Mexico City, El Presidente Intercontinental Hotel, March 11, 2004, 6 a.m. The ringing phone startled me out of a deep sleep. With the opening of the Foro Internacional Médico, the largest meeting of Spanish-speaking physicians in the world, so close, my mind jumped to any possibility — the graphics hadn't arrived? The booth collapsed? A speaker was upset? With 6,000 physicians descending upon the city in just 48 hours, anything was possible. What could it be? I wasn't even aware of the time, just the adrenaline rushing through my veins. I certainly wasn't ready for the voice on the other end of the line.
“Jennifer?” I heard Linda's voice over the echo that sometimes comes with transatlantic calls. “Jennifer. Are you there? I'm sorry to wake you so early.… There was a terrorist attack here in Madrid. A bomb. Lots of people died. Jennifer? I don't know what's going to happen next.”
It's times like these that the words “crisis management” take on a new meaning. Everything changed in a heartbeat on March 11 during rush hour in Madrid, when 10 different bombs exploded on four commuter trains. The attacks killed 190 people and wounded more than 1,800, making them the deadliest terror strikes in Europe since the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, and the worst terrorist assault in Spanish history. Nobody knew what had happened or why. It was the World Trade Center tragedy in slow-motion replay.
Linking Two Countries
Linda Deeney, product specialist for the Professional Newsgroup at the Massachusetts Medical Society, was in Madrid, coordinating the Spanish end of our event — a live satellite transmission of a symposium on top stories in clinical practice from 2003. Editors from the New England Journal of Medicine and from the Journal Watch newsletter series were set to speak to a room of 200 physicians at the Centro Banamex during the Foro Internacional Médico on March 12. (FIM was organized by LiveMed with support from Harvard Medical School.)
Linda's role was to coordinate a reception for 75 top physicians in Spain who would watch the live symposium and then participate in the question-and-answer session. During the Q&A session, the moderator in Mexico City would have access to the Spanish questions via a protected site on the Internet.
As manager, international business development, for MMS, my role was to ensure that events on both sides of the Atlantic rolled out smoothly. In addition to the symposium, my “to-do” list included a booth with four distinct sections of activity, 300 CME exams for local physicians, a temporary staff to hire and train, press interviews, two different award dinners, a museum-like exhibit of authors from Latin America who had published with the New England Journal of Medicine, and four different sales promotions. But in this moment, the symposium had my full attention.
It was supposed to bring together physicians in two countries. It was supposed to take our event to a whole new level. I didn't see how it would be possible to hold the Spanish side of the symposium. Could we do anything to hold on to the spirit of the event? Could we capture the content and use it for the future? How would we deploy our team to cancel the events in Spain while the team themselves were so worried about friends and family? I had to think fast. I sounded the alarm and gathered the whole team in Mexico City. Linda needed answers quickly. We had no time to waste.
So many thoughts flashed through my mind. It was like a split down the center of my brain. One side was reeling with emotion while the other side was calm, cool, and collected. I was surprised to realize that, oddly, I knew what to do this time. We would implement Plan B. We actually had a Plan B. 9/11, SARS, heck, even avian flu — the lessons were hard, but we had learned them.
Canceling During a Crisis Hours later, Madrid.
Linda contacted our local partners at Spanish Publishers Association (SPA) and the decision was immediately made to cancel the meeting. The country was in crisis, and people were afraid to get on a train. One speaker had already canceled. Traffic was jammed throughout the city, and the President had just called for massive protests the following day. All of the people were planning to go out into the streets and protest the violence.
Linda credits the rapid cancellation to the incredible organization of key staff members at SPA. They made a quick decision and started calling the 75 confirmed attendees within hours of the bombing attack. As a back-up communiqué, e-mail was also sent out. The Weston Palace was contacted immediately. Partly in thanks to a tightand partly because the team immediately offered to reschedule the event, there were no cancellation costs.
Same Time, Mexico City
On the Mexico City side, the satellite transmission arrangements were quickly undone and a DVD recording system put in its place by the same vendor. Since we had used the Centro Banamex's in-house A/V team, it was easy to switch the equipment. Luckily, the vendor also agreed to reduce the fees. We would capture the content and attempt to restructure an event at a later date.
We had not heavily promoted to the attendees in Mexico the part of the symposium involving the live Q&A with Spain, so there was very little change to the local program. The speakers were a bit disappointed that the Spanish portion of the event would not take place, but they certainly understood why. They were also happy to hear that we had so quickly made alternate arrangements for the content to be distributed at a later date.
We canceled the Madrid portion of the event in just one day. How terribly efficient we were.
Time to Reflect Several weeks later, Waltham, Mass
I sat down with Linda, to ask her about her experiences in Madrid. “It was so surreal,” she recalled. “It was like nothing I had ever seen or experienced before. I wasn't afraid the whole time, but there was always an undercurrent of anxiety. We didn't speak the language and we weren't sure if anything else was going to happen.”
Linda summed up our feelings well during our interview when she said, “I was hugely disappointed that the event was canceled. I was sad to see all of the graphics, the posters, and the meeting materials… all ready for the next day. But it was too close to the tragedy. There was no way we could go ahead with the meeting. I am just so thankful that our friends at SPA are all safe — but so sad for the loss of so many other lives.”
For me, it was a strange experience on a whole other level. I was undoing several months' work in Spain at the very moment that the curtain went up on the show in Mexico. There was no time to feel. I had to focus on doing. On some level I was aware of how unfair that was, but there was nothing I could do.
It wasn't until the Foro Internacional Médico in Mexico City was over that I could allow myself to feel the sadness over the losses in Spain and the cancellation of our event. We did an outstanding job of canceling so quickly and efficiently. Those were lessons learned the hard way, through navigating tragedies from the past. Do I take comfort in this new knowledge? Perhaps, but I am touched with sadness from knowing that these skills may yet serve me well in the future.
Jennifer Goodwin is an expert in navigating the cultural divide. In the past decade, she has planned meetings, executed public relations and marketing strategies, and written articles in three languages and in more than 30 countries for a wide variety of companies. Jennifer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Keys to Plan B
Here are tips that can help you in the event of a crisis, especially if you're out of the country:
Always have a contact sheet with multiple channels to reach key staff. Include hotel phone numbers, cellphone numbers, and e-mail addresses. If your e-mail is the only way to reach you, create a back-up account on another server.
Make copies of the contact sheet and leave them in multiple places: briefcase, purse, suitcase, hotel room, and with key staff at the home office and family members.
When in a foreign country, always have the phone number of the local embassy from your home country. They can advise you if they are aware of a specific threat.
Make friends with the concierge at your hotel. Concierges are the gatekeepers of a vast wealth of information.
Whenever possible, try to work with a local partner. Someone who knows the language and the city can be an invaluable asset in times of crisis.
Remember that a crisis can happen anywhere, anytime. Investing time before the meeting in creating a “Plan B” can literally be a lifesaver in times of crisis. Decide who on your team is responsible for making decisions in a crisis, and make sure everyone is aware of the rollout plan for any cancellation.
For more tips, see “How to Unplan a Meeting,” available at mm.meetingsnet.com.
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