Doing due diligence when selecting a site for an international program has never been so important. If it isn't political upheaval, then war or the threat of war, terrorist activity, anti-American sentiment, infectious disease, power outages, and other factors must be considered and monitored daily to ensure a safe, productive overseas meeting or incentive program. Moreover, these days many planners view due diligence and contingency planning as protection against liability in the event something goes wrong.

“This is a very dynamic and fluid environment that dictates staying current throughout the planning process,” advised security expert Richard Werth, speaking on a panel covering the subject at last fall's Beyond Borders Conference at the Motivation Show in Chicago. Werth, formerly president of Event & Meeting Security Services, Franklin, Tenn., is now director of security for a Midwest corporation.

Also speaking at the Beyond Borders Conference, Jonathan Howe, president and senior partner with Howe & Hutton, a law firm with offices in Chicago, St. Louis, and Washington, said last year's SARS episodes offered a prime example of how world events can impact plans. Before SARS, “how many of us had in our contracts that if there was a World Health Organization advisory or something from the Centers for Disease Control warning people about going to a particular destination that we would want to pull them from the destination?” he asked.

International flight cancellations, once a rarity, are always a possibility these days (see sidebar, page 12). “Before 9/11, we had never contemplated that air travel to the U.S. would be curtailed,” said Beyond Borders Conference panelist Bob Guy, managing director of Pacific World, a Singapore-based destination management company. “Since 9/11, we have widened our contingency and emergency [plans],” Guy added. “Our contingency plan notebooks now are about 120 pages long and contain a whole variety of scenarios. They are not specific to operations, sites, or people.” That way, anyone is equipped to pick up the manual and run with it, regardless of the situation.

Also, because not everyone responds to a crisis the same way, Guy recommended that organizations develop hypothetical scenarios and design role-playing exercises around those situations as a way to prepare for the real thing.

Where to Start?

It's never too early to begin anticipating potential glitches in an international meeting or incentive program, Werth advised. “Sit down with a plain piece of paper and think about the what, when, why, where, and how: What are the worst things that can happen to your organization or to this event?” He finds it handy to divide events into three phases — planning, travel, and on site — and to examine each phase.

Guy recommended starting close to home if you have no plan. “Make a list of 10 things that can happen in the office,” he suggested. Consider what would happen if the phone service went out or the power failed; then make a simple three- or four-step plan for dealing with each scenario. Next, move on to bigger issues such as hotels and convention centers.

For corporate planners or independents dealing with corporate clients, a written framework for crisis management often exists, Werth said. Three other sources to mine for ideas: an Internet search using the term crisis management, association white papers, and vendors. “It's going to take some effort, and there's no easy way around it, but the payoff here is incredibly beneficial,” Werth said.

Planners also need to consider risk assessment at the host convention center or hotels. “You want to have a private discussion with the head of security,” Howe stressed. Ask to see the crisis plan for the facility and find out how employees have been trained to execute it.

“It's dismaying to me, but with hotels, you have to really push them,” said Ed Kinne, director of industry relations, Carlson Marketing Group. “You can't take them at their word that they've got plans in place.”

Don't assume that hotels outside the United States will abide by fire and safety codes similar to those in the States. Many older hotels might not even have sprinkler systems or smoke detectors, for example. A planner needs to think about these issues early in the game, before signing contracts.

“What happens way too often is that you've already signed a contract with the travel company or the hotel property and there were no questions in the RFP about sprinklers or smoke detectors,” Werth observed. Similarly, “too often the first time a meeting planner meets the security person is at the pre-con. It's too late then,” he advised.

Guy said heightened awareness of terrorism and other threats means that organizations shouldn't need to pay extra for preparedness and basic security measures today. But there are times when hiring extra security makes sense. At those times, any special arrangements should be kept confidential and kept out of contracts with hotels and convention facilities, Howe stressed.

Finally, in order to get the backing of management for any contingency plan or special security arrangements for overseas meetings, a planner should be prepared to point out how these efforts help ensure the success of an event. “Management would like to know that the investment they're making in an event is protected and taken care of,” Worth observed.

Escape Clauses and Insurance

SARS, war, terrorism, and other threats have put contract cancellation clauses to the test in the last few years. But Howe insisted that, even as many new contracts have gotten more specific about these threats, anything is still negotiable. He suggested adding more specific wording about potential events, such as World Health Organization or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warnings about travel to certain parts of the world, or a sentence such as “I reserve the right to cancel if there is the possibility of an increased terrorism alert level.”

Howe also advised planners to make sure contracts include language dealing with acts of God — weather and other occurrences over which we have no control — and force majeure, which includes strikes, terrorism, acts of war, and other events that would disrupt or block a program from going forward as planned. And the clauses shouldn't address only complete cancellation of a meeting, he said.

There are more problems related to meetings that could not be conducted at 100 percent than to canceled meetings, Howe explained. For that reason, he said, it makes sense to negotiate immunity from attrition fees if a block is not filled because of travel restrictions or other unforeseen events.

Ultimately, despite the best-laid risk-assessment and contingency plans, things happen. “We try to minimize the risk, but there is nothing that will absolutely absolve you of risk,” Howe noted. That's the function of errors and omissions insurance and general liability insurance. “The key is that you've done due diligence up front and decided it's an appropriate venue and place to hold the event, and you've made a reasoned decision,” he concluded.

Estimated Time of Departure?

It's anyone's guess.

Weather and equipment malfunctions have long challenged the airlines' ability to adhere to schedules. Now a new source of uncertainty must be factored into the mix: Hypersensitivity toward perceived terrorist threats has started to play havoc with airline schedules. In January alone, more than a dozen inbound and outbound flights between London or Paris and U.S. cities were scrapped in response to signs that terrorists planned to target the aircraft.

While cancellations attributed to terrorist threats might seem like a new problem, veteran travel organizations are treating them like any other scrapped flight. “A flight that is canceled because of a terrorist threat is the same as one canceled because of weather,” says Dan Leong, CEO of Atlanta-based USMotivation. “We do rebookings and contingency plans (for canceled flights) as part of our normal, everyday business.”

Caroline Hartman, manager of customer service for Carlson Marketing Group, Minneapolis, agrees. “Because they're so hit or miss, we have to expect that they will happen.” Technically, Hartman says, an airline ticket is a contract that says the airline must transport you from point A to point B. For economic reasons, she adds, most carriers would prefer to keep their passengers, even if it means rerouting them through three cities to fulfill the contract. She suggests that groups can negotiate up front to cover cancellations that would prevent travelers from reaching home on the same day; the clause would likely specify that a group is protected on an alternative airline for a surcharge.

When airlines were profitable, passengers on a canceled flight could expect the airline to arrange for overnight accommodations. Today, such a courtesy would probably be extended only in the event of a mechanical failure, Hartman says. Meeting and incentive planners should be prepared to negotiate for a block of hotel rooms in the event of canceled flights.

Both Carlson and USMotivation have safeguards in place to ensure that if travelers are stranded, at least they don't feel abandoned. “We always have a member of the travel staff stay behind until the last person leaves [for the meeting],” Leong says. A supply of cash is available for expenses, such as meals, that must be covered in case someone is stuck for longer than expected.

“Once travel begins, anything can happen,” Hartman says. For that reason, Carlson gives all travelers a 24/7 emergency service center number, where, for example, agents can book another flight or help find a hotel room in a connecting city.