Our president is being calmly presidential, telling us we should go on with business as usual as the bombs and sacks of food rain down on Afghanistan. But how can you sit down to write an RFP for a meeting next summer after watching Osama bin Laden just as calmly squat on what looks to be the surface of the moon and call for the Muslim world to start a jihad, a holy war, against all Americans, everywhere? How can you persuade attendees to fly to meetings after hearing Al Qaeda spokesperson Sulaiman Abu Ghaith trumpet that "America must know that the storm of airplanes will not stop, and there are thousands of young people who look forward to death like Americans look forward to life"?
Let’s face it, folks, a lot of usually sensible Americans are freaking out. Members of the youth choir at my church broke down in hysterical tears last Sunday when one of the kids got sick during a hymn: "Daddy, the terrorists got her," cried one little boy. News reports are full of stories about people stocking up on disaster supplies, canceling trips, not flying, fearing being a part of any large assembly, and buying gas masks.
Not to go back to the old philosophy 101 question of the difference between the perception of reality and reality itself, but how worried do we really need to be? We hadn’t even had time to get our minds around what happened six weeks ago before we started hearing about anthrax, smallpox, liquid fuel tankers…we barely have time to react before some new potential for horror comes to the forefront of our collective consciousness. More than another terrorist attack in the U.S., I fear that this may become the new "normal" we have to become accustomed to.
Planners are experts in adapting to quickly changing situations, from the banality of finding misplaced banquet tables to beefing up security for a citywide conference. As the horrors of September 11 unfolded, planners didn’t crumble. They didn’t crawl to a safe place to hide. Story after story shows them taking care of their attendees, their exhibitors, their speakers, and their staff. They found alternate ways to get people to safety, then get them safely home. They scrambled to get accurate information, to calm people in crisis, and to reassure all that the show would go on if at all possible.
I have yet to speak with a planner who, though fearful and angry, isn’t writing those RFPs and drawing up marketing plans. While the threats of terrorists are all too real, so is the ability of planners to do a reality check, then do what needs to get done.