HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL alumni, who were scheduled to convene in June in Shanghai, will have to wait a year. The group decided in April to postpone its global leadership forum in China because of concerns over Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the contagious mystery disease known as SARS.

“We chose Shanghai because business was exploding there,” says Christine Fairchild, director of alumni relations at the business school. But when SARS started surfacing throughout Asia in March, the group was able to negotiate with hotels to push the 700- to 800-person annual conference back a year. Fairchild says other Asian destinations were considered, but “we felt strongly that it needed to happen in Shanghai.”

Fairchild is getting to be an old hand at contingency plans: Last year she had to cancel a leadership forum in Argentina because of civil unrest. “It's a different ballgame — it used to be we could hold these conferences in a blink,” she says. “Now, I'm working on Plans B and C — we need to be ready to make a decision, sooner rather than later. The days of resting on our laurels are gone. We need to be far more flexible.”

The Harvard alumni are not alone. John Hancock Financial Services changed the destination for 150 incentive travel program winners in June from Beijing and Hong Kong to a Caribbean destination. CoreNet Global, a group for corporate real estate executives, backed out of its May global summit in Toronto, as did the the American Association for Cancer Research, which had expected 16,000 attendees. And the list goes on.

With no one able to predict just how long SARS will remain a threat, more groups are likely to face attendees' fears of the virus. Whether one believes SARS has been overblown as a health threat or not, there is no disputing that one outcome of the disease is that it has fundamentally altered the way groups think about and plan their meetings and the contracts behind those events. For starters, it has pushed contingency planning to the top of every organization's agenda.

Communicate!

“The first duty a meeting sponsor has is to warn attendees of any known hazards or risks with a destination,” said John Foster, a lawyer specializing in meetings and a partner with Foster, Jensen & Gulley, LLC, Atlanta, speaking at the ASAE virtual conference. “You can't assume every one of your attendees reads the same reports or newspapers.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have both issued guidelines for preventing SARS' spread at large gatherings (see box). While emphasizing that the threat of exposure in a group setting outside infected areas is minimal, both organizations stress the importance of publicizing the symptoms of SARS and isolating any attendee who exhibits signs of the disease. They recommend including materials in registration kits.

Fulfilling the responsibility to inform attendees requires diplomacy. “There is a balance between doing one's due diligence to provide a safe environment and not wanting to scare people away,” says Tyra Hilliard, CMP, a meeting industry lawyer based in Washington, D.C. “I think if you are [meeting in] a previously high-risk area, you would try to put a positive spin on it,” she says. She suggests acknowledging that SARS had been an issue and encouraging participants in good health to travel there.

“You have to acknowledge the fear, but give people information relevant to what's going on,” says Mike Milliken, senior vice president of Key3Media, which managed the Networld+Interop exhibition in Las Vegas, which draws a large number of Asian attendees, during the height of SARS hysteria in the spring. “SARS is a respiratory disease like pneumonia. The cases of people getting it at a conference like ours is very low.” That kind of message was repeated on the show's Web site and in the show daily, and attendees were provided with a link to the CDC for more information.

Fortunately, Milliken says, the technology-savvy attendees seemed to take the threat in stride. “There was no one at the show who had a mask on. We talked internally before the event and wondered what would happen if someone showed up with a little SARS mask.”

Controlling the Uncontrollable

For meetings well into the future, now is the time to think about contract provisions that may offer more protection should SARS threaten a meeting. Among considerations: the wording of the force majeure clause; how to handle meetings with large blocks of attendees from SARS-affected parts of the world; the consequences of booking in a hotel that is simultaneously housing groups from those parts of the world.

Force majeure traditionally has followed a strict definition, but Foster, who has been retained by the American Association for Cancer Research as a result of its Toronto cancellation, argues that a looser interpretation should apply in some circumstances. He thinks the concept of “impracticability” applies to situations like this in which a meeting can't take place because of an unforeseeable extreme or unreasonable event.

