Saving the day
Behind the scenes, professional meeting planners prepare for the worst to ensure the best.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Planning ahead for major pitfalls and minor snafus is what meetings planners do best. “No event is perfect. Not one. There is a 100% chance that something will go wrong,” says Laura MacIsaac, certified meeting professional (CMP) and director of sales at Monona Terrace.
The ability to resolve the unexpected turn of events is what delineates the novice from the professional.
Whether a small board meeting or a large 1,500-person conference, meeting planners not only need thick skin, they must be prepared for what could possibly go wrong. That’s where professionals are better suited, says Susan Kainz, professional meeting planner and principal of Meeting Matters LLC in Brookfield.
She describes an event planner as someone who might plan a one-time event, handle decorations, dinner, invitations, and perhaps a silent auction or program. A professional meeting planner, by contrast, can do all that plus handle multiple-day conferences, hotel reservations and transportation, contracts, and other tasks based on the mission or by-laws of an organization or group.
Regardless of the size of the event or the professionalism of the meeting planner, each likely has a story to tell about how they solved problems that, without their involvement, could have become catastrophic.
MacIsaac recalls a large event several years ago that required on-the-spot coordination from all of Monona Terrace’s managers and staff.
It was in May 2013, the day of the Stoughton tornado.
A group of 1,200 was planning to dine al fresco on the rooftop, and several attendees had already arrived when tornado sirens started blaring. Compounding the problem, a high-level VIP, brought to town as a surprise for the guests, was being entertained on the facility’s lowest level, rendering that area of the building off-limits.
“It was all hands on-deck,” MacIsaac says, due to the weather situation. Within 15 minutes, the event staff was able to shift the event to one of the lower-level ballrooms.
“The first priority was to keep guests safe,” MacIsaac says, and the switch went off without a hitch. “We convened an operational team to make the decisions needed, given the time we were allotted and the circumstance presented. When you have the people in place, you can do just about anything. Still, to this day, I get chills thinking about it.”
What did she learn from the experience? “In hindsight, I would have relocated the VIP and moved people into the lowest level, but that’s an internal observation. I really don’t think we could have handled it any better at the time.”
As a rule of thumb, professional meeting planners should always have contingency plans at the ready, and a strong partnership with the facility they’re working with, she notes. Monona Terrace, for example, has written contingency plans for fire emergencies, first aid/medical, severe weather, power loss, missing persons (usually children), bomb scares, and most recently, active-shooter situations. “In times of pressure, the wheels will fall off when there’s not a good plan,” MacIsaac says. The facility also has an in-house security team, but if a client wants to up the ante by bringing in armed police officers, for example, it can be arranged at the client’s expense.
“I think it’s a sign of the times that we now have a plan for an active shooter,” she says.
Christopher Dyer, administrator for Meeting Professionals International–Wisconsin Chapter and partner at MDS (Morgan Data Solutions) Association Management, says his company asks venues for contingency plans prior to booking. “Are there resuscitation machines on site, and where are they? If we’re at a public facility and there are protests going on, are plans in place to secure the building? We’ll take our cues from them.”
Dyer says it’s imperative that planners understand event contracts. “RTDC. Read the damned contract! Know what your penalties are if you do need to cancel. Sometimes that will dictate what you have to plan for. If you’re bringing 100 people in from out of state and they’re all staying at a hotel, the hotel is saving space for you. The closer you get to the date, the more you’ll likely be penalized if you cancel. Know what your exposure is and what you need to cover should something happen.”
As for a meeting or conference, nothing is more frustrating, or embarrassing, than audio-visual problems, which is why Dyer makes sure the larger venues he works with have an A-V team available. “Really, the onus is upon them,” he says. “But you pay for that level of mental security.” Unfortunately, smaller events don’t always have that option.
Dyer and his staff usually travel with what he calls a “MacGyver kit” as part of the planning process. “We’ll bring some of our own easels and pads of paper. I actually travel with my own portable speaker,” he says. “It’s amazing how much sound those little speakers will pump out nowadays. It’s not suitable for large events, but it can save you in a pinch.”
Then there was the time MDS received word that a venue had closed down just four months shy of a major 1,500-attendee annual convention the company was planning.
“Four months may sound like a long lead time, but in reality, that’s a very small window when you take into account all the promotion and logistics. You’ve booked your speakers nearly a year in advance, and some people have made hotel reservations.”
Cancelling the meeting wasn’t an option, he says, so the entire event was moved 120 miles to Madison, where his company worked hand-in-hand with the Greater Madison Convention and Visitor’s Bureau to find an alternate site.
“It took a lot of work,” Dyer says. “When you’re bringing in that many people, no one hotel can accommodate everyone. We relied heavily on the GMCVB to help us make those connections, because for us to individually work up contracts and deals and relationships with seven different hotels would have been too time intensive.”
