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Risk Management and the “New Normal” in Events

4 steps that planners can take to get there

As meeting professionals make plans to emerge from the coronavirus crisis and reopen their events, one of the things they’ll be up against is human nature.

First, we are all admirably, and embarrassingly, quick to forget hardships. Forgetting allows us to move forward but also makes us doomed to repeat our mistakes, to paraphrase George Santayana. The further away we get from this pandemic, the more we’ll forget how widespread and devastating it was.

Second, humans are social creatures; even introverts crave interaction. So, when we gather again, it will be difficult to impose social distancing even if it is mandated. And third, people tend to perceive events as inherently safe because they are so familiar and usually have some element of celebration. (Now, let’s add alcohol and see how well people follow the rules.)

Event professionals will have their work cut out to create safe and enjoyable experiences. Here are four important steps.

Review and revise contracts. Make sure all contracts include clauses related to health recommendations and regulations. These could include limiting the number of attendees, specifying the time to clear and clean function spaces, requiring masks, providing hand sanitizers, outlining changes to F&B service and the number of servers, and specifying of furniture and formats that meet social distancing requirements.  

Also, negotiate a force majeure (a.k.a. act of God) clause that considers how your event will be affected when there’s uncertainty around whether or not the event can be executed. The Event Industry Council defines force majeure as “A supervening event (e.g. war, labor strike, extreme weather, or other disruptive circumstances) or effect beyond the control of a party that cannot be reasonably anticipated or avoided that makes it illegal, impossible, or impracticable to fulfill the terms of a contract.” Most would agree that pandemics fall under “supervening event” and that it would be “illegal” to go ahead with the event; however, consider the current situation. Would the force majeure clause cover an event planned for November? Going forward, we want more specifics in this clause.

Another contract clause to consider is a liability disclaimer, which releases the event professional from responsibility for things that the client or attendees arrange. 

Talk and listen. The industry is in this together, and planners are sharing ideas about how we can protect everyone attached to an event. In webinars and online forums, industry professionals are brainstorming and collaborating; be part of the conversation. Knowing the measures venues, planners, and others are taking makes it easier to create your own plan. Industry organizations are helping, too. The Event Industry Council, for example, has a new task force to sort through the various policy and procedure recommendations evolving from the pandemic.

Use other communication. Remember that attendees are unpredictable and thus we have no way of policing every moment of an event. For example, how do you tell the CEO not to shake hands with the top performer? What we can do is communicate to the client and attendees what we are doing and why, and what is expected of them.

Use a decision tree. Here’s a tool that can help event professionals make decisions about the risks associated with their events. It’s called a decision tree. It starts with a risk, then lists potential alternatives and connects each alternative to its advantages and disadvantages, including costs (time, money, and energy).  Here’s a simplified example of how a decision tree can illuminate choices around food and beverage: Screen Shot 2020-05-29 at 11.56.32 AM.png

This should be expanded and/or customized depending on your options, and I would encourage including costs and timing for preparation and service.  The diagram not only lays out the pros and cons for better decision making, but it also helps a planner communicate the logic of a decision to others. Sharing it with others involved in executing an event makes it easier to develop procedures and policies that increase the level of safety and protection for everyone at an event.

Linda Robson, PhD is an associate professor in the School of Hospitality Management at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. She was an international conference manager for more than 15 years and has been studying risk management for more than 20 years. She is the author of The Robson Risk Management Model (RRMM), available at

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