Visualizing success is a powerful way to achieve it. Before guests’ jaws drop upon entering a whimsically decorated gala, and before they walk away buzzing about an engaging meeting, that unforgettable event first unfolds in the mind of a planner. But planning for perfection also means giving thought to the emergencies we don’t want to imagine, and to the disruptions that are unforeseeable. The same attention to detail and adaptiveness that serves industry professionals so well in the everyday aspects of meeting management is also crucial in emergency management should the occasion arise.
“As a meeting planner, there are a million other details that you have to do, and [an emergency] just seems like, ‘It’s not something that’s going to happen to me.’ But it is important to have that sense of confidence that if something happens, you have the answers,” says Katrina Harris of Upper Chichester, who has coordinated the Department of Homeland Security’s Emergency Preparedness & Hazmat Response Conference for more than 15 years.
The annual conference, which emphasizes the importance of collaboration between the various federal, state and local agencies involved in emergency responses, draws between 600 and 900 attendees who participate in seminars, trainings and workshops like “The Seven Habits of Effective Emergency Managers” and “Critical Incident Stress.” Law enforcement, emergency managers, firefighters, Hazmat teams, health care personnel and a variety of other emergency planning and response personnel are in attendance. “We know we will have pretty much everyone we need for an emergency response at the conference,” Harris says.
But at any meeting or event, the planner in charge also becomes an “emergency responder” in the event of a crisis.
“A planner needs to be a calm leader in an emergency situation, as that will keep others calm and safe,” says Harris. “The best way to be calm is to know you have a plan, know the initial steps of the plan so you can immediately begin to execute the plan and to follow the plan and make adjustments as an incident unfolds. … Know that you will likely need to initiate actions before the cavalry arrives.”
Greg Jakubowski, co-founder and vice president of Fire Planning Associates in Washington Crossing, recommends first focusing on plans that respond to the most common types of disruptions: medical, fire and security situations. “It’s extremely difficult to be ready for everything that could possibly go wrong, but having a good, basic plan for the more common scenarios allows you to adapt it to the situation that happens. And I’m guessing that you’re not a meeting planner without having some adaptability and flexibility.”
In advance of each Emergency Preparedness & Hazmat Response Conference, Harris forms a local planning committee that includes emergency managers from the city where it’s being hosted, in addition to representatives from surrounding county, state and federal organizations involved in emergency responses. “This helps us have a good understanding of what emergencies they have planned for locally, and also what other events may be occurring at the same time [before, during and after] the conference,” she says.
The venue where the event is being hosted is another great partner in emergency preparedness and response because of its shared goal and responsibility to keep guests safe, and its existing emergency procedures should be noted in the overall emergency plans for the event. Confirming the venue’s policies and procedures is a key part of the site selection process for Jennie Tis, director of business development at Roberts Event Group in Jenkintown. “Like everything else in events and meetings, don’t assume. Always ask if there is a plan and what it is,” she says. “Any venue being considered has to carry insurance.” Insurance, licensing and inspections are a must for safety, she notes.
While visualizing the event at the property during a site inspection, also imagine what an emergency evacuation or lock down would look like in the space. Jakubowski was previously the global program manager for fire protection and emergency response at Merck & Co. for many years, and he was involved in planning to secure several high-level management meetings at venues across the country in addition to helping management teams plan for emergencies at their sites in many locations around the world. The exits around the space were the first things he identified, and he made sure to walk the evacuation routes to ensure the plans worked in practice, particularly in back-of-house areas of the venue. “I want to follow that corridor and make sure it’s not leading to a door that is locked, and that chairs or screens aren’t being stored in places that block the exits,” he says.
Evacuation procedures are in place and emergency shelters are located throughout the course of the DICK’S Sporting Goods’ Pittsburgh Marathon, but keeping runners moving safely together is the preferred outcome of most contingency plans. Halting the race has the potential to leave tens of thousands of runners, spectators, volunteers and staff stranded on the 26.2-mile route that winds around the city.
