Event expert Jack Nolan tells how to do your best at planning for the worst.
The tragic events of Sept. 11 have taught all of us in the event planning industry to put business in the right perspective. What may often seem like a "crisis" in our industry is nothing compared with the tragedies experienced by thousands of families in the United States and around the world in the wake of September's terrorist attacks.
But as we get on with business, we can't help but take an extra moment to consider the "what ifs" in our own industry. Before, my clients used to get nervous when there were too many security personnel visible to guests. Now it is seen as a comforting sign. From a mild case of food poisoning or domestic dispute to a fire or terrorist attack, any number of unforeseen incidents can arise to ruin your best-laid plans. Planning for the worst is never pleasant, but it can make a real difference when a crisis occurs at your event. Here are seven things to consider to ensure you're ready for a crisis:
1. Plan for the obvious. You can never cover all the possibilities of what could happen at your event but there are some specific things you can prepare for. It may seem obvious, but if you are planning for an outdoor event, you should know what you are going to do if it rains. And if you are planning for a conference that will take place in South Florida during the summer or fall, you should give some thought to what you'll do if a hurricane disrupts your event. Much of this is plain common sense and customer care. If you plan on holding a boat cruise during your conference, for example, make sure you have an alternative for those uneasy about being offshore.
2. Take preventative measures, plan for the unthinkable. I have organized some rather unusual events in my company's history, from giant elephants in hotel ballrooms to costume boat rides in San Francisco Bay. But unusual events require unusual safety measures. It is hard to imagine a modern meeting or event facility in America today not taking the necessary measures to be as fire safe as possible, but some events require taking extra precaution to ensure that they go as planned: smoothly and safely. Have fire and medical workers on site if appropriate. We often have a fire marshal on-site and always have EMS personnel and an ambulance when there are more than 500 guests.
3. Safely means securely. In today's world, security needs to be forefront in our minds for any large gathering. Depending on the nature of your event, you may want to consider measures as simple as on-site security guards or as complicated as background security checks. The larger event and more high profile your client, the more prominent and omnipresent your security needs to be. Off-duty police officers are often a good choice, as their legal authority is full-time. We used to have one officer for every 100 guests, but have adjusted this to one per 50 guests since Sept. 11.
4. Insure, insure, insure. Especially if you are an independent planner, make sure you have sufficient insurance coverage for your event - insurance that covers your company's interest, with additional coverage for your client and often the venue as well. If you are having lots of interactive audience participation you may want guests to sign a wavier.
5. Keep internal communication lines open. No amount of crisis planning will be of any help if your team and your client aren't kept abreast of the plans. On our team, everybody is briefed of emergency and security measures in advance and knows what to do "if..." And our most valuable tool during an event is our wireless two-way radios, which each team member has on at all times. If a disturbance occurs at the front entrance, security can immediately notify the appropriate team members. It's also a good idea to end each event with a wrap-up meeting on what went wrong and how to better handle such a situation in the future.
6. Remain vigilant. Your goal is for your attendees to enjoy themselves. Unfortunately, this usually means that the planners do not get to have an fun at all. But it is a small price to pay for a safe, secure, successful event. A vigilant planner can never let his or her guard down. This is not just good for safety; it's good customer service!
7. Know when you need some extra hands. Depending on the size and nature of your events, you may want to consider having a team "on call" in case a real emergency occurs. Organizations that specialize in crisis management, such as some public relations firms, can help you come up with a general crisis management plan and provide communications support in the unlikely event that disaster strikes. These organizations will field calls from the media and can even set up an information center for calls from friends and family of attendees. Many of the better hotels and meeting facilities already have this capability. Don't be shy to inquire during site selection.
At a recent Boston event aboard a large cruise ship, our guests had to go through 3 different security checks and 2 different electronic scanners. Divers checked the ship's hull and the coast guard circled the ship to make sure no approached us. But by having taken all possible steps to ensure the comfort and the safety of all concerned, we were confident that our event would go off without a hitch. Of course we all hope that such preventative measures are unnecessary. But as every experienced planner knows, you can never be too prepared.
Jack Nolan is founder and president of The Impression Group South, a Miami-based event-planning firm that specializes in delivering the "wow factor" to Fortune 500 companies in the United States and around the world. He may be contacted at 305/532-6557.