked a hotel for an incentive trip for 200 salespeople and their partners in Panama. Two days before the event, government authorities evicted the board of directors and management from the hotel. Creative Group was no longer able to operate the incentive program as planned because of logistical challenges related to the management turnover.

The Solution

Source a new property. On-site staff immediately began site inspections and located a new property that could provide the needed 100 rooms. (Not an easy feat in an area which typically has smaller hotels than the U.S.)  

Communicate with attendees and suppliers. The U.S. team immediately drafted communications to the trip participants so that there were no nasty surprises at the airport when they were taken to an unexpected location. The team followed up with text messages so people packing bags and preparing didn’t miss the original communication. Suppliers were also notified of the new venue.

Update program materials. Daily itineraries, gift cards, and other documents had to be reprinted with the new location and schedule.

Source a new spa venue. The new property did not have an on-site spa, but interest in spa activities was high in the group so new schedules that accommodated travel time to a nearby spa were created and activities were rebooked.

Communicate flight arrival information to the new hotel. The team made sure that the new hotel was fully staffed to provide the arrival experience attendees required. 

Future Strategies

Have an experienced team onsite. They will need to handle tough situations and it helps for them to be visible when the client has concerns.

Utilize hotels where you have a strong sales office relationship, which will help you stay informed about upcoming strikes or management situations.

Keep clients and attendees informed.

Partner with a reputable local destination management company. Michal said this was crucial in identifying a new hotel and program facilities.

Betsy Bondurant related the next nightmare scenario:

Situation: The Keynote No-Show

A well-known celebrity canceled the evening before a general session lunch presentation. He was highly anticipated and had been selected to fit into the objective of the lunch. 

The Solution

Notify all the stakeholders. The planning team huddled with the local destination management company, the speakers bureau, and the production people at the venue to see what kind of requirements could be handled for a replacement entertainer. Fortunately, the event took place in Las Vegas, so there were many options available.

Review the options. None of the available replacements met the original keynote objectives, but the planners were able to rewrite the event messaging to work with the new entertainer.

Decide quickly. Everyone involved with the event needed as much time as possible to prepare, and attendees needed time to absorb the change.

Communicate the changes. You don’t want attendees to find out when they walk into lunch, as they won’t have time to shift gears mentally and get excited about the new presenter.

Future Strategies

Always consider backup plans and assume the worst can happen. In this scenario, it was a celebrity, but it might be your CEO if he or she becomes ill or otherwise unavailable. Bondurant said that before one event the CEO’s private jet developed a crack in the windshield that delayed him until the next morning, so the schedule was changed in order to accommodate that.

Ensure the contract covers a speaker cancellation. You should have financial protections in place to cover last-minute costs to replace them.

Keep an updated key contact list. You will need to communicate the crisis with the key stakeholders and if a disaster happens just before an event those people will not be in the office so make sure your list has mobile phone numbers.

Tap into local knowledge. The DMC or speaker bureau will know who is available as a replacement. 

Be confident in your solution. Bondurant says it is fine to apologize for the disappointment of the celebrity cancellation but put a positive spin on the new speaker or entertainer.

Situation: Undelivered Gifts/Merchandise

Skalski related a near-disaster in Portugal for an incentive program where the client wanted a gift to be delivered to attendees each night of the trip. Attendee gifts were shipped via FedEx to Portugal about two weeks before the event, but one box containing high-end digital cameras did not arrive.

The Solution

Determine what happened. Creative Group contacted FedEx immediately when the box did not show up but found that the company didn’t work fast enough, so it liaised with the local DMC to find the missing cameras. The DMC determined that customs authorities were demanding very high import duties in order to release them.

Communicate with the client. In this instance, Creative Group had not informed the client about the missing shipment until they knew what had happened but explained the situation as soon as they had all the facts. The customs duty exceeded the value of the cameras and the client decided not to pay.

Return the goods. FedEx was instructed to return the box to the United States rather than pay the duties to deliver it.

Adjust the on-site gift giving. A gift card for services at the hotel was used to replace the cameras and distributed with a note telling attendees there would be a gift arriving at their homes back in the U.S.

Think creatively. Because many of the attendees wanted to have photos from the trip, a photographer was hired to take pictures of activities and evening events. He was also instructed to take a lot of photos of each couple as well as groups so that attendees could have personal mementos afterward.

Future Strategies

Source gifts locally. Bonus: There is an increased sentimental value to these kinds of gifts.

Send shipments using broker services. These companies usually know the local customs and duties rules much better and can help with paperwork. Brokers are usually more expensive than FedEx, UPS, and the USPS but can save you money on customs surprises and last-minute purchases.

Send shipments to a DMC partner’s office. They will ensure that you know there is a problem sooner than a hotel, which may not have a dedicated staff to track and store your items. They can also advise you about shipping and help find gifts in-country.

Create last-resort options. For instance, distribute some items among staff to take to the destination in their own luggage. 

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