Religious meeting planners take great pride in the ability to orchestrate complex meetings with careful attention to the tiniest details. But sometimes, despite your best planning efforts, tragedy strikes. September 11, international terror, the war in Iraq, the SARS virus, and the wildfires in California have all changed the way that you plan your meetings.

Making the difficult decision to cancel or postpone a meeting is the most disappointing, challenging, and thankless part of your job. But it is also a unique opportunity to show your professionalism. You must be able to unravel your fine tapestry with the same precision and professional attitude that allowed you to weave it in the first place. It is a sad task, but the following information, tips, and techniques should help you to do the job in the best way possible.

Face Reality: Create a Disaster Plan

Just as you create a timeline and a communications plan for the rollout of our meeting, you must also create a disaster action plan to prepare for the unforeseen. Taking these steps in advance will help take some of the emotion out of unraveling your meeting.

As part of your disaster plan, establish a team of decision-makers. Keep this team small and effective. Select fact-based reasons for canceling or postponing your meeting, and avoid emotional statements. Develop a question-and-answer document to address as many situations as you can imagine. Base all 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 very important that you speak with one voice to all audiences about why you are canceling. Let your staff know that any questions about the cancellation must be directed to a core team member in order to avoid confusion.

Before you begin communicating the cancellation, you should know exactly what concessions, if any, you are prepared to offer your various audiences (speakers, attendees, etc.).

Customize Communications

Your communications should follow a strict order to protect your meeting protocol. It can be a double disaster if attendees learn the meeting is canceled before your speakers do. Each audience requires a different approach.

  • Senior leadership (including any executive committees or advisory boards) should be informed first, through phone calls from a top-level organizer. These conversations should be followed by an official written communication.

  • Speakers also should receive a personal phone call.

  • Staff should receive a communique from top leaders. Be sure to praise your staff for the hard work they did to prepare for the meeting. They need to know that they are valued, even if the meeting isn't going to take place. Refer questions back to the core disaster plan communications team.

  • Attendees should be told as proactively as possible. Send a letter to each attendee by registered mail. Overnight delivery is the best option, if you have the budget. You will have the peace of mind of knowing that you informed your audience quickly. A blanket e-mail can support that communication, but it does not replace it.

Speak with One Voice

Work closely with your staff to 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 major consumer newspaper journalists — always speak with one voice to avoid being misunderstood.

Keep Staff Focused

Finally, keep in mind that staff members are probably very distracted by the event that caused the meeting's cancellation.

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 execute the cancellation quickly and efficiently.

It may be a thankless task, but your audiences will remember your professionalism when the time comes to try again.