Meetings

Emergency Planning: How to Handle the Unexpected

By / Jun 14, 2013 (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

Emergency planning may not be the most glamorous part of meeting planning, but it’s necessary to ensure the safety of your members and attendees. And doing it well may result in greater member loyalty and engagement.

Earlier this week I was at 9:30 Club with some friends to see the band Animal Collective perform—their first show at the venue in four years and also the first of three consecutive sold-out shows this week. In other words, the place was pretty full with eager fans anxiously awaiting the 9:10 p.m. start time.

Whether it’s a power outage, weather event, terrorist attack, or some other unforeseen circumstance, meeting planners really do have to plan for the unexpected.

After the opener wrapped up her set around 8:30, at 8:55, the venue went dark. Many concertgoers shouted and started to applaud, figuring the band was surprising us all by taking the stage 15 minutes early. But it turns out we weren’t the only ones surprised: The massive storms rolling through the area had knocked out power. And those dim lights, well, those were the emergency lights turning on.

It only took a minute or two for the entire crowd to figure out was going on, which was only confirmed when the band’s inflatable stage set started quickly deflating. But everyone remained calm. Fans were chatting with one another—thinking of all the great things that could come of this power outage (an “epic acoustic set,” as the person standing next to me suggested) and sharing war stories from other concert mishaps they’d been a part of.

When two members of the band came on stage 15 minutes later, the crowd quickly quieted down, allowing them to explain that they were working on a solution and would be back shortly with an update. People cheered, the place remained full, and fans started to pile up to the bars, where the beer was still cold. But when the entire band took the stage around 9:30, they had not-so-good news: The power outage likely wouldn’t be resolved until 1:00 a.m., but the venue was working on getting a generator and said they would play a shortened set if fans could hold out for another hour. The crowd cheered in approval, but at 10 p.m., the band and a member of the venue’s staff appeared on stage telling us that show would not happen tonight and that we needed to go home.

Of course, being the highly dedicated meetings blogger I am, as I walking out that night, my first thought was, “This would make a great blog post this week.” Because, when you think about it, whether it’s a power outage, weather event, terrorist attack, or some other unforeseen circumstance, meeting planners really do have to plan for the unexpected. As I was observing that night unfold, a few things stuck out to me that I think can apply to almost every association that’s thinking about emergency planning.

1. Communicate Quickly and Often. As I mentioned earlier, only minutes after the power outage, the band came on stage to let us know what was happening and also told us they would continue to update us. When we were told the show would not go on, we were also told to hold onto our tickets and that we would receive an email to let us know whether we would receive a refund or be given a rescheduled tour date. Less than 24 hours later that email showed up in my inbox, saying the band was working to reschedule, and that more information would follow once that date was finalized. Also, a quick Twitter search for the venue showed that they were quickly following up with fans via social media. This approach is similar to the one the Ambulatory Surgery Center Association took when its Annual Meeting took place in Boston immediately after the Marathon Bombings and while the city was under “shelter-in-place” orders.

2. Keep customer service a priority. This does tie into the previous point, but your staff can really make an unfortunate situation better for your members if they go above and beyond.

For example, bartenders had to close all bar tabs manually the other night, but despite the extra time it took to do that, they were also making sure patrons would get the loyalty points they had earned that night, writing down the 10-digit numbers by hand, saying they would hand-enter them in the next few days once power had been restored. I even saw one employee give an email address out, telling the fan to email him with the loyalty rewards number to get it taken care of. It is those little things that can make your loyal members even more loyal or your members who are on the fence come renewal time more likely to renew.

3. Put safety first. Sure, fans and members will be bummed out if something happens that changes or cancels an event, but remember that you must put their safety (and the safety of your staff) above and beyond everything else. Given the packed crowd, rising temperature, and the handful of “I-had-a-few-too-many” concert revelers, there was no point where I felt unsafe being there. As everyone was exiting that night, staff lined the halls and stood by doors holding flashlights, making sure everyone was getting out of there quickly and calmly and assuring them that they would hear about a rescheduled date or refund soon. Sure, no one was happy with the situation, but many did respond back with a “Can’t wait. I’m sure the new show will be even better than what they would have played tonight.”

How does your team handle emergency planning for its meetings and events?

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editorial director of Associations Now. More »

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