“Yes, this was the most difficult crisis I have faced in 26 years of association and convention management. But, I've been strengthened by the fact that our team did it.”
Nancy L. Elder, CAE, is reflecting on her experience postponing her annual meeting from October to December 2001, due to the terrorist attacks. In “Grace Under Pressure,” (MM, December 2001, page 44), we reported on ASM's decision to postpone — rather than cancel — the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemo-therapy. We followed up with Elder, who is director, meetings and expositions, for the American Society for Microbiology in Washington, D.C., to see if the decision yielded positive results.
By developing a communications strategy, Elder and her team not only effectively navigated numerous security and logistical issues, but they also kept costs down, and minimized the drop in attendance. The final tally proves their success: Even though registration dropped 15 percent below expectations, only 2 percent of exhibitor booths canceled — and, amazingly, the meeting exceeded its revenue goals. Elder says she will continue to use and refine the crisis management plan they created under such difficult circumstances.
The overriding message: Communicate — no matter how sensitive the issues. “With awareness and understanding and communication, you can get through almost everything,” she says.
When rescheduling, Elder was able to keep the Chicago venue, but she didn't have much choice about dates. Although she's always mindful of her constituency's concerns (for instance, she's careful not to book over Jewish holidays), she initially didn't realize that the new December dates coincided with the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. To complicate matters further, McCormick Place was hosting a Muslim prayer service for about 12,000 people. “We instantly were concerned about sheer numbers — so were they,” says Elder. There was the potential that somebody would try to harm them as a reaction to 9/11.
Both groups' security teams coordinated their efforts. The prayer service participants streamed through ASM's meeting area to get to the other side of the convention center. It worked out fine, Elder says. “There were a large number of children. Everyone was so cordial and calm.”
The situation actually worked to ASM's benefit. “We received similar e-mails from Muslim attendees as we would have gotten from Jewish attendees if we had booked over a Jewish holiday,” she adds. Elder's group prepared an e-mail response template, reminding them how important the meeting was to worldwide public health, and explaining that the dates were the first ones available. “We were able to say, ‘By the way, this prayer service is going on.’ I don't know if attendees went, but they said thank you. I learned a great deal. I read more background materials on Islam in order to be better prepared to deal with the combined situation of 9/11 and the prayer meeting. The world is getting smaller and we all should know about these issues.”
When dealing with such sensitive situations, “It's important that you don't fear responding because you're concerned about offending someone or saying the wrong thing,” she says. “You need to respond instantly. If the person says, ‘I disagree,’ that's OK — but get back to the person, so you can begin a dialogue.”
Elder's team used the e-mail template approach to respond to the variety of attendee complaints and concerns. “We very quickly addressed their needs,” Elder says. “That was a key to our success.” The e-mail text was also posted on ASM's Web site.
In addition, they worked the phones. “Some people wanted to hear a voice, not see an e-mail screen,” says Elder. They prepared texts for each group of attendees, such as speakers, exhibitors, and board members.
They kept people updated, even when they didn't have all the answers. In mid-September, they informed attendees that while they didn't have the new meeting dates or hotels confirmed yet, they would provide that information by September 29.
“Be specific,” says Elder. “Don't say, ‘We'll get back to you sometime by the end of September.’”
Next time, says Elder, she would add another method of communication: faxes. There are delays and problems with e-mail, she says, especially internationally.
Looking back, she also realizes that she was so busy managing the process that she was not on the front lines. “I would have liked to have gotten on the phone myself and talked to people personally,” she says. “Also, I didn't talk to people who didn't come. I regret that.”
Build Exhibitor Trust
The biggest factor in beating the original budget, was holding on to the exhibitors, Elder says. “We stayed with them. We gave exhibitors weekly updates; they were really interested in registration figures. Before they had to call us, we called them. Several of them said, ‘You really have a handle on this.’ They had trust and confidence in us. We provided additional ways for them to get exposure, such as luncheons in the exhibit hall. That increased expenses a little bit, but it was worth it.
During a presentation that Elder gave at January's Professional Convention Management Association conference, a woman asked how she could have guided her leadership better. “She said she was disappointed that the board decided to cancel her meeting,” Elder recalls. “When you're presenting to a board, your advice needs to be laid out logically. You have to speak to their level of understanding. If I am dealing with academic scientists, I might approach them differently than I would physicians. Your presentation needs to be a businesslike one. Do your homework.” She adds: “The meetings industry has changed a lot in 26 years and I'm glad it is all about business.”
Lifelong Learning Process
The terrorist attacks have stimulated much discussion about crisis management in the meeting industry. As the recent death of an attendee, due to illness, at a conference demonstrates, meeting planners need to examine and improve their emergency strategies for many different types of situations.
We all continue to learn, Elder says. At a Destination Showcase session one planner said that he was pre-printing lines on the back of registration badges for the attendee's emergency contact, medication alert, and food alert.
“If something happens, and you're wearing that badge around your neck, you've got that information,” says Elder. “That's the kind of idea that will be generated because of all this conversation. It's going to be tremendous.”