Meeting Planners: What is the worst that can happen?

Running a successful event or a meeting today – and pulling it off without a hitch – requires foresight, good local intelligence, and a lot of contingency planning. From civil unrest to SARS to a sanitation strike to out-of-control wildfires, there is a worst-case scenario lurking in every meeting venue. Any organization that runs events should be prepared for the worst that could happen – to protect its exhibitors, speakers, attendees, employees, and, to the greatest degree possible, its reputation and the continuity of its events. It's entirely possible that one ruined or badly handled event can mean years of rebuilding both reputation and attendance.

Your success will depend on good intelligence and information gathering so you can be prepared to prevent or, at the very least, minimize the impact of any potential disasters that might befall your meeting, conference, or exposition and to prevent or, at the very least, minimize the impact of a disaster.

Determining Risk

How do you plan for the possibility of disruptions that might occur in City X or County Y nine months from now? You begin by gathering all the information you possibly can about that city or county from whatever sources are available to you. Based on that “intelligence,” you have to identify all potential disruptions, then decide on which potential disruptions to concentrate your resources. It's not possible to be prepared for every possible disruption, so you need to focus on what is most likely to occur.

There is a universally accepted risk management equation to help with this effort: Risk = Probability + Consequence. This is just a fancy way of saying that risk is the combination of the probability that something is likely to happen and the potential impact if it does. The risks on which you want to concentrate are those in which both the likelihood of occurrence and the potential consequences are in the medium to high range. For example, a meteorite could hit your even facility, but, while the consequences of such a happening would be huge, the probability of it is quite small. This would not be an event worth planning for. Any likely disruption with a consequence of potential critical injury or loss of life must take precedence over less critical outcomes. It's important, therefore, to prioritize the risks as well as identifying the ones to focus on.

Let’s say that you are in Washington, DC, or Alexandria, VA, and your city or county venue is 600 or 1,500 miles away. How can you gather the intelligence you need to determine risk? Following are some ideas you can put to use:

  • Start monitoring the local papers for City X or County Y. If they are not available online, buy a subscription for the period up to your event date. You usually also can sign up for email alerts that could help keep you informed.
  • If your association has local affiliates or other contacts in that city of county, monitor their Web sites, newsletters, or other information sources.
  • As the venue management, or review newspaper archives, to see if there has been previous terrorist activity in the area.
  • Check the FEMA website at for details about disasters and disruptions in the region.
  • Ask your venue management if you can review their emergency/business continuity/safety plans.
  • Find out what other events will be in the venue at the same time as your event, then research those groups to determine whether there is a potential for picketing, violence, etc.
  • If your venue is in a volatile weather area, monitor weather reports and warnings from local media as you get closer to the event.
  • For overseas venues, you should monitor the Dept. of State’s travel warnings at
  • Review your event insurance policies to ensure that coverage is sufficient and that critical areas are covered.
  • Identify your organization’s unique vulnerabilities – issues or activities that could make your event the target of protest, bomb threats, or other disruptive activities.

If this seems like a daunting task, it also is extremely rewarding when your planning results in the successful handling of disruptions. Another benefit of this step is that some vulnerabilities can be eliminated simply by knowing about them beforehand. For example, if your drayage company or "official airline" has a union contract scheduled for renegotiations during your event, you might want to change companies or line up a backup in the event of a strike.

Develop a plan for each scenario identified - and TEST IT. The planning isn't as difficult as it sounds. You really need one basic plan that can be customized for each different threat/hazard, because a lot of the planning or information used in the planning will be the same no matter what the disruption. You can't possibly test these plans completely because you'd have to be at the facility to do so, but you can do simulated run-throughs that will help you determine if things can work. And, if your budget allows, it really wouldn't be a bad idea to make a trip out to your chosen facility and get their people to participate in the test phase. At the very least, share your plans with them and get their input as well.

How do you plan? Take the case of a bomb threat, for example. Although the majority of bomb threats are false (we are told), who can afford to ignore such a threat? Use a scenario in which you are told, at 1 pm on the opening day of the conference/expo that a bomb threat has been called into the facility. What's your first question? (When is the bomb supposed to go off?) If the answer is in 20 minutes, that's Plan A; if it's three hours from now, that's Plan B. The most critical thing to consider is how to handle the situation with the least risk to life. So, if you have three hours and your research with the facility has indicated it will take 35 minutes to evacuate the building, there's the answer. If you have 20 minutes, now what do you do? This is the kind of thinking that you have to go through to survive the disruption and be able to carry on if possible.

