Canceling or relocating an international meeting on short notice can cost a lot of money in penalties — but there are ways to minimize the impact.

The first thing you need to do is make sure you are covered up front. “Contractually, you need to make sure you have some ability to escape if the situation escalates in an area,” says Michael Intravia, president of Allied Intelligence Inc., a St. Louis-based event security firm.

Tim Regan, director of operations at WorldTravel Meetings & Incentives, Chicago, says preparation is the best defense. “Force majeure is extremely important these days,” he says, “whereas before, it was one of these ‘what if’ clauses that you analyzed, but not quite as diligently.”

One U.S.-based company, which had to cancel a meeting in Hong Kong last year because of the impending war in Iraq, struck a deal that benefited both sides. While the war hadn't started yet, the firm argued force majeure, citing that it was “inadvisable” to hold the meeting. Including the term “inadvisable” in the language gives companies more flexibility when deciding whether to cancel or postpone. To show good faith, the company didn't try to get back its deposit and decided to reschedule at the hotel within 18 months.

Another corporate client of WTMI felt the effects of not one, but two events — the war in Iraq and SARS. The company had originally scheduled a meeting in Europe but, as talk of war escalated, decided to move the meeting stateside to Hawaii. When the SARS threat arose, the company wound up canceling the meeting. The client was able to extricate itself from the European meeting without penalty, citing force majeure; for the Hawaii booking, it was able to escape without penalty on the assurance that it would steer future business to the venue.

In drafting agreements, make sure the deposit schedule isn't front-loaded, suggests Regan. When demand was higher for international meetings, destinations could command more money up front — but those days are gone.

Also important: Proactively track events and intelligence in a foreign country so you know what's going on. Companies such as Allied Intelligence or Franklin, Tenn.-based Event & Meeting Security conduct risk assessments as part of their services. Allied Intelligence creates international travel reports on issues and concerns at destinations around the globe.

Another suggestion: Establish a committee to make last-minute decisions about whether to travel to a destination. “If people are traveling tomorrow, and you find out today that things are starting to escalate in a country to the point where you're scared, there needs to be a decision-maker already prepared who knows the event and understands the impact of canceling or diverting,” says Intravia.

Sometimes, the best decision might be to go forward with the meeting. Deirdre Bourke, account executive at Conferon, Twinsburg, Ohio, had a client who considered rescheduling a meeting in Toronto last June because of SARS, but decided to hold the meeting after all. While attendance was down from past years, it wasn't as bad as expected. In situations in which security concerns exist, Bourke says the most important thing is to make attendees feel secure by letting them know that you've done your homework and are prepared to handle a crisis. “You can't let a crisis be like a craps game. You have to develop a strategy.”