“When preparing a termination or force majeure clause, you have to think about what you want the standard to be before the legal principle can be invoked,” Foster advises. “The typical clause mentions ‘strict impossibility.’ That's a very strict standard. You might consider whether you want to provide for partial impossibility.” Regardless of how a termination clause is worded, a legitimate reason for either party to back out of a contract must be something that is out of the party's control and prevents the party from performing as contemplated in the contract, he adds.

Some clauses would be unthinkable in a more competitive environment, but with SARS, the recent war in Iraq, and a sluggish world economy chipping away at occupancy, hotels might be willing to bend. Just as some planners demand to know if rival groups are booked concurrently, a planner might try adding a contract clause requiring the hotel to disclose whether groups from SARS-afflicted regions would be in house at the same time, and reserving the right to cancel a meeting if concerns about SARS linger at meeting time. “As extraordinary as it sounds, it's not an unreasonable request,” Foster says. “Obviously it depends on whether the hotel wants to take your business on those terms.”

And what happens when a number of attendees or exhibitors are expected to arrive from parts of the world where SARS has not been contained? “I don't think a meeting planner has the obligation to accept attendees from an area that has been infected,” Foster says. Further, he argues, if a large portion of attendees would have been coming from a SARS-infected area, that portion should not count toward attrition numbers, since the reason they can't attend is out of the meeting planner's control.

Monitor and Adjust

Meeting planners forced to scale back, cancel, or reschedule are at the mercy of a hotel's willingness to be flexible. This year, a number of lodging chains adopted policies designed to accommodate meetings in sensitive destinations during war; most policies specify that cancellation fees will be waived if the event is rescheduled at the same property. Karen Gray, North American director of sales and marketing for Shangri-La Hotels, says a lot of corporate clients have taken advantage of her company's flexible cancellation policies and pushed dates into the fall or next year. “We're trying very hard to minimize the financial implications, and [we're] encouraging them to work with us on future meetings,” she says.

Communications early on are key to minimizing fallout from a canceled or downsized meeting. “If there is a possibility that a meeting will be canceled, meeting planners need to let the hotel know immediately that there is a chance of cancellation,” says Claudia Hill, director of key accounts for Carlson Hotels Worldwide. The best solution is to make a commitment to reschedule at the same hotel on a later date. “The hotel may be more accommodating if there are plans to work together again in the future,” she adds.

To cushion the blow from world events, Mike Beardsley, senior vice president of North American field sales for Marriott International, says planners should pay close attention to registration numbers and review room block progress at nine months, six months, and three months. “You don't want to wait for the 30-day cutoff date and realize you're in trouble,” he says.

Careful monitoring and good communication helped Deborah Gaffney, director of conference planning for the Washington, D.C.-based Tax Executives Institute, to avoid attrition penalties for an upcoming leadership meeting in Niagara on the Lake, near Toronto. Many of the corporate tax executives expected to attend found that their companies' travel policies barred them from traveling to Ontario or through the Toronto airport. About 100 attendees and family members were expected for the June 22-24 program, and Gaffney kept in touch with the group frequently as the SARS crisis unfolded in Toronto.

The institute decided that the timing of the meeting was critical, and it would be too difficult to change the venue on such short notice. Working with the hotel, Gaffney pushed the cutoff date back two weeks and shrank the room block. Once the WHO lifted the travel ban to Toronto, having the meeting as planned seemed to make sense, although Gaffney expects — and took steps to plan for — a smaller turnout.

Gaffney's experience with the hotel is likely to play out repeatedly as SARS continues to play havoc with meetings. Fortunately, hotels are showing some empathy. “It's a buyer's market right now,” Beardsley admits. “Five years from now it will probably be a supplier's market. But as long as we need business in hotels, we'll be more flexible in the short term.”

CDC on Meeting Precautions

Among the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendations to event sponsors: Isolate anyone exhibiting SARS symptoms; keep local health authorities in the loop; provide facts about SARS in registration materials; emphasize the importance of hand hygiene; screen participants to identify those at high risk for SARS; establish a health information hotline or Web site; issue self-monitoring tools such as a thermometer, a temperature log, contact information, and alcohol-based hand cleansers.

For more information, visit the CDC and World Health Organization's Web sites: www.cdc.gov and www.who.int.