The Next Step: Mitigation

This is the area of planning with the highest return potential, but one in which people seem to spend the least time and effort. What is mitigation, exactly? It's everything you do to prevent disruption from occurring or to minimize its impact. It's keeping your virus protection updated, for example, to prevent data loss from a new virus. It's planning early and carefully for security at your event. It's having a backup plan in case your registration system goes down an hour before registration opens. It's having a complete list of contact phone numbers so you can reach anyone on the event staff or anyone else necessary at any time of the day or night if something comes up.

A lot of mitigation is accomplished through communication. If a situation in a given area is threatening to reduce event attendance (SARS in Toronto, for example, or terrorist activities in a foreign location), it's communicating to attendees that the area is safe and why - or that the event will be moved if things deteriorate to a specific state. If they know you have their health and safety in mind, they are more likely to attend. Communicating to convention center personnel and event staff is just as important.

Mitigation activities can be identified by reviewing the list of vulnerabilities and/or the plans to determine what can be done NOW as opposed to waiting for disruption. This kind of planning is one of the best ways to help ensure your "event continuity."


When the firetruck comes, that's response. The response period is when the disrupting event happens, from the point of activity to about 72 hours later. You need to build response capability into your plans in order to minimize the immediate impact of any disruption. If the hotel your attendees are staying in burns down while they're at your keynote address, what are you going to do? (Yes, you will be the one they're looking to for guidance.) You can't tell them it's not your problem… you'd better be on the phone finding other accommodations and helping them figure out how to replace their personal belongings, how to file an insurance claim with the hotel, and how to replace their lost medications. If you find that the hotel has all this planned for, then your job will be to find out how to get your folks into the system.

You can best handle the response to any disruption if, in your planning, you created a crisis response team that you can call into play. Just as you can't possibly plan for every vulnerability, you can't possibly pre-determine responses when something like the hotel fire occurs. But you can translate other plans to help you deal with this, and you can hold drills to practice working under pressure and as a team. If someone doesn't react well, get them off the team; someone could die if an individual becomes a loose cannon. What you need on this team are people who can keep their heads, who are resourceful, and who can move quickly. You also need a spokesperson - someone who will deal with the media (when necessary) and attendees confidently and forthrightly.

In one instance, a non-life-threatening disruption happened when a show's registration system crashed just as the registration process was opening the evening before the show. Quick thinking on the part of the event staff (and a good budget) saved the day when catering was contacted to bring out food and drink while the staff handled registration manually.

One thing to remember in the area of response to threats and hazards is that despite different causes, the general flow of activities is similar. There is an "all-hazards approach" - try to save people, secure the situation, get everything under control.


After any disruption, all we want is for things to "get back to normal." Be prepared, however, for the fact that this seldom if ever happens. After any disruption, there is usually a "new" normal. Things have changed. A classic example of this is the impact of 9/11 on the businesses surrounding the World Trade Center. There were restaurants, dry cleaners, newsstands, and other shops that were able to reopen, but without the several thousand customers who used to populate the World Trade Center. The ones that did reopen now have a “new” normal.

We want whatever we do in the recovery stage to enable us to minimize the long-term impact of the disruption on the event and the organization. In the case of our hotel fire, above, recovery might mean making sure that everyone who was affected has received all the help possible from the hotel and the event management to prevent them from swearing off your event forever. The fire wasn't your fault, but they will look to you to follow through on whatever action was initiated at the time.


Your job is an overwhelming one when viewed from the perspective of planning to survive the threats and hazards that can impact events. Planning is the key to making it through. The risk assessment and emergency management processes are tools that you can use to identify and prepare for the myriad of disruptions you might face. In the next sections of this paper, we have provided (1) a list of potential threats and hazards to help you think about what to plan for and (2) some resources that will assist you in developing those plans and your responses to any situations that arise.


"First ask yourself: What is the worst that can happen?
Then prepare to accept it. Then proceed to improve on the worst."

- Dale Carnegie


© Bob Mellinger, Attainium Corp

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