March 30, 2020
By Madison Howard

The meeting and event industry is no stranger to crisis, having a strong event risk management plan in place is critical for success.

Natural disasters, political unrest, health scares, or an unimaginable act can happen at any time, anywhere in the world. Planners must be prepared to pivot and act quickly. You’ve likely dealt with one-off event disruptions for years, and hopefully have a crisis management plan in place to address those situations. But when massive, widespread disruption strikes, the stakes are even higher.

You need to immediately get your hands around your total event program to make critical decisions about the events you host, the events you attend, and your internal events, whether you need to look at event cancellation, postponement, or a shift to virtual events. 

In this post, we’ll explore three different stages of event crisis management:

  • Adapt: What do you need to do to address the current situation and possible event cancellation? What data and systems do you need to take immediate action? 
  • Evolve: What lessons did you learn in the crisis and how do you move towards recovery? What are the areas that you adapted that may become an ongoing part of your events program in the future?
  • Accelerate: Once you understand the lessons learned, how can you incorporate those learnings to accelerate your program for even greater success in the future? What does your program need to look like to drive future leads?

Stage One: Adapt

Event Risk Management and Your Events Program

Risk management and your event programs

Faced with a large-scale disruption, organizations may spend days, or longer, assembling the information they need to determine the best course of action. As information and circumstances change, planners must remain agile and get as much intelligence as they can about the potential human and financial impact of the crisis. In any crisis management situation, information gathering is key. Meeting and event planners must monitor the news constantly, understand new guidelines and regulations, and more. To get a better idea of how best to move forward for your organization and event(s), assess your risks, partnerships, and anticipated refunds and financial implications first before making a decision.

Remember, health and safety are always the number one priority.

Understanding the Crisis

Identify the immediate events and attendees that are impacted and make an educated decision. Once the impacted events are identified, you must “triage” (assign degrees of urgency) your events.

How to Triage Your Events

Crises happen quickly and without warning. These steps will often happen simultaneously.

  1. Understand what is happening externally and internally. Follow governmental regulations, internal guidelines, and monitor the situation constantly.
  2. Get your team in place. This doesn’t just mean the planning team, but an internal sprint team that will help make decisions.
  3. Pull a list from your event management platform of every upcoming meeting and event and break down each event in the system by event type, month, size, spend, and  region
  4. Create a risk assessment document to rate events on a variety of conditions such as attendee impact, business impact, and internal impact.
  5. Go through your event list with relevant stakeholders and make a decision about each event. Small events may be easy to shift to virtual. Large events may require more a more strategic approach that uses technology, different communication plans, an altered agenda, and a modified budget.
  6. Stay agile. An ongoing crisis requires creativity and flexibility. Keep your team engaged and working toward providing the best events for attendees.

Conduct a Risk Assessment

Once you understand the crisis and have your list of events, you can conduct a risk assessment for each of them. Run reports based on event location, attendee location, and travel itineraries (including flight connection information) to understand how many attendees are impacted. You also want to ask yourself key questions. What are the risks of hosting your event? Do you know what’s in your event cancellation clause with vendors? Do you have event insurance? What does your insurance actually cover? What is covered by your force majeure clause? It’s your organization’s obligation to know what meetings are currently underway and what events are happening in the future to provide policy and process parameters that will support planning activities and protect the organization’s interests.

The most critical meetings-related risk factors:

  • Regulatory Risk: What are the state, federal, or industry regulations and how does their guidance impact your events and event cancellation?
  • Financial Risks: How is your organization’s spend, revenue and ROI being impacted?
  • Contractual Risks: What are your contract clauses with vendors such as venue, destination management company, AV/production company, technology providers, and others.  
  • Branding & Public Image:  How will hosting, cancelling, or any action impact your company’s brand and public image? Without oversight, meetings and events may not align with your corporate message.
  • Payment: Subject to human error and/or intentional fraud, make sure that all payments are accounted for.
  • Safety & Security: From natural disasters to political uprisings, conditions can arise that demand crisis preparedness.

Find out more about Minimizing Meeting and Event Risk.

Review Refunds and Financial Implications 

Events are expensive, but they are also sources of revenue. When crisis hits your event program, you need to understand the monetary implications. Revisit your cancellation policies for attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors. You’ll need to understand what money you need to refund each group and what that will do to your cash flow and revenue streams. Make sure your systems are set up to handle issuing online or automated refunds and prepare to handle offline refunds if necessary. 

