(Second of a two-part series) Read part 1: H1N1: Ignore at Your Own Risk

How should our industry respond to an emerging threat of uncertain severity? The same way we address any other contingency that jeopardizes the success of a meeting or the health and safety of participants.

In last week’s column we established that, on a scale of one to 10, the likelihood of a severe H1N1 pandemic this fall is somewhere between one and 10. At this point, there’s no need for a full-scale response, but meeting professionals who write off the pandemic as media hype or a government scam may be in for a nasty surprise.

MaryAnne Bobrow is one of our industry’s steadiest voices on pandemic preparedness. She’s a veteran meeting planner and association executive whose knowledge of health issues stems from her work with a nonprofit veterinary association, as well as a past assignment as executive director of a major animal health conference. She gets just a bit frustrated at the easy certainty with which some meeting professionals dismiss the warnings about H1N1—because certainty is the one thing we <i>don’t</i> have as we prepare for flu season.

People do die of normal influenza every year. But with a new flu strain capable of rapid mutations, Bobrow says, any city could see a sudden and serious H1N1 outbreak, affecting children, youth, and young to middle-aged adults, rather than the very young and the very old.

“Now we’ve got an outbreak in ABC city, and I’m going to have a meeting there,” Bobrow says. “I’m a smart planner. I’m going to do all my due diligence to protect against it. But if half the city is out because some workers have regular flu and some have the new strain, what if there aren’t enough service personnel to take care of us while we’re there? If our attendees get ill, what will we do? Have we even asked them for their emergency contact information?”

Beyond that basic step, she says, meeting professionals should think about business continuity issues such as income loss, staff shortages, limited access to vaccines and, in the U.S., the public-health risk of people who can’t pay for vaccines.

There’s no need for alarm, Bobrow says, but “you always prepare for the worst and hope it never happens. That’s just the basic credo of a meeting professional.” That same credo covers the possibility of a full-scale pandemic leading to restrictions on face-to-face meetings. “If we’ve thought about this, we’re factoring in the ‘what ifs,’” just as we would with any other potential threat, she says.

For example, in a tough economy, it's no surprise that many meetings are falling short of their room blocks. “Do I wait until the event is over to start looking for solutions? Of course not. As soon as I see that the numbers may be going south, I’m talking to the property to see how we can fix this together.”

As a profession, we’ve shown how well we respond to known threats that fall within our experience and training. Now, we have to show the same resourcefulness and resilience in the face of something unfamiliar and, potentially, very scary. Denial is not a part of the solution.

“You can’t be an ostrich,” Bobrow said, “because ostriches get avian flu.”

Mitchell Beer, CMM is President and CEO of The Conference Publishers Inc., one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to mitchell@theconferencepublishers.com.