The Planner's Playbook to Crisis Management

Are many planners and cities ready for a crisis? The answer will disturb you.

The Planner's Playbook to Crisis Management

On the late April night when Baltimore, simmering for days over the death of African-American Freddie Gray, boiled over, Gregg B. Balko, FASAE, CAE, watched from across the country and worried.

The CEO of the Los Angeles-based Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering had planned years ago to bring the organization’s second-largest annual event to Charm City a few weeks later.

When a citywide curfew was imposed, Major League Baseball took the rare step of canceling two games before resuming play at an empty Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Baltimore Ravens also canceled an NFL draft party.

Balko wondered whether SAMPE’s event would be next. The concern was magnified by the fact that he didn’t purchase cancellation insurance.

“We were toast” if he had to call off the conference, he recalls.

In more than 30 years of planning events, Balko had never faced threats of civil unrest or a situation remotely on the scale of Baltimore’s most trying moments in decades. It was something he simply didn’t have to worry about before.

“There is no manual for something like this,” he says.

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That refrain is one Donna Karl Sakelakos, CMP, vice president of operations at Tradeshow Logic, has heard all too often in her distinguished career on both the planning and CVB sides. It’s also an argument Sakelakos—who, as vice president of client relations for the New Orleans CVB, wrote the city’s emergency plan months before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005—doesn’t buy.

“Why do football teams practice? Why do they have a playbook?” she asks rhetorically. “When the game is going on, they assess the situation and choose which play to put in. Why would you not do the same thing when talking about emergency planning?”

That type of thinking makes Sakelakos an exception, she says, and it’s a fact she is not happy about. She longs for more voices calling for risk management awareness, but that reality is at least a few years away.

“In today’s world, it’s really frustrating to me that meeting planners are not taking emergency planning more seriously,” she says, warning against a growing complacency across the events industry.

Life After 9/11

By “today’s world,” Sakelakos means the new reality that began for her when the Twin Towers fell on Sept 11.

She canceled 11 meetings in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York City and two more a year later during the SARS scare.

The normally laid-back Sakelakos learned the hard way she needed a plan just in case a catastrophe—be it a natural disaster, terrorism, civil unrest, etc.—affected a destination in which she was planning a meeting.

“In today’s world, it’s really frustrating to me that meeting planners are not taking emergency planning more seriously.”

In a series of interviews with planners and city officials, a pattern emerges where risk management is commonly put on the back burner until a crisis forces a change in perspective.

“Unfortunately, you don’t realize something can go wrong until it does,” says Stuart Ruff, CMP, director of meetings and events at Risk and Insurance Management Society. Ruff’s wake-up call came when he was a third-party planner organizing a medical science meeting for federal government workers in 2008 in Mumbai, India.

A series of attacks, now attributed to Pakistani militants, erupted in the country’s financial capital. From the hotel staff to attendees, widespread panic threatened to override the event.

Ruff, whose father flew planes for a living, went on autopilot. His focus turned from samosas and speeches to disseminating accurate information and facilitating travel plans for attendees who’d rather be anywhere but Mumbai, which meant presenting a calm front to see the project through. It was a challenging—but pivotal—moment for Ruff.

“Prior to that, my idea of a crisis was an attendee getting sick or a speaker [not showing] up,” he says. “This was something that required leadership and responsibility. I started to transition the way I [thought] about things, from crisis management to risk management.”  

Crisis Management vs. Risk Management

The distinction between the two is critical, and often lacking in the industry, says Ruff, who sits on PCMA’s board of directors.

Crisis management is, of course, part of risk management, he notes. But the idea of mitigating risk for an event requires looking at the big picture rather than acting in the moment.

[Related Post: Crisis Management 101 With RIMS’ Director of Events]

“Really and truly, all things could be a crisis,” Ruff says. “That is what people need to start thinking about as an event professional: How are you going to continue operating your own business unit in the event of a disaster?”

"Really and truly, all things could be a crisis." 

The experience in India did not draw Ruff to RIMS, but it began a thought process that would be augmented by working at an organization focused on minimizing dangers.

In his three years at New York City-based RIMS, Ruff says he’s been introduced to many new ideas that have helped him prepare for worst-case scenarios. Long before an event, Ruff and his team put together a risk management playbook that’s 50 to 80 pages long and specific to the destination.

For instance, part of any preparation for an event in California would include earthquake training, he says. Sakelakos uses a similar philosophy that dates back to her days at American Academy of Pediatrics, where she created three manuals of different lengths for the group’s annual meeting (21 pages), CME courses (two or three pages) and smaller meetings (one page) to make sure her basics were covered after the Sept. 11 attacks.

But being prepared takes time, which is a rare commodity for event professionals. Blocking off months for a plan you may never use doesn’t sound efficient to many, especially if they’ve yet to come across such a scenario.

Amy Patterson, vice president of business development and corporate events for the Atlanta CVB, says it took nine months to build a 650-page crisis plan involving 20 local and federal agencies for the 2013 NCAA Final Four tournament in Atlanta.

By the end, Patterson, who was the local organizing committee’s director of operations for the major sporting event, admits she rolled her eyes at a few of the called-in threats. Then a week later, the Boston Marathon was bombed. “I called everyone on the planning committee and said, ‘That could have been us,’” she says.

What Could Go Wrong?

Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, took a proactive approach. He had been on the job six years when he decided to make updating the CVB’s crisis plan a priority in 2013.