Do You Cancel, Postpone, or Go Virtual?

Once you’ve identified impacted events in your event program, the risks, and the monetary impact, it’s time to decide whether to cancel the event, postpone for a later time, or go virtual. Each of these options comes with its own pros and cons. Your events range in the value they bring to your organization. There is a big difference between cancelling a small internal meeting with twenty individuals and cancelling a conference with thousands of attendees.

Postponing the Event

Postponing the event gives you time to alter your plans, while still holding the event. In a crisis, be careful how far into the future you postpone your event. In a constantly evolving, long-lasting crisis situation, you may have to reevaluate the decision if you don’t push your event far enough into the future. Other event professionals will have the same idea as you, which will limit resources such as venues and suppliers. In the end, if the risk is too high, you may look at taking your event virtual.

Taking the Event Virtual

Going virtual is no replacement for an in-person event but is better than cancelling. In determining whether to take the event virtual, identify the original goals for the event. Was the goal to share content, information, or updates? Then the event could easily be virtual. Was the goal to gain leads and network? If that’s the case, a virtual event may not be the right option as you won’t achieve your goals. Taking an event virtual may seem complicated, but it isn’t. The good news is that the fundamentals at the core of in-person events also apply to virtual events: capturing registrations, measuring engagement, collecting post-event data, etc.

For more on taking your event virtual, read Virtual Events: The Ultimate Guide.

Event Cancellation

Cancelling your event completely is the worst-case scenario, but sometimes it needs to be done. If the benefits of the event don’t outweigh the cost of making an alternate event plan, it might be better to think about event cancellation. If the crisis is one that occurs suddenly and with little time to plan around, cancelling may be your best and only choice.

What to Do Once You Make the Decision

You have a plan, now it’s time to move forward. That means communicating with attendees, working with vendors, and making any additional plans. Communication is key. Use your resources and attendee, exhibitor, and sponsor data to communicate immediately with registrants and event stakeholders. Make a clear decision from the start and amplify the decision and the reason for that decision in one place. As expenses tighten, save money where you can. If you have event technology in place, using it to automate processes and gain visibility into event programs means you can make decisions that impact attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors quickly while remaining agile.

Once you make the decision, communicate the change with attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors

  • Custom email communication with all key information and an email or phone number to use if there are questions.
  • Update the event website with the new date or information about cancellation.
  • Update the mobile event app. If you’re going with a virtual event, add the links to on-demand videos or live streams to the agenda.
  • Send specific communications for sponsors and exhibitors as this will affect them differently than attendees.

How to Postpone Your Event for Attendees

Don't want to cancel your event entirely, but unsure when you'll reschedule? Follow these steps to postpone your event and inform registrants.

  1. Determine the impact this will have on invitees who've already registered. Before you decide to postpone your event, do the following:
    • Determine if you'll allow attendees to cancel their registration as a result of the postponement.
    • Review your refund policy for clarity and determine when, or if, you'll process refunds.
    • If you'll be processing refunds, create a planner alert to be sent each time an invitee cancels their registration so that you're aware of the cancellation as soon as it happens.
    • Plan how you'll handle time-sensitive continuing education credits.
    • Establish how you'll handle incurred event-related expense reimbursements from registrants.
    • Consider what will happen if registrants decide to keep their hotel and air bookings. If the event is postponed, consider when and how will their travel be re-booked.
  2. Create a regret survey. To capture additional information from those who decide to cancel, create a regret survey to be sent to the registrant upon cancellation.
  3. Close your event to registrations. Once you've decided to postpone the event, you'll need to close it so that no one else can register.
  4. Inform your invitees and registrants. Create a custom email to efficiently address attendees. Don't forget about guests, registrants who are pending approval, and waitlisted invitees. 
  5. Ensure that you provide clear instructions for how to register for the event once it's been rescheduled, as well as instructions for cancelling or re-booking hotels and flights.
  6. Revise your event website. Update your website to include all necessary information about event postponement. Consider adding an additional website page with attendee FAQs.
  7. Update apps, such as mobile event apps, appointment scheduling apps, and abstract management tools.

