All right, so a meteor probably won’t destroy your meeting’s host city. However, recently I was scheduled to speak at a conference that just so happened to begin the same day that hundreds of people decided to take to the streets in protest. After several agonizing hours, the conference organizers decided to cancel their event.
There’s really nothing that can properly prepare you for whatever unexpected catastrophe might force you to cancel your next conference, and you shouldn’t spend a lot of time planning doomsday scenarios since that will really only give you an aneurysm. That said, there is a right way to handle these kinds of things, and the people I was supposed to work for managed it perfectly. Here’s what they did.
1. Wait until absolutely the last minute to make the final call. Canceling an event involves disrupting the plans of hundreds or thousands of people, and making that decision should never be taken lightly. In this case, the organizers were in touch with everyone—city officials, the police department, airlines, news outlets, and their insurance company—to determine what their liability would be in the event that cancellation became necessary. It might seem better somehow to cancel at the first sign of a problem to cause the least inconvenience to your vendors and attendees, but it might also be the case that a bad situation suddenly improves at the last minute and allows you to continue without interruption. Your customers and attendees will appreciate knowing that you did everything you possibly could to avoid a cancellation. Or more accurately, they’ll appreciate it if you…
2. Call everybody. Don’t email them. Don’t send out a press release. (Do people still do that anymore?) And don’t go cry in a corner and wait for everyone to figure out what’s happening. Pick up the phone and call as many of your guests as you can get a hold of, and explain the situation to them. Will it be fun? Of course not, unless you’re a weird sadist and love delivering bad news. (In that case, make sure you have a bottle of wine on hand before you start dialing.) But taking the time to personally contact as many people as possible will impress upon everyone how hard you tried to avoid this and how sincerely upset you are for disrupting their plans. Plenty of research has shown that customers actually become more loyal when businesses own up to their mistakes, even more so than if the business isn’t the one that made the mistake in the first place. And while the situation certainly won’t be your fault, that’s no reason for you not to steal a little extra loyalty from your vendors and attendees.
3. Offer some kind of incentive. You’ve done everything possible to avoid the calamity, and you’ve apologized 1,000 times for something that isn’t even your fault. If you’ve done it right, half of your attendees now feel worse for you than they do for themselves. Now’s the time to pounce! If you can find something to give to most or all of the people who were supposed to come this year—a discount on next year’s registration, a free hotel room, even a bouquet of flowers or a cookie basket or a framed picture of your keynote speaker delivered to their homes—they’ll walk away realizing how far you’re willing to go to accommodate them. You’ll have turned a terrible situation into a victory. While that won’t remove the sting from this year, it will virtually guarantee that the following years more than make up for it.
Jeff Havens is a speaker, author, and professional development expert who tackles leadership, generational, and professional development issues with an exceptional blend of content and entertainment. He is a contributing writer to Fast Company, Entrepreneur, BusinessWeek, and The Wall Street Journal, and he has been featured on CNBC and Fox Business. Contact him at [email protected] or visit Jeffhavens.com.