Fortunately, guests never knew of the drama that preceded the conference, only that the venue had changed for the first time in 15 years. Bringing the three-day convention to Madison turned into a big revenue boost for the city, which gained an annual conference as a result.
“We’re kind of like ducks on water,” Dyer says of professional meeting planners. “Things look calm at the surface, but you’re paddling away like heck underneath to make things happen.”
Ready for anything
Kainz (Meeting Matters) says good meeting planners work behind the scenes to “make smaller problems go away.” For unplanned circumstances, it also helps to have a solid working relationship with the players involved. For example, if an event doesn’t fill its entire hotel room block, hotels will often charge a fee, and lesser-experienced event planners may just pay that fee, no questions asked. A professional meeting planner, on the other hand, may be able to work behind the scenes to try to have the fee waived or reduced. That’s where relationships matter.
That’s also what happened when one of Kainz’s major clients suddenly put its sales meeting on hold after receiving a disappointing quarterly financial report. “These kinds of things happen all the time,” she says. The company would have owed the hotel tens of thousands of dollars in penalties, “but by partnering with the hotel and the group, we were able to book another meeting of a similar size within a time frame so as to diminish the risk that the group had to pay and still bring revenue to the hotel.
“You just have to be ready for anything,” she says.
Case in point: “We once did a western cookout where attendees were riding a horse-pulled wagon across a desert. As the wagon crossed over a little creek, the horses got loose from the wagon and the wagon rolled back into a creek. When that happened, I ran across the desert chasing the wagon to make sure everyone was okay.” Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured, but it was Kainz’s job to have a plan and to work with the hotel and the clients to make sure everyone was well cared for. “People are looking to you to be the leader. It’s just what good planners do.”
Still, that’s nothing compared to what some planners have had to endure. “I can’t imagine what the meeting planner in the hotel next to the Boston Marathon bombing did. Did they have a list of everyone in the meetings? Did they know who they were? Did they have to arrange for a new hotel? What were the obligations to the hotel?” she wonders. “This is why you need a professional. Don’t start from square-I-don’t-know, start from square 10, hopefully, so you have an emergency plan.”
As for the latest active shooter contingencies, Kainz says there’s still no industry-wide consensus. “It’s not just dialing 9-1-1. Police will want to know who’s in that building and who’s missing. If you don’t have a list as a minimum, you’re delaying the process of keeping people safe. So as an industry, we are talking about this.”
Carrie Jensen has nightmares about speakers not showing up at events. It happened to her once because of a contractual snafu. “When I was younger, I didn’t worry as much. Now I lose more sleep. I think that’s because we know what can go wrong.”
Jensen was recently named event manager for the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. Prior to that, she worked for Magna Publications (IB’s ownership group) which specializes in higher education faculty and staff development, and produces conferences around the country.
She recounts one event in particular, where college students were asked to take photos throughout the host hotel as part of a team-building project, with a prize awarded to the most creative photo.
“I had 18 students who thought it would be fun to stuff a 10-person elevator,” she recalls. “Another kid thought it would be even more fun to ride the elevator up. Needless to say, it got stuck between two floors. A couple of the kids were claustrophobic, and one was [a type 1] diabetic.”
Police, fire, and even the local news were called out.
“We could see their heads and talk to them,” she says. Insulin was passed through the opening to the diabetic patient, and an emergency professional calmed the claustrophobic students. Finally, jacks were brought in to move the elevator.
Jensen says it was a matter of being there when they needed her. “There are always things you can’t anticipate. It comes down to thinking on your feet. Safety is always our first concern. You just can’t predict some things.”
Contingency planning checklist
Follow these key guidelines for planning for the unexpected.
Be safe and sound
- The first priority is safety.
- Know the key people to call in an emergency.
- Identify a control-room location from which to operate.
- Have a communications plan in place covering attendees, staff, home office, media, and emergency personnel.
- Know emergency evacuation procedures.
- Have detailed floor plans and a map of the vicinity.
- Know the location and proximity of the nearest hospital or 24-hour pharmacy.
- Identify locations of alternate airports.
- Know where to find up–to-date weather reports.
- Identify the location of all exits, automatic external defibrillators, and security offices.
- Go over the venue’s fire plan and public emergency checklist.
- Have additional security available if necessary or requested (i.e., protests at political events)
Don’t fail to communicate
- Keep a complete list of attendees with cell phone numbers, emergency contacts, and special needs as applicable.
- Have an arrival/departures manifest for all attendees and a complete attendee list with hotel room numbers.
- Go over a venue’s contingency plans ahead of time for natural or manmade emergencies.
- Distribute the emergency plan to all personnel on-site with copies to event owner, home office emergency or security teams, and on-site security team.
- Provide attendees with on-site hotel contact information and a 24-your emergency hotline number.
- During events, let people know the locations of the nearest exits, evacuation route, or where to report emergencies.
Source: Canada-based Corporate Meetings Network
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