When to Cancel Your Event in the Risk of a Disaster

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Canceling all or part of a convention is a nightmare that no event planner or destination convention organization ever wants to deal with, but as Hurricane Sandy recently taught us once again, sometimes it’s out of our control. Hundreds of events are called off every year and their cancellations have a profound impact on their organizations and destinations hosting them. While often there is little an organization can do to prevent a cancellation, an effective contingency plan can help lay a framework for response. That plan should include cancellation procedures, adequate insurance coverage and a way to move forward. Making the Decision While cancellations can happen for a number of reasons, most are due to problems arising from inclement weather or natural disaster. Blizzards, ice storms, tornados, earthquakes and hurricanes often leave organizations in an unfortunate position of having to cancel their events at the last minute. But sometimes it’s not the weather event that’s a problem; it’s the ensuing flight delays, power outages, facility damage or crippled infrastructure that can make it almost impossible to support an event. The American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance had to cancel part of its convention in Boston in March due to a power outage. Paula Kun, AAHPERD senior director of communications, says after two days of holding meetings in the dark and “winging it” in hotel lobbies, the organization made the tough decision to cancel the rest of the convention. “We finally called it off because we couldn’t take any more uncertainty with the sessions. We just didn’t know [when the power was going to come back on],” she says. Kun says headquarters stayed in constant communication with attendees through the convention’s mobile app, email, phone and with signs in the hotel lobbies. Nikki Moon, vice president of convention sales at the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, says it underlines why organizations need a crisis communication plan that can be instantly deployed in such scenarios. That plan should include specific procedures on how to deal with exhibitors, attendees and destination management organizations in the event of a cancellation. “Every situation is different, but an emergency plan can offer contingencies for cancellation and what to do in case something happens,” she says. “You don’t want to have no framework for how to respond.” Dealing with Consequences Attracting up to 6,000 attendees, AAHPERD’s annual convention is one of the organization’s largest sources of revenue. It was a major financial blow to cancel the event, but because of convention cancellation insurance, the organization could recoup some of the losses and refund some money to convention attendees. “We were able to give people back about 80 percent of their registration fees. We couldn’t give them back their travel expenses, but I think it really helped,” says Kun. Unable to reschedule the convention, all the organization could do was look forward to 2013 and 2014. Immediately after the meeting, AAHPERD put together webinars of featured speakers, which allowed it to offer a shortened, virtual version of the convention. Kun says it wasn’t until the unfortunate cancellation that they realized how valuable the convention is to those in the industry. “We had businesses that said their sales have been down this year because they didn’t have the opportunity to exhibit at our convention. We just wanted to look forward,” she says. New Orleans had a number of cancellations in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina and a few in August during Hurricane Isaac. Moon says in some cases, if possible, a convention will try to make a last-minute decision to move a meeting. In times of crisis, Moon says CVBs will work with one another to not only assist on a personal level but to help any conventions that may need to relocate. “If they can reschedule we try to work with them to keep their meeting in the community. Or sometimes they might flip-flop a year with another destination.” Stranded Guests When Hurricane Isaac struck the Gulf Coast in late August, the Republican National Convention canceled the first day of the event in Tampa, Fla. As a major convention with national significance, it was a tough call to make, but convention planners and those in the industry say it was a smart move. Alex Kaptzan, vice president of convention sales and services for Tampa Bay and Company, says when a natural disaster strikes, all one can do is make the best of it. “With 50,000 people in town, you’re still going to have people out and about in the community, even more so because they weren’t in meetings,” he says. At that point, event planners or meeting attendees can make the decision to stay in the destination to try and contribute to recovery efforts. Following Hurricane Sandy, thousands of runners flew into New York in the days shortly thereafter, planning to run the New York Marathon. The event was scheduled to go on as planned until city officials realized too many resources would need to be dispatched to operate the event, and those resources, such as police officers, were still playing a major role in clean-up efforts following the storm. Many of the runners organized impromptu relief events, spreading out into the city to help families and businesses affected by the storm. While major hotels and destination management companies may have deposits and cancellation contracts to fall back on, it’s the small businesses that are often hurt when a convention can’t move forward. Restaurants, gift shops, independent tour operators and small businesses in the vicinity of the convention center often depend on those large meetings. “At that point we see it as our mission to bring as many of those conventions to Tampa bay to fill those holes. That is our role and responsibility,” Kaptzan says.