Making the difficult decision to cancel or postpone a meeting is the most disappointing, challenging, and thankless part of our job as meeting planners. But it is also a truly unique opportunity to show our professionalism. We must unravel our fine tapestry with the same precision that allowed us to weave it in the first place.
Establish a core team of decision-makers. Keep this team small and effective.
Select fact-based reasons for canceling; avoid emotional statements.
Develop a questions-and-answers document to address as many situations as you can imagine. Base all of your answers on the key messages you develop around your rationale for canceling.
Decide who is responsible for communicating the message to which audience, and stick to that decision. It is important that you speak with one voice to all audiences about why you are canceling.
Before you begin communicating the cancellation, know exactly what concessions, if any, you are prepared to offer your various audiences (sponsors, exhibitors, speakers, attendees, etc.). Are you willing to reimburse nonrefundable airline tickets? What about airfare for speakers' guests?
Senior management (including any executive committees or advisory boards) should be informed first, through personal phone calls from a top-level organizer. These phone conversations should be followed by an official communication in writing.
Speakers should receive a personal phone call.
Staff should receive a communique from top leadership. Be sure to praise them for the hard work they did to prepare for the meeting. Refer questions back to the core disaster plan communications team.
Know exactly what you are prepared to offer as concessions before you call your sponsors and exhibitors. Perhaps a letter from your organization's top leadership with an apology can help.
Attendees should be told as proactively as possible in order to avoid anger and a public relations backlash. It may seem expensive to send a letter to each attendee by overnight express, but you will have a record of receipt (for potential legal protection) and the peace of mind of knowing that you informed your audience quickly. A blanket e-mail can support that communication, but should not replace it.
Expedite registration refunds. You might also want to establish a link on your Web site, a dedicated e-mail, and a hotline to answer questions. These communications should always contain the same information laid out in the Q&A document developed by the core team. Some of your audience may well include journalists — always speak with one voice to avoid being misunderstood.
Keep in mind that your staff is probably very distracted by the same event that caused you to have to cancel your meeting. If war is breaking out, or a national disaster has just taken place, it will be very difficult to keep your staff focused on the task at hand. Having a disaster plan in place will help you to execute the cancellation quickly and efficiently. It may be a thankless task, but your clients, audiences, speakers, and grantors will remember your professionalism when the time comes to try again.
Jennifer Goodwin is president of The Goodwin Group, an international medical communications consulting agency based in Newton, Mass. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.