A Q&A with author Julia Rutherford Silvers
A longtime speaker, educator, and consultant on event management, Julia Rutherford Silvers is perhaps best known for her work developing the Event Management Body of Knowledge project (EMBOK.org)—an all-encompassing framework for managing and producing events. It’s no surprise then that Silvers brings the same level of intensity and detail to her latest book, Risk Management for Meetings and Events, (Butterworth-Heinemann which provides meeting managers with the tools to identify, control, and respond to risks at their events. We spoke with Silvers recently to find out what she’s uncovered in her research.
Corporate Meetings & Incentives: What prompted you to write a book on risk management?
Julia Rutherford Silvers: It’s a topic that is gaining recognition, and planners are beginning to realize that it is part of their duties. When I was asked by the tourism and convention administration department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to teach a risk-management course, I found that there were very few materials on this subject that gave a comprehensive and cohesive way to approach it.
CMI: What were some of the most interesting findings?
Silvers: There’s a wealth of knowledge about risk management but not necessarily in the events context. I read lots of different things—like fire-safety codes, crowd-management studies, and environmental psychology—distilled that down, and put it into the context of an event.
One interesting thing was the work that’s been done on fire-safety engineering. They study how people react to and make decisions in crisis situations. You can then use that information to improve an event. For example, if [fire-safety research says it] takes X amount of time to [evacuate 200 people] in a crisis, you can use that to determine how much time you need to allow in the agenda to get a crowd of 200 from one session to another, versus a crowd of 2,000.
CMI: What parts of the process fall under the planner’s responsibility?
Silvers: There is nothing that is outside of the planner’s role. I know that sounds dramatic, but the fact is you don’t know what can be a problem until you do a risk assessment. As a planner, you are not going to be the person who determines when to evacuate a building, but you need to know how that decision will be made and what your responsibilities are once the decision is made. That means putting together your emergency action plan and discussing it with the venue.
CMI: Is there a formula for building a risk assessment?
Silvers: You have to look at each event as a unique situation and think about what could go wrong, what the weaknesses are, and specific threats or hazards. It’s a relatively negative approach, but it has to be viewed as a positive. This is where you can build in counter-
measures to prevent or mitigate a crisis. It’s all about considering the worst-case scenario.
CMI: How can planners avoid becoming overwhelmed?
Silvers: I advise planners to look at the five EMBOK functional areas—administration, design, marketing, operations, and risk management—and each one has seven categories. If you go through those 35 categories and ask, “What could go wrong?,” that is a good way to start. Another way is to take the event budget and look at every line item and ask, “What are the risks associated with each item?” Over time it just becomes standard due diligence.
CMI: What are the implications of not adequately assessing risk?
Silvers: In this society, if anything goes wrong, there’s going to be a lawsuit. I was recently an expert witness in a lawsuit against a festival where someone was run over by a shuttle bus. [The planner] had not thought through the on-site logistics or done the due diligence. The organizers did not estimate the demand for the shuttle service, and they didn’t set up the area with the appropriate crowd-management techniques. The accident was the result of a major lack of attention. You want to make certain you have considered something, documented it, and made a clear decision about it.
CMI: Who else should be involved?
Silvers: All the event providers and suppliers should be involved in risk management, as well as the major stakeholders. It doesn’t have to be everybody at the same time around the same table, but they need to have those key discussions. We cannot control things; the only thing we can truly control is our ability to respond if problems occur.