Sometimes, despite meeting planners’ best efforts, the unexpected interferes and blows up long-cemented plans. Canceling a meeting is among the most challenging tasks for a host organization—but it is also opportunity for planners to demonstrate leadership as they unravel a conference's tapestry with the same precision and professional attitude they used to weave it over many months.
Start with a Plan
Just as planners create a timeline and a communications plan for the rollout of a meeting, they need a disaster action plan to prepare for the unforeseen. Having a plan ready in advance will help take some of the emotion out of a cancellation.
As part of your disaster plan, establish a core team of decision makers. Keep this team small and effective. Select fact-based reasons for canceling your meeting, and avoid emotional statements. Develop a question-and-answer document that addresses as many situations as you can imagine, and base your answers on messaging you develop around your reasons for canceling.
Before you begin communicating the cancellation, know exactly what concessions, if any, you are prepared to offer to your various audiences: sponsors, speakers, hotels, and attendees. Are you willing to reimburse non-refundable airline tickets? What about airfare for an incentive winner’s spouse if a company wasn't paying?
Decide who is responsible for communicating the message to each audience, and stick to that decision. It is very important that the team speaks with one voice to all stakeholders about the reasons for the cancellation. To avoid confusion, staff should direct questions about the cancellation to a member of the core team.
Your communications should follow a strict order to protect your meeting protocol. It can be a double disaster if attendees learn the meeting is canceled before your speakers do. Each audience requires a different approach.
Senior company management (including any executive committees or advisory boards) should be informed first, through personal phone calls from a top-level organizer. These phone conversations should be followed by an official written communication.
Speakers should also receive a personal phone call, as it sends a better message.
Staff should receive a communique from top management. Be sure to praise your staff for the hard work they did to prepare the meeting. They need to know that they are valued, even if the meeting didn't take place. Refer questions back to the core disaster plan communications team.
Sponsors or corporate partners can be particularly challenging. Again, know exactly what you are prepared to offer as concessions before you call. A letter from your company's top management with an apology or explanation can help smooth the relationship, increasing the chance that a sponsor or partner will want to work with you again.
Attendees should be told as proactively as possible to avoid anger and a public-relations backlash. It may seem expensive to send a letter to each attendee by overnight express, but for some events it's the right strategy. That process will give you a record of receipt (potential legal protection) and the peace of mind of knowing that you informed your audience quickly. A blanket e-mail can support that communication but should not replace it. You might also want to establish a link on your Web site, a dedicated e-mail, and a hotline to answer questions. These communications should always be followed by a Q&A developed by the core team. Remember, some of your audience may include major consumer newspaper journalists. Always speak with one voice to avoid being misunderstood.
Finally, keep in mind that your staff is probably very distracted by the same event that caused you to have to cancel your meeting. If there’s a national disaster playing out, it will be very difficult to keep your staff focused on the task at hand. Having a disaster plan in place will help you execute the cancellation quickly and efficiently. It may be a thankless task, but your audience, speakers, and partners will remember your professionalism when the time comes to try again.