If you are planning a meeting for the year 2000, you need to address the so-called "Y2K problem." In brief: Most computers cannot properly process a post-1999 date field. The result is that without significant reprogramming, all but the newest computers will reject a date such as February 1, 2000 altogether, or erroneously interpret it to be February 1, 1900.

In comparison to its potential impact on national defense or air traffic control, the Y2K problem for the meeting planning industry is relatively minor. Nevertheless there are plenty of nightmarish scenarios to consider.

If the software used to track hotel reservations or meeting registration is not Y2K-compliant, registrations could be lost, housing records could be wrong, and overbooking and/or under-counting could result. Indeed, hotels and convention centers simply might not be able to process reservations accurately, which could lead to room-block errors, mistakes in food and beverage calculations, and erroneous attrition charges. The imaginable problems keep going and going. Billing software glitches could lead to confusion over payments and credits. Exhibitors may not be able to get their exhibits built, delivered, and set up at the right place and the right time.

Most distressing, it's not just that one of these things that could go wrong. The more complex the meeting the more likely it is that Y2K problems could increase exponentially. While you can be thankful you're not an air traffic controller, you've still got your work cut out for you.

Y2K Assurances First, be sure to ask hotels, convention centers, contractors, and other vendors whether or not their computer systems are Y2K-compliant. It is increasingly common for customers to demand--and receive--written assurances that their suppliers are compliant, and that Y2K problems will not prevent them from performing their obligations. An unwillingness or inability to provide such assurances, particularly at this comparatively late date, is a red flag.

Assurances or representations concerning Y2K compliance also can be incorporated into written contracts. For example, meeting planners should try to get written assurances that the vendor:

* has reviewed its operations for Y2K compliance;

* has developed, or is developing, a program to address Y2K problems in a timely fashion;

* has made a related inquiry of its relevant suppliers and vendors; and, based on such review,

* is satisfied that any Y2K problems will not cause any material adverse effect on the performance of the contract.

In addition, such contractual representations should be backed up by a clause in which the meeting planner is indemnified against any losses arising from a Y2K problem.

What Goes Around Of course, turnabout is fair play. Meeting planners should be prepared to respond to similar requests from their own customers or others with whom they have contractual agreements. If it hasn't been done already, now is the time to review computer operations, determine Y2K compliance, and identify and address potential problems.

When responding to requests for Y2K compliance assurances from third parties, be sure only to make representations that are completely accurate. Ideally, any such responses should be reviewed by legal counsel. Whenever possible, seek to limit your organization's Y2K liability to third parties by excluding certain types of damages (e.g., lost profits) or, better yet, by excluding potential liability for Y2K problems altogether.

Encouragement to Share Info On October 19, 1998, President Clinton signed into law the Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act. Its purpose is to encourage companies to share Y2K compliance information about their products and services. Thus, the act limits the circumstances under which Y2K disclosure statements can be used against the persons making them and imposes strict proof requirements in legal actions claiming fraud or defamation from a Y2K statement.

For the protections of the act to apply, the Y2K disclosure statement must be specifically identified as a "Y2K readiness statement." In addition, the act provides that exchanges of information that take place before 2001 and are designed to correct or avoid Y2K problems are not subject to antitrust laws. Such exchanges, however, cannot be used for boycotts, price fixing, or other anti-competitive conduct.

Neither the meetings industry nor any industry that relies on computer-based information systems (and what doesn't?) is likely to make a completely trouble-free transition into the new millennium. With some planning and preparation, however, the Y2K bug's impact can be kept to a minimum.