SARS-driven meeting cancellations no longer dominate the headlines. As of this writing in mid-June, only Beijing remains on the World Health Organization's warning list for non-essential travel. But it remains to be seen if the threat has truly abated. According to WHO, the SARS virus comes from a family of viruses notorious for its frequent mutations. Experts can't rule out the possibility that SARS will resurface again in the next flu season — and there's no vaccine in sight. The immediate threat may be diminished, but there are lessons to be learned — as planners move forward with future meetings — that will be helpful in any crisis situation.

As for the current situation in Canada and Asia, “[All of] Canada was hit pretty hard because of misperceptions by the public,” says Grant Snider, vice president of JPdL Destination Management in Québec City, a DMC that works with many insurance industry clients. “Part of the problem is the media — you go on the CNN or CBS Web site, and they keep referring to Canada, whereas it's just Toronto that was affected.” According to Snider, insurance groups who had planned Toronto meetings for this spring canceled, and those planning future meetings are holding off on signing contracts.

SARS also blew away insurance programs in Asia this spring. John Hancock Financial Services, for example, changed the destination for 150 top producers in June from Beijing and Hong Kong to the Four Seasons Nevis. Polly Yu of Travel Advisers Inc., a DMC that specializes in Hong Kong, says, “Basically, all our conferences from May onward [have postponed] until next year.”

LIMRA International, a Windsor, Conn.-based insurance and financial services industry marketing association, was one group that went ahead with a Canadian program this spring. LIMRA ran three concurrent mini-conferences for about 230 attendees in Montréal at the end of May, even after a number of member companies questioned the wisdom of doing so.

“I don't think we seriously thought about canceling based on the information we had available to us,” says Donna Ericson, marketing conferences staff representative.

But after members started questioning the decision to go ahead, “we did step back and look. Our first concern was the safety of attendees and staff.” After checking with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LIMRA found that no cases of SARS had been reported in Québec and decided to proceed. Ericson says attendance was off a bit, probably due to corporate travel restrictions.

Contingency Planning

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 insurance planners think about and manage their meetings — and the contracts behind those meetings. For starters, it has pushed contingency planning to the top of every planner's list.

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

The CDC and the World Health Organization have both issued guidelines for preventing SARS' spread at large gatherings (see box, right). 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 also recommend including materials in registration kits.

Fulfilling the responsibility to inform attendees requires diplomacy. “There's a balance between 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 should try to put a positive spin on it,” she says. She suggests acknowledging that while SARS had been an issue, you are encouraging participants in good health to travel there.

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; handling meetings with large blocks of attendees from SARS-affected parts of the world; and dealing with 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 argues that a looser interpretation should apply in some circumstances. “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. 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 expected in the contract, Foster 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-affected regions will 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.

And what happens when attendees come from parts of the world where SARS has not been contained? “I don't think a 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.

Hotel Policies

Planners forced to scale back, cancel, or reschedule are at the mercy of a hotel's willingness to be flexible. While there have been no official hotel policies regarding SARS, earlier this year a number of lodging chains adopted policies designed to accommodate meetings in sensitive destinations during war; most 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.

Communications early on are key to minimizing fallout from canceled or downsized meetings. Mike Beardsley, senior VP of North American field sales for Marriott International, says planners should closely monitor 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 cautions.

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; and 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.