With events, it’s best to expect the unexpected. These how-tos of preparation and onsite protocols for handling emergencies will help meeting professionals be ready for anything.
Meeting professionals aren’t strangers to preparing for the worst. But “the worst” encompasses a range of incidents, from natural disasters—occuring at a higher rate than ever before—to acts of violence. And while venues have evacuation protocols and planners are probably aware of legal needs surrounding emergencies, planners have so much to juggle that thorough planning might go on the back burner.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at a meeting and something does happen, whether it’s a power outage or an alarm going off, and everybody—including the meeting planners—looks at each other like, ‘What do we do?’” says Tyra Warner, an expert in legal and crisis preparedness issues for the meetings, events, and hospitality industries.
Consider these tips from Warner to prepare for emergencies and create contingency plans before an event and to act effectively in the moment.
Create a Risk Matrix
Plenty can happen—natural disasters, violence, positive COVID-19 cases, protests, medical emergencies—so it’ll help to evaluate the likelihood of certain emergencies and prepare most thoroughly for the high-risk incidents.
For example, if you’re hosting an event in Oklahoma, you might prepare as much for a tornado as you would for an active shooter scenario. There are a number of risk matrix templates that can help you prioritize what risks to prepare for.
Establish an Emergency Response Team
Get your staff ready for the unexpected by assigning each person a role should an emergency occur. This should include:
- Onsite personnel: Make one person the team leader who communicates with attendees, give another the responsibility of contacting emergency services, put another in charge of coordinating with vendors, and give others the job of evacuating attendees if necessary.
- Offsite staff: Have staff prepare emergency messaging that they can deliver immediately. This can include your organization’s web team so they can update the website, social media managers to spread the word on social channels, and a member services lead to field questions from members.
“The leader of the risk team might not be the CEO, it may not be the director of meetings, it should be the person who can orchestrate well in a crisis. So it’s going to be somebody with a level head,” Warner says.
Gather Crucial Attendee Information
During registration, ask attendees for emergency contact information and ask them to volunteer information about medical conditions organizers should be aware of. That way, in the event of an injury or medical emergency where an attendee can’t speak for themselves, you have relevant information to share with first responders.
Prepare Attendees for Emergencies
Once you have their information, it’s your turn to provide attendees with emergency preparedness guidance. In registration materials, include information such as floor plans with marked emergency exits, the location of first-aid equipment, instructions on where to go and who to follow in an emergency, and contact information for emergency services—crucial for international events where 911 isn’t the number to call.
“Information like that needs to be pushed to attendees even before they get onsite at the meetings,” Warner says. And when the meeting is about to kick off, the event’s host can quickly review emergency information.
Establish Multiple Lines of Communication
If things go wrong, don’t rely on one form of communication, especially if you’re conducting hybrid meetings where two distinct groups need to be notified at the same time in different ways. Be ready to use the venue’s PA system onsite, and notify virtual attendees that they should check your website, event app, social media channels, along with their text messages and emails for updates should a disruption occur.
“Redundancy is important,” Warner says. Warner experienced this personally when she lost cell service before attending an event. She couldn’t contact the venue to ask about a tornado in the area, but she was able to check Twitter to see that the venue had been hit by the storm and she knew to stay home.
Test Protocols for Contingency Plans
“Every property is a little bit different,” Warner says. “Historical hotels won’t have great PA systems and built-in systems that new convention centers will have, for example.”
Make sure to include security and loss prevention teams in preconference meetings to go over details about the venue’s alarms, PA systems, and security capabilities. With your risk matrix in mind, run through emergency scenarios with your team to determine immediate steps for each one.
For example, if there’s a tornado, the next steps wouldn’t be to instruct attendees to step outside, but to take shelter in a windowless room. On the other hand, if there’s a fire, you’ll need to figure out how you’ll use the PA system and where you’ll direct attendees to evacuate. Crisis management apps can also help you craft a plan based on the detail of your event.
“These are the kinds of things you want to run through as a meeting organizer so that you know what to do because the attendees are going to look at meeting planners,” Warner says. “One way to think about it is to group them into emergencies that we’re going to have to evacuate for, shelter in place for, and medical emergencies.”