How to Take Your Event Virtual for Attendees

Taking your event virtual can be simple or complex depending on your event. Below, you’ll find the basic steps to take your event virtual.

  1. Inform your invitees. Send registrants and invitees an email with information about how to join the virtual event.
  2. Revise your event website. Update your website to include all necessary information about the virtual event.
  3. Provide a guide. Create a guide to teach invitees how to join live streams, view on-demand sessions, and engage with other attendees through the mobile event app and online guide.
  4. Add links to the agenda. In the information section of each session in the agenda, add links to the live streams and on-demand sessions.

Read The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Events.

How to Cancel Your Event for Attendees

Does event cancellation make the most sense? Be sure to communicate clearly with attendees.

  1. Inform your invitees. Send registrants and invitees an email with information about the event cancellation.
  2. Close your event to registrations. Make sure you aren’t still accepting registration through your registration site.
  3. Revise your event website. Update your website to include all necessary information about the event cancellation. Consider adding an additional website page with FAQs and an email or phone number dedicated to answering attendee questions.
  4. Refund registrants. If registrants paid online, refund their credit cards and confirm that all registrants were reimbursed.
  5. Update apps, such as your mobile event app, appointments tool, and abstract management tools. Update or delete any notifications.
  6. Be available to answer attendee questions. Provide registrants with the reasons for cancelling the event, resources to help them through the cancellation, and give them a channel to pose any questions they might have. 

Stage Two: Evolve

Now that crisis mode is over, you can begin recovering and rebuilding by taking stock of lessons learned and plan for what recovery might look like. How will you decide to turn back on your meetings and events? And when that time comes, how can you rebuild your events quickly and cost-effectively? 

Planning for the Future

Planning for the future of your event programs

Crises have a way of exposing the cracks in the most well-run event programs. Were you able to quickly aggregate all your events and get the information you needed to triage the situation? Did you have clear information on each event’s owners and decision-makers? Were you able to understand the risks to your attendees and quickly communicate any changes in the event status? What about the financial impact of event cancellation or postponing your events? On a strategic level, were you able to understand the lead or revenue gap created by these disrupted events so you can get to work filling those gaps?

Now is a great time to review your event systems and processes so you can continue to make any near-term adjustments, but more importantly, to ensure your event program is prepared for the next crisis.

The journey back may start with finding a new venue. If you had to cancel an event, hopefully, you had a clause in your contract that allows you to use that space for a future event. Being able to track all your cancelled event space will save you time – and money – when it’s time to look for a venue. But if you are changing your program, you may now have different space and room block requirements. In most cases, you’ll likely need help to find a venue that fits your space and rooming needs and has availability for the dates you want. Automated RFP tools can be your best friend at a time like this, saving you and your team from countless hours on the phone with venues to see if they can meet all of your requirements. Now is the time to evolve your venue sourcing strategy. 

Get Visibility into All Meetings and Events

You can’t manage what you can’t see. So, a good first step for many organizations is to ensure they have visibility into all their meetings and events, so when the time comes, you can quickly see all the events you need to triage. Getting this right is part discipline, part technology.

The discipline starts with creating a meeting and event approval process and sticking to it. When you have to quickly get your arms around every planned meeting or event, you’ll be glad you had them organized in one place. Technology can give you a centralized hub for your meetings and events, so you can capture risk and priority rating for each event, instantly. This type of centralization ensures you always have critical event information at your fingertips, including event type, costs, location, start date, registration numbers, and more. 

Identify Risks Ahead of Time

In some crises, certain countries or states can be more impacted than others, and at different times. In these cases, seeing data for attendee country of origin and travel profiles became a must-have. This insight not only helps you quickly notify attendees of important information, it helps you proactively identify the overall risk of attendee attrition and cancellation for those events. 

Know the Fine Print

It’s a fact of life - events come with contracts. From hotel to AV vendors to caterers, you probably learned a lot about your contracts during the crisis, as well as identified several things you wished you’d done differently. When a program-wide disruption occurs, getting a quick, clear picture of financial risk, and minimizing that risk, becomes twice as important and twice as hard. Many organizations spend days assembling basic information like cancellation deadlines, attrition dates, room block commitments, cancellation fees, and more.

