I was quoted yesterday in a PlannerWire article about what to consider when deciding whether to cancel or continue a meeting potentially impacted by the Swine Flue pandemic. After sharing my thoughts with the article's writer, it struck me that we could be doing more as meeting professionals to educate each other in crisis response and management, so that everyone is empowered to handle scenarios like the one we find ourselves in right now.
Decision-making during a crisis requires a number of key elements. Each element contributes to the overall process, but in vastly different ways.
1. Data Collection - The current Swine Flu mania that is sweeping through our mass media like the plague, (no pun intended), provides the public with a torrent of 24/7 information. Some of it is factual, some is rumor, some innuendo and some outright false. When the time comes for a meeting professional to gather data, you have to return to what my thesis professor called primary sources. For example, this current crisis should compel decision-makers to turn to the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the State Department and other official agencies. The mass media should never be used as a primary source when deciding whether to continue or cancel a meeting.
2. Communication - For those who know me well, I focus on this issue a great deal. In this case, communication is vital to the decision-making process. Once you have obtained your primary source data, you have to inform not only the client or whomever is responsible for paying for the meeting, but you MUST include attendees, speakers, exhibitors and, of course, the venue or venues. Listening to all of these groups will help the decision-makers to weigh the insights of those impacted when deciding to continue or cancel.
3. External Factors -We all know that the financial impact from canceling a meeting or event can be devastating. In addition, the public relations impact can also be serious. Consider a hypothetical meeting professional who still wants to hold her Mexico event in the coming days... Everyone has their airline tickets already; the site is far from any of the current flu outbreaks; the topic is extremely time-sensitive and keyed to a crucial product release; the client stands to lose significant market share if the meeting is not held in May. Consider the impact on the client, the brand, the planner and almost everyone else involved if someone took ill during the meeting or, heaven forbid, died as a result of this illness. Aside from the tragic, preventable loss of life and terrible impact on the victim's family, those who survive the event may not survive the PR fallout.
4. Alternatives - It never fails that when a person is faced with canceling or proceeding with a meeting, those are the only choices they consider. There are potentially better alternatives. If you were to hold a meeting in a hotel that is part of a chain, talk to your representative about moving it to another city or location, depending on the emergency, while staying with that chain. Sometimes the event schedule can be altered to keep your event in the planned location and not be impacted by a crisis. If, for example, you are in Florida and a hurricane may hit your location on the last day of your four-day meeting, shorten the meeting to two days, (to allow for everyone's safe departure), and extend the hours of the meeting. Disruptive and a pain, yes, but if it avoids a larger loss of revenue or inconvenience, then bring it up as part of the decision-making process.
Ultimately, hard decisions have to be made in crises like the current Swine Flu outbreak. My own schedule and travel plans will be impacted by this pandemic, as our Florida MPI chapter presidents decide whether to hold, cancel, move or reschedule our joint May Cancun planning workshop.
Although no process is perfect, and we have to be mindful that situations vary from location to location, it is imperative that those of us in the industry develop methods, tools, techniques and plans to help us become better decision-makers and, ultimately, better meeting professionals.