A frank and tip-filled session on contingency planning in these uncertain times sparked a lot of conversation at Financial & Insurance Conference Planners Northeast Chapter meeting, August 20 to 22 at the Hotel Viking, Newport, R.I. The four panelists, who included an attorney, a security expert, a national hotel sales representative, and a senior-level meeting planner, shared their advice on topics that ranged from contract language, to pre-planning, to on-site emergency management.

Armando Batastini, attorney, Edwards, Angell, Palmer and Dodge, Providence, R.I., said that strict enforcement of force majeure clauses is an emerging trend. “The courts will not allow you to escape the contract,” he noted. “When planners review the contract language, make sure to spell out all the specific conditions that could cause you to cancel an event, be it influenza, arson, or terrorism.” This is particularly important because there could be “jurisdictional variances” as to what certain states or countries consider a disaster. In Europe, for example, labor strikes are common and not considered as adequate cause for canceling a meeting.

But while contract language is critical, the best thing to do when meetings must be canceled is “work it out without the attorneys,” Bastiani stressed. “Avoid litigation at all costs.”

Planners and hoteliers on the panel and in the audience agreed that their relationships make all the difference. “My company added new force majeure clauses after 9/11 that I've never had to enforce,” said panelist Phyllis Connelly, CMP, senior meeting planner, Liberty Mutual Group, Boston. She cited a meeting due to take place at a Ritz-Carlton in the Southeast that suffered hurricane damage prior to the meeting date. The meeting was “seamlessly moved” to another Ritz-Carlton property, with no litigation.

Some hotel companies have implemented policies that help meeting planners deal with disaster situations, said panelist Pam Ferguson, director of insurance sales, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC, Chicago. In the event of a Category 1 hurricane, for instance, Ritz-Carlton will not only help relocate a meeting but will rebate 5 percent of the room revenue to send the convention services manager of the original property to the new property. Ferguson also recommended that planners ask if the hotel has satellite phones, which will enable them to speak with hotel security people even if all other phone service is down.

As for pre-planning, meeting planners too often overlook holding a site visit with the hotel security staff, warned Leo Messier, director, Providence Emergency Management Agency & Office of Homeland Security. “You need to find out about basic stuff like fire alarm procedures,” he stressed, “because there are old systems and new systems and they vary from hotel to hotel. And you need to decide important questions: Will it will be the meeting planner or the hotel security person who makes the call about evacuation if there is a bomb scare?”

Other tips from Messier: always have an attendee evacuation list that includes where they will go in the event of an emergency; set up an emergency phone number for attendees' friends and family; and locate the emergency management director in your meeting location, who will have valuable contact information for the Red Cross, emergency transportation services, etc. “Without this advance information, there will be chaos in the event of an emergency,” he warned.

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