Unavoidable conference disasters are every event planner’s worst nightmare. You try to do everything you can to avoid typical mishaps, but what happens when you are trying to run a conference and you are already in the stormy situation? After organizing and executing the AAHPM and NANN annual conferences through a snowstorm and a hurricane, two AMC senior meetings managers, Vanessa Mobley and Darlene Sommers, offer their top three tips for navigating through some of the most severe conference natural disasters.
That’s right, you simply cannot have too much communication when you are trying to run a conference during a natural disaster. Not only among your team and attendees, but also your association’s board, your home office, the hotel, the food vendors, the exhibitors—everyone who could possibly be involved in a conference. This means reaffirming that a conference will continue, checking to see if your presenters are still going to attend (or present remotely), asking your venue point of contact if staffing will change, and checking and re-checking with the hotel to ensure that rooms are still available for all of the attendees. If anything changes, be sure to alert everyone of the change.
What helps is having your team divide and conquer; when Vanessa was running the AAHPM conference in the middle of a snowstorm, her staff broke out into designated groups for communicating with the AAHPM Board, the speakers, the decorators and exhibitors, the staff at AMC, and all food and hospitality coordinators. That way, all of the necessary people could be reached as soon as possible.
Additionally, make sure you know the audience you are reaching: the local news you are watching may have a very different message than the national news that your stakeholders are monitoring, causing them to have a different perspective of the situation than you have. Try to keep track of the national news as well as the local news, which can help you soothe any fears that stakeholders may have about the disasters.
Duty of care
You are obliged to ensure that your entire team is taken care of, and that means making sure that all of your staff has a safe way to communicate in the event of an emergency. That includes taking a lack of electricity into account. Darlene and Vanessa even set up “Conference Buddies” who kept track of each other throughout the conference in case the other methods of communication didn’t work. Additionally, it’s very easy to gather your staff together and assume all of them are ok. Be sure to check in with them individually and privately to ensure that they are doing alright. They might not want to say that they feel uneasy or scared in front of a larger group of people.
Last but not least, take care of yourself. At a conference, you already have to be “on” 24/7, and with the addition of a natural disaster, you may need to watch alerts every 4 hours for days. If possible, share the burden with your team members and take breaks.
Keep a diary of everything that happened and how you responded. Seriously, this isn’t just for a personal keepsake. Keeping track of everything you did can help a lot with insurance policies, when you need to report to your manager or company about how you tried to work around the situation, and can potentially help you spiff up your emergency action plan. You never know when someone else running a conference might wind up in a similar position—your story could be someone else’s key to crisis aversion. In a similar vein, carry around your important documents, such as a passport, cancellation insurance policies, etc. If you lose power or the battery on your devices run out, you won’t have access to something that only requires a simple print job to have handy all the time.
Crisis management is not new, especially after Hurricane Katrina. Darlene and Vanessa are not crisis management experts; while they did have a plan, they had to improvise because they were in unique situations. It’s important to accept that you cannot control or document everything—and even then, once police officers, homeland security, or border control show up, you REALLY are no longer in control. Remember, use your current plan as a guideline, and when the unanticipated occurs, do what you need to do to keep your conference (and your safety) progressing forward.
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