While meetings were constantly being cancelled, rescheduled and moved in 2020, the pandemic has revealed in a very transparent way which event organizers have a true understanding of risk-management strategies for conferences and those who don’t.
And while a global pandemic is an extreme example of what can go wrong with a scheduled event, it validated the urgent need for every organization to have a risk-management plan in place for any upcoming face-to-face meeting. The event organizer might have gotten a pass from executives in the organization for not having a preliminary response strategy for handling the coronavirus, but now the understandable expectation is that planners will have created a unique risk-management plan in place going forward.
Not to mention that insurance companies are looking more closely at how organizations are managing every level of risk, especially their financial vulnerabilities, in the event space, so covering all of these bases in advance is critical.
How to Define It
Risk management can be a murky all-inclusive term. Traditionally, it covers the following components: Assessment of a potential problem, mitigation planning to solve the problem, monitoring the mitigation, reassessing to see if all is well or more needs to be done, and communications. While communications is listed last here, it needs to be thoughtfully woven into each step of the process.
Along the way, a varied group of event stakeholders need to be proactively apprised of your risk-planning progress, just as you would update them on operational developments.
Safety First: Planner Musts for In-Person Meetings
The return of in-person meetings is well underway, but Covid-19 remains a risk in group settings. This Northstar Meetings Group report considers the complete range of health and safety services relevant to meetings of all sizes and types, and provides comprehensive insights as to the safety measures planners intend to implement. Download it here.
For example, in regards to communications, the event lead 1) needs to ensure that attendee well-being is paramount and 2) must be prepared to manage attendee (and executive) expectations concerning any updated event processes and protocols that are risk-management related.
Effective, proactive communications should ensure that your team can achieve the goal of delivering a 5-star guest experience.
Where Is Your Tipping Point?
There are numerous tools available for risk assessment and management, but it’s important to first determine your organization’s threshold or appetite for risk. What’s the tipping point, within risk categories, where it becomes a no-go situation?
You need to know where that tipping point is. Two tools to help determine that are a SWOT (strengths, weakness, opportunity, threat) analysis of potential internal or external threats to your event; and a "likelihood vs. impact" tool, which looks at how likely it is a particular threat will happen and what the impact would be to the event, its participants, the host organization and/or the destination if it did.
Breaking It Down
What are possible risk-related categories that you need to identify? Here are a few, but there can be more:
- Financial: What types of problems could cause your organization to lose contracted money invested in the event, as well as potential revenue generated from the event?
- Reputational: What risks would compromise the integrity of your brand? Would there be negative PR that could erupt from a risk choice that compromises the stock price or consumer confidence in your brand?
- Operational: Is there a weakness in the planning process that could significantly disrupt the flow of the event and put on-site attendees in any jeopardy?
- Audience profile: Are there Board members or other high-profile attendees that bring unwanted media attention to the event?
- Cultural (particularly for international events): Would a positive decision on risk avoidance in one country be misunderstood (and negatively perceived) if implemented in another country/another culture?
Surround Yourself With Experts
For risk-category expertise, you need to tap into specific cross-functional partners who can make up an advisory team. Do not go it alone as a planner. Risk is a complex subject matter, and you need vested internal stakeholders who can look at each event through different lenses in order to give you a broad and informed point of view on potential problem areas.
The advisory team can consist of representatives from security, events, finance and communications. An expanded team can pull in legal, the business owner and/or a senior executive, and someone from human resources.
Determine a classification system in advance that gives a preliminary internal risk rating to each event. You can then review materials with your business partners regularly as part of your status reports on each in-person meeting.
Putting the Plan in Motion
Once on-site and prior to attendee arrival, it's a good idea to hold a table-top event-readiness exercise (with possible scenarios) with all key staff and third parties, to ensure alignment and understanding of your risk-related response protocols and processes.
This response mechanism needs to be implanted in the lead planner's brain. There’s no time to find your binder (or e-book) and go to tab 23 titled "response." You need to know, in the moment, who is the lead on each element of your risk-related operational and communications response. This area of on-site action should be detailed in the planning process under its own header.
While risk analysis and prep work doesn’t guarantee 100 percent accuracy in a measured response, it does provide a pathway to a coordinated effort that will deliver the sense of calm and control that in-person attendees need. Attendees — as well as executives — want to be guided and reassured that everything will be OK.
Your clear understanding of the risk-management process ensures that potential problems are under control and minimized, if not mitigated. It also presents the opportunity for you to showcase your role as a strategic leader within your organization, not just an operations-focused meeting planner.
Liz Warwick of Warwick Strategic Planning is an event-planning consultant. The former vice president of meeting management and event strategy at Liberty Mutual Insurance, she is the current 2020-'21 Events Industry Council chair of meeting and event design for the APEX COVID-19 Business Recovery Task Force and a recipient of the EIC 2020 Chairman’s Award.