It was a hot, sunny day and I was delighted that our meeting room had windows, which looked out onto a very green Central Park—the oasis in midtown Manhattan. It was July 14, just three days before Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 would explode into millions of pieces in the skies over Ukraine, a target of a missile deployed by a faction in a civil war.

It was a good thing our Beyond Borders Summit—a gathering of senior meeting executives who wanted to benchmark their global planning practices against their peers—took place before the tragedy. Risk management was already top of mind for those in the room who have been profoundly aware since 9/11 that the burden of safety rests with them every time they send someone—American or not—to a meeting.

In fact, said Gregg Talley, president and CEO of Talley Management Group in his opening remarks that morning, risk mitigation “is the single biggest shift in our jobs over the past 20 years.”

Meeting industry social media sites buzzed for days around the incident, having discovered that at least six of the victims were on their way to the 20th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2014) in Melbourne, Australia. The victims included a past president of the International AIDS Society, the association that organizes the meeting.

We all felt an immeasurable loss for the senseless killing of 298 souls that day, but two postings were especially poignant to me.

Kevin Iwamoto, vice president of industry strategy at Lanyon Solutions Inc., wrote on MeetingsNet’s LinkedIn site:I wonder if it will come to a point where the conference organizers need to also be part of the mitigation process where they have air travel information in advance to see how many delegates, speakers, etc., are attending and flying on what flights and carriers? Knowing is one thing, but enforcement is another and there is the data privacy factor too, especially internationally...a very complex and sadly tragic reality in our business.”

While many corporations have such travel policies in place, it is impossible to expect nonprofit organizations such as the International AIDS Society to get its arms around thousands of independent travelers’ plans.

 

Managing the Meeting

 

Joan Eisenstodt, hospitality and meetings industry trainer, facilitator, and risk management consultant, wrote about the emotional toll on those left behind, not only the family and friends of the victims, but those at the conference. (The conference went on, dedicated to the victims.) “There is the horrible issue of those who a) made it to the conference who will mourn and need counseling, and decisions about whether or not to proceed with the conference or how to handle the absence of presenters; and b) those who were to fly later and will not attend because they are either fearful or their families or research facilities or hospitals cannot afford to lose more personnel.

“On the one hand, many of us in this industry plan for the worst-case scenario. Would this have been in my emergency plans? Probably not like this.

“Even if the loss is not 'personal'—that is, even if one didn't directly know a person who died or who had a tragedy—we have empathy and we feel the losses. How could one not? And when the loss is so personal, as it was with the AIDS conference, how could everyone there not need time to grieve, process, and to talk with others?

We have to ensure that we are able to manage the logistics of an accident or tragedy and the emotions while putting our own grief on hold.”

Adding yet another skill set to the multiple roles of meeting planner: grief counselor. We thank you, and all those who comfort anyone in pain, through times of trouble.