As meeting planners, we take enormous pride in our ability to orchestrate complex meetings with perfect attention to the tiniest detail. But sometimes, despite all of our best planning efforts, tragedy strikes. September 11, international terror, the war in Iraq, as well as the onslaught of the SARS virus have all changed — forever — the way that we plan our meetings.
Making the difficult decision to cancel or postpone a meeting is the most disappointing, challenging, and thankless part of our job. But it is also a truly unique opportunity to show our professionalism. We must be able to unravel our fine tapestry with the same precision and professional attitude that allowed us to weave it in the first place. It is a sad task, but the following information, tips, and techniques should help you to do the job in the best way possible.
Face Reality: Create a Disaster Plan
Just as we create a timeline and a communications plan for the rollout of our meeting, we must also create a disaster action plan to prepare for the unforeseen. Taking these steps in advance will help take some of the emotion out of unraveling your meeting.
As part of your disaster plan, establish a core team of decision-makers. Keep this team small and effective. Select fact-based reasons for canceling your meeting and avoid emotional statements. Develop a questions-and-answers document to address as many situations as you can imagine. Base all of your answers on the key messages you develop around your rationale for canceling.
Decide who is responsible for communicating the message to which audience, and stick to that decision. It is very important that you speak with one voice to all audiences about why you are canceling. Let your staff know that any questions about the cancellation must be directed to a core team member in order to avoid confusion.
Before you begin communicating the cancellation, you should also know exactly what concessions, if any, you are prepared to offer your various audiences (commercial sponsors, speakers, attendees). Are you willing to reimburse non-refundable airline tickets? What about airfare for speakers' guests?
Your communications should follow a strict order to protect your meeting protocol. It can be a double disaster if attendees learn the meeting is canceled before your speakers do. Each audience requires a different approach.
Senior management (this includes any executive committees or advisory boards) should be informed first, through personal phone calls from a top-level organizer. These phone conversations should be followed by an official communication in writing.
Speakers should also receive a personal phone call, as it sends a better message.
Staff should receive a communique from top management. Be sure to praise your staff for the hard work they did to prepare for the meeting. They need to know that they are valued, even if the meeting didn't take place. Refer questions back to the core disaster plan communications team.
Commercial sponsors can be particularly sensitive because many of them will have invited top clients to dinners and other special events to be held in conjunction with your meeting. If the company has to back out, it can be awkward. Be sure you know exactly what you are prepared to offer as concessions before you call. Perhaps a letter from your company's top management, with an apology, can help. Making the cancellation easier for your sponsors increases the chance that they'll want to work with you again.
Attendees should be told as proactively as possible in order to avoid anger and a public relations backlash. It may seem expensive to send a letter to each attendee by overnight express, but you will have a record of receipt (for potential legal protection) and the peace of mind of knowing you informed your audience quickly. A blanket e-mail can support that communication, but should not replace it.
Speak with One Voice
Work closely with your customer service department in order to expedite registration refunds. You might also want to establish a link on your Web site, a dedicated e-mail, and a hotline to answer questions. These communications should always contain the same information laid out in the Q&A document developed by the core team. Some of your audience may well include major consumer newspaper journalists — always speak with one voice to avoid being misunderstood.
Keep Staff Focused
Finally, keep in mind that your staff is probably very distracted by the same event that caused the meeting's cancellation. If war is breaking out, or a national disaster has just taken place, it will be very difficult to keep your staff focused on the task at hand. Having a disaster plan in place will help you execute the cancellation quickly and efficiently. It may be a thankless task, but your clients, audiences, speakers, and sponsors will remember your professionalism when the time comes to try again.
Jennifer Goodwin is president of The Goodwin Group, an international medical communications consulting agency based in Newton, Mass. She can be reached at good firstname.lastname@example.org.