Now is a good time to make changes. The same discipline and technology that gives you visibility into your event program also gives you quick access to vendor contractual information. Work with your legal team to create standard Ts&Cs for your organization for cancellation and attrition clauses

Benefits of a Complete Event Technology Platform in a Crisis

  • Gain visibility into all global meetings and events
  • Track attendee travel and room blocks
  • Capture and automate communication channels
  • Identify potential attendance risks ahead of time
  • Keep everyone informed and communicate with your attendees
  • Track the financial complications of cancellation
  • Automate refunds, if needed
  • Re-use cancelled space to save money later

For more information on creating a meetings and events program to help gain visibility, mitigate risks and set your program up for success, check out Cvent’s SMM Starter Kit.

Stage Three: Accelerate

How to Accelerate Your Event Program

Now that you are through the crisis and have identified gaps in your processes, it’s time to think further into the future. A crisis can completely reshape the world in which we operate – on a local level or on a global scale – and new regulations may become standard operating procedure. Societal reactions may become human norms. To accelerate your event program for the future, you may need to change the way you used to operate in the past.

Understand Your Program Mix

During the crisis, you postponed, cancelled, or took some of your events virtual. What do those decisions mean for your long-term event program? Will you go back to the same program you ran in the past, or will some of the changes become more permanent?

Some things to consider when thinking about your future total event program

  • What was the lost lead generation from missed events? How did that impact sales? Events are a key part of the marketing mix, and while not hosting an event may seem like a quick option to cut costs, it is important to understand the downstream impact to the sales team of not hosting that event.
  • How successful was the virtual event and did it achieve its goals? If you took an event virtual, it may be easy to say you should do it again in the future. Before making that decision, look at your success metrics and understand if you truly met your event objectives with a virtual program.
  • Is in-person interaction key to your business and goals? For many, there is no choice but to resume their standard event program. Some business can only happen in an in-person setting.
  • Closely manage attrition and cancellation clauses. Hopefully, the lessons learned in event contracting during the crisis were implemented during the rebuilding phase. Now, you need to manage those aspects on an ongoing basis. Make sure you have tight process in place across your entire event portfolio for all future events
  • As you rebuild your event program, will you combine events into one larger program or take a larger program and split it into regional events? Program size will greatly impact your total event logistics and how a program runs onsite.

On-site Logistics and Event Set-up

Just as your total event program mix might change for the future, so will your event set-up and logistics. A few areas to think about:

  • Event layout and design: Configure your space differently to allow for social distancing.
  • Space requirements: Are your changing your event program size? Or will new human behavior need to be taken into consideration? The space you needed to run your program in the past may be completely different than the space you need now.
  • Interactive technology: Coming out of a health crisis, will attendees be hesitant to utilize tap and go. You may want to investigate more passive attendance tracking technologies to eliminate the need for people to touch the same screens one after the other.
  • Health and safety procedures: Similarly, what are new health and safety measures you may want to include on-site? You may think about sanitizing stations, equipment cleaning, and an updated venue cleaning schedule.
  • Food and Beverage: Serving styles that limit the spread of germs, such as a decrease to buffets and self-serve options.
  • Hybrid events: Explore opportunities to create a virtual option for in-person events for increased accessibility to attendees who may not be willing or able to attend in-person.
  • Signage: Use signage to promote healthy choices and inform attendees.

Adapt, Evolve, and Accelerate Your Meetings and Events Program After a Crisis

Crisis and risk management is about preparation, flexibility, and agility. For situations you never expected, you have to adapt at the drop of a hat and make decisions about your meetings and events that have a real business impact, even if that means thinking about event cancellation. Once the crisis clears, it’s time to evolve your meetings and events program and move forward by putting new processes and systems in place to respond better next time. Finally, you need to accelerate your meetings and events program by looking at how you host meetings and events and making smarter, more data-driven choices that rely on automation and insights. 

It takes the right tools and processes to remain agile in a crisis. Learn more about Event Marketing and Management with The Ultimate Guide: Event Marketing and Management for Dummies.

Madison Layman

Madison Howard

A graduate of the College of William and Mary, my passion for writing began before I could read, with a nightly verbal diary dictation transcribed by my obliging parents.

When I'm not writing, you can find me binge-watching TV shows, baking elaborate desserts, and memorizing pop culture facts.

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