Familiar with planner Sakelakos’ work in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina, Noonan hired her to help Baltimore prepare for the worst—just in case. The product of their six-month effort—a 50-page binder complete with emergency contact information, lists of medical facilities and instructions for relaying information—unexpectedly became Noonan’s go-to manual this year.

[Related Post: 5 Things to Include in an Emergency Plan]

“If you talked to me a month before the incidents took place, I would have told you we had 24 million tourists last year, more conventions at any time in our history and a new advertising campaign coming,” he says. “What could possibly go wrong?”

Rioting and looting, for starters. And while most of the unrest occurred outside Baltimore’s convention district, the impact was obvious on two fronts.

First and foremost, the CVB acted to ensure the safety of meetings already in town, including Food Safety Summit and the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine’s American Occupational Health Conference, and advise groups planning to move in. The Door and Hardware Institute’s CoNEXTions was the only event that canceled.

Ironically, because of the National Guard’s deployment to Baltimore, “I’m not sure there was any safer city in the country” at the time, says Noonan in an interview.

Secondary to the immediate crisis, but with a longer-lasting effect, was the crisis communication aspect of Baltimore’s plan.

Beyond knowing which public officials to call, managing the media to help relay messages is vital, says Sakelakos. Noonan used the CVB’s website to share information regularly about the safety of the city and positive feedback he received from peers, which gave the immediate impression Baltimore would recover.

“I thought they did an awesome job,” says Sakelakos of Baltimore, which in August announced it will host the National Urban League’s 2016 Annual Conference. “You look at Baltimore today, and [the riots are] hardly talked about. That recovery time was shortened by how well they managed the media.”  

Safety Nets

Baltimore is hardly alone in confronting dangerous situations.

Most notably, St. Louis continues to feel the repercussions from the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked by the killing of African-American Michael Brown by a white police officer. (St. Louis CVC President Kathleen “Kitty” Ratcliffe, the New Orleans CVB’s vice president during Katrina who previously worked in sales at Visit Baltimore, advised Noonan on media relations.)

Nine people were killed at a faith-based meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, this summer. Internationally, a shooting spree at a satirical newspaper office sent a shiver through Paris in January, and Bangkok suffered a major bomb blast in August.

"The last thing you want to do is figure out what to do when you’re halfway around the world." 

Planners have a few options to protect their events.

The quickest solution is to add more security, the approach event manager Mercedes Hunt of The International Ecotourism Society took when terrorists killed 67 people at a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013, three days before the group’s Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference.

With attendees from around the globe already en route, “it put a lot of pressure on us to decide what we were going to do and how we were going to deal with this major crisis,” Hunt says.

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A handful of speakers and would-be conference attendees bowed out, but the 400-person event was a sellout thanks to on-site registration by locals, and complaints were reduced to the mundane.

“It was the usual stuff like, ‘There’s glare on the screen,’” Hunt says. Insurance—“a bad word” in the event industry, jokes Ruff—is another economical safeguard because if something goes wrong, you’ll be grateful you have it, he adds.

A more comprehensive approach would be to purchase a membership to the Birmingham, Alabama-based MedjetAssist, a medical repatriation organization that offers its members passage back to their hospital of choice that recently added its Horizon program, which provides supplemental crisis response (financial and otherwise), travel security and consulting services.

“In the world today, unfortunate things happen,” says John Gobbels, vice president and COO of MedjetAssist. “The last thing you want to do is figure out what to do when you’re halfway around the world.”

Recognizing the same challenges, American Express Global Business Travel recently rolled out AX Connect, providing planners and travel managers the technology required to pinpoint the location of and communicate with priority attendees like C-suite executives and keynote speakers.

Cities like Detroit and Atlanta employ crisis operating centers that relay camera footage of virtually any city block for everything from navigating traffic for evacuation purposes to searching for crime suspects. On the flip side, new technology breeds more dangers. “In 2013, you didn’t have to worry about a drone strike,” says Patterson. “Now you do.”

No Place to Hide

Just as Sakelakos and Ruff urge planners to give more attention to risk management, Noonan recommends each CVB have a crisis plan. However, not all bureaus are eager to heed that advice.

Sakelakos says so few are adequately prepared that she can’t cross a destination off the list because they don’t have a solid plan.

"If we were to live our lives in fear, there is no perfect place to hold a meeting."

“Unfortunately, if I took that into my criteria, I’d probably be very limited on the number of cities I’d take events to,” says Sakelakos, who will bring two events to New Orleans in October, two months after the 10th anniversary of Katrina. Because she worked on that city’s plan, she regards it as one of the safest destinations.

Still, another weather event disrupted one of Ruff’s events in New Orleans when a tornado shut down the airport this year. It all goes to show you can’t predict disasters, which is the reason Ruff and Sakelakos say crisis plans are needed—so planners have a starting point in case of emergency.

Balko, for his part, has learned his lesson. Having avoided his nightmare scenario and gone on to enjoy SAMPE’s successful technical conference in Baltimore, he says he’ll purchase cancellation insurance next time (he’d already bought insurance for a larger conference in Orlando in 2014, safeguarding against hurricanes).

But he won’t be deterred about returning to Baltimore, one of the group’s primary cities in its cycle of meetings. What happened there could happen anywhere, he says, and succumbing to fear is not an option. “If we were to live our lives in fear,” he says, “there is no perfect place to hold a meeting.”

Kristen Pope contributed to this report.

Photo by Nathanael Filbert

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