With the amount of participants and spectators involved, whispers of an emergency can easily turn into a quickly spreading panic that adds to the danger of a situation. Organizers share information with responders and leaders designated for each three-mile segment of the course by activating a “communication cascade” process, which ensures all groups receive the official communication simultaneously during a crisis. Those key points of contact then communicate necessary information to the staff, volunteers and emergency personnel within their segment, if necessary.
“It’s really about ensuring that your communication is designed to empower people to help themselves and help others, and to seek safety,” says Patrice Matamoros, CEO of Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon, Inc.
That communication cascade was put into motion as a results of the 2010 marathon when authorities alerted Matamoros that a suspicious object—a microwave thought to contain an improvised explosive device—had been found near the finish line. The city’s bomb squad had already zoned off the area and was working with robot technology to safely dismantle the object, which turned out to be nonthreatening.
While emergency responders worked to secure the situation, the course of the race was quickly diverted to an alternate finish line away from the suspicious object. “Your event is no longer just your event,” Matamoros says. “It’s our job to get out of the way so that [authorities] can do their jobs, but also work with them and complement them so that they can restore order as soon as possible.” Numerous advance planning meetings with those authorities solidified the trust and cooperation needed to successfully handle an emergency situation like the one in 2010. “We did not evacuate the finish line, we did not create panic, and we didn’t have to cancel the race,” Matamoros says.
A well-planned and coordinated response not only preserves attendees’ safety, it also helps them have the best experience possible during what could be a chaotic or traumatic experience. Colleen Wilson, community and corporate relations manager at DICK’S Sporting Goods in Coraopolis, plans hospitality experiences during the marathon and other sponsored events. Visible security measures like uniformed law enforcement personnel help to assure guests that their safety is a top priority.
“Our team always wants our guests to be comfortable and have a great experience,” Wilson says. “My team and I need to be aware of those key resources around us. It’s essential to know where emergency professionals are and where places of safety are to ensure the well-being of our guests.”
In the recovery after an emergency, communicating with guests helps to reassure them and build trust. This information can also be distributed in real time through email and social media, which may already be buzzing about the incident as attendees seek information. “It’s important to make sure that accurate information gets out to them as to what’s actually occurred so that there aren’t rumors going around about what people think happened,” says Harris.
Editor’s note: This article is informational and does not provide legal advice.
When confirming a venue, it’s important to include a force majeure clause that outlines what would happen if either the venue or group were not able to fulfill their contractual obligations as a result of something unforeseeable and outside of their control—like if a hurricane caused severe damage to the hotel prior to the group’s arrival, or if concerns of civil unrest or a pandemic would make it inadvisable for attendees to travel to the meeting.
Having this clarified in the contract, if drafted correctly, provides a clear solution to refer to in the event of emergency, and protects parties from potential losses. Terms may also explain what would happen if something prevented a portion of the meeting or event from taking place, like a transportation strike in France that disrupts international attendees’ ability to travel to a conference in the United States, and as a result the meeting planner’s ability to meet food and beverage and accommodation commitments.
Sample clauses exist online for reference, but both parties benefit from working with legal and insurance professionals who are familiar with the location of the event and its legal jurisdiction and potential risks to ensure that adequate protection and coverage is in place. “They have to be on their guard for all the contingencies that they may face, and when these things happen is not the time to start thinking about what to do,” says Thomas F. Margiotti, an attorney, arbitrator and mediator in Philadelphia. “Each situation is different, and so everything has to be customized. There’s not a one-size-fits-all contract or force majeure term.”
In his work with hospitality clients, Margiotti has seen the value of including a mediation clause that instructs parties to work out disputes amicably with a neutral third party rather than moving to litigation. Doing so can lead to mutually satisfying solutions that preserve the strong working relationships that are so important in the hospitality industry.