If you haven't always planned for what could possibly go wrong, remember this: Murphy was a meeting planner. Not only will anything that can go wrong actually go wrong — it will be at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and always with the wrong people.

Any time we are working in unfamiliar conditions, where the language, culture, social mores, and business practices are different from what we are used to, the potential for some kind of crisis certainly exists. We take so much for granted when we're working in our home country that we tend to operate under similar assumptions overseas, and this can be, at best, irresponsible and, at worst, very dangerous. Do you know how to dial 911 in Budapest, Pretoria, Mumbai, or Buenos Aires?

There are so many things that can go wrong that it's pointless to obsess too much about any one of them. Instead, a good contingency plan allows you to respond to whatever happens. And while good contingency planning is vital to withstanding a crisis, its real value is that it can often prevent a disturbance from growing into a crisis. Your best resources for setting up a contingency plan are a good local destination management company and the facility you're using. The meeting planner is responsible for asking the right questions, but the DMC and the facility should be able to provide the answers.

The time to figure out what to do is not when all hell is breaking loose around you. To be effective, an emergency response plan must be:

  • Prepared before the event
  • In writing
  • Distributed to the right people
  • Followed!


Setting Up Basic Plan Elements

Policy

Most companies or organizations have some kind of guidelines on how employees and members should act in critical situations, to safeguard the interests of the organization and its members. Make sure that policy is incorporated into your plan.

Procedures

This is the who, what, when, and where of your plan. Designate who will be in charge of managing the crisis, as well as a chain of command, should that person be unavailable. Be sure to list what kinds of situations will require action and at what point the situation will trigger your plan. You may want to consider having multiple levels of action — not unlike the Secretary of Homeland Security's color-coded alert system — with steps to take for different kinds of problems.

Choose a command center and a back-up location in case the crisis makes the first location unusable. This is also the place to consider specifics and assess risks. Familiarize your team with everything from the program schedule to the fire exits.

The team

This should include the meeting planner and the client (internal or external), as well as a senior decision-maker above them in the organization. Similarly, on the facility side, the team should include the direct contact and his or her senior manager; also, the chief of security or loss prevention.

Other possible team members may be a contact for other vendors or suppliers; a public relations or information manager; legal counsel; and/or representatives of local municipal agencies, such as fire, police, or EMTs. Make sure you know your team members in advance, and that they have all been given copies of your plan and contact information. It's important to consider who's on your team, and to assign them duties they can handle. If your manager is panic-prone, don't put them in charge of evacuating the exhibit floor!

Information flow

Good information flow can actually prevent an emergency. You need to determine and verify facts — and dispel rumors — to keep panic and chaos from developing at your meeting. Plan how you will communicate internally to team members, to other staff, and to attendees. You've also got to figure out how to communicate externally to local authorities and to the media.

An established phone tree, where each team member is responsible for reaching one or two others, may make communication in a crisis more efficient. Make sure your team knows who is authorized to declare an emergency and make other announcements to attendees and the public.

These basic elements won't prevent trouble, but they will give you a handle on how to cope with trouble if it arises. No one has ever died from getting honest information or too much information. Remember, if you can anticipate a problem, you can prepare for it.




Carol Krugman is a frequent speaker on international meetings. She is president/CEO of the Krugman Group International Inc., in St. Petersburg, Fla.