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Erasing Risk
Cork, Ireland

5 Ways to Disaster-Proof Your Meetings

Disasters can take many forms—from earthquakes and floods that damage infrastructure and halt business, to war, terrorism, cyber attacks, and pandemics, to technological failures such as power outages. The one thing they all have in common is the potential to cause trouble for, and perhaps even shut down, your meetings.

And yet planning for a disaster is something many meeting managers tend to give short shrift to. When meetings go off year after year without a hitch, it’s easy to relax your guard. After all, what are the chances a tornado will hit during your meeting in Salt Lake City? While unlikely, it has been known to happen. And earthquakes aren’t just an issue for California-based meetings—Oklahoma actually is the most seismically active region in the U.S. If your meeting is being held in the Pacific Northwest, are you prepared for cyber attacks?

Jenn Houtby-Ferguson, CMP, CMM, chief strategist, Twist Consulting, who recently completed a master’s degree in disaster management and crisis communication, knocked the complacency out of participants at a packed session on managing risk at IMEX America last fall. Here are some of the eye-opening facts she shared.

1. You’re on Your Own
While it’s nice to think that the government will come to your rescue should disaster strike, don’t count on it, said Houtby-Ferguson. The government’s priority is to stabilize critical infrastructure such as roads, the financial system, food and water supplies, information and communication sources, energy and utility resources, and government itself.

Meeting managers, venue operators, and suppliers need to have their own plans—and train, train, train so everyone knows exactly who needs to do what, when, and how so they will be able to seamlessly spring into action to protect attendees, staff, exhibitors, and all others who are at your event.

2. One Size Does Not Fit All
She emphasized that emergency response action plans should be specific to each event you manage. It should never be one-size-fits-all, because what is needed will change depending on the season, the type of attendee it will attract, the speakers you use, the geography and location, etc.

3. Role Clarity Is Essential
Should an event occur, who does what? If you have an active shooter situation, a bomb threat, or a noxious substance leak that makes it necessary for your group to shelter in place, have a plan for who will block the doors, close the curtains, lock the windows, and turn off fans and HVAC system. Who calls the city and county for help? Who is in charge of communicating with attendees, vendors, and the media?

4. Find Partners for Your Plan
Venues take event security very seriously. Did you know that they watch for things like staff ID cards and uniforms going missing, or when someone asks the bellman a few too many questions about when their busiest times are, or if they’re getting a few too many false fire alarms? These all can be signs that someone is planning a disruption.

Planners should ask their venues to show them their emergency response or action plans, how often they train and test their plans, IT security measures that are in place, any seasonal hazards, the venue’s privacy policy, where people can gather in the case of an emergency, and where egress plans are posted.

Venues need to ask planners who will be attending, whether they expect a media presence, and if the meeting organizer is bringing its own security or intends to depend on the venue’s security resources. “Have those difficult conversations,” she said.

In addition to venues, have a plan about how you will work with law enforcement and suppliers. Most major cities have a push-notification robo-call system—find out how to access that should the need arise. For international meetings, find out what the 911 equivalent for that country is and add it to your phone.

5. Pre-Plan Communications
Houtby-Ferguson suggested that planners should draft hazard-specific messaging ahead of time, including sample tweets and Facebook messages using a pre-approved hashtag.

Have a draft message for your website ready to go, and have a backup or redundancy system in place in case a flood of traffic causes your website to crash. “Think about what attendees and staff need to know,” she said. “Prepare if/then scenarios—if we have a bomb threat, here’s where we go and what we do and who takes the lead. Radio silence is not a plan!

“If you invite people to come [to your event], you have a moral and legal responsibility to have a plan and communicate it to attendees,” she said.

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