In the moments following a 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, Stuart Ruff, CMP, whose father flew planes for a living, went on autopilot. At the time a third-party planner specializing in government meetings in town organizing a medical science conference, Ruff’s focus turned from samosas and speeches to disseminating accurate information and facilitating travel plans for attendees who’d rather be anywhere but there. Now older and wiser, Ruff, 39, is in his third year as director of events and meetings at the Risk and Insurance Management Society. He says he now looks more at the big picture because of what he went through, but is concerned the majority of event professionals see the world as he used to: assuming nothing will go wrong, until it happens to them. Connect spoke with Ruff about his Mumbai memories, how the industry needs to improve, and the distinction between crisis management and risk management.
How did the Mumbai attacks change your role during the meeting?
There were a lot of misinformation and assumptions going around, and I had to try to see what exactly was happening. It required me to be calm and to not show what I was feeling, which was, to be frank, a bit of fear. A sense of panic from the hotel staff didn’t help. People wanted to make sure they could get out of dodge, and I was responsible for more travel then than I am now. I was sort of a one-man show.
How did that change your view of planning?
Prior to that, my idea of a crisis was an attendee getting sick or a speaker not showing up. This was something that required leadership and responsibility on my part to carry it through and make sure everyone was comfortable. I started to transition the way I think about things from crisis management to risk management.
“Crisis management is obviously a component of risk management, but truly, all things could be a crisis.”
Was the Mumbai experience what eventually drew you to RIMS?
I’ve gotten into the idea of risk management at meetings, but it has nothing to do with India. A crisis happened, and it was a job I did. Now I think about the bigger picture of business and less about crisis. Crisis management is obviously a component of risk management, but truly, all things could be a crisis. If you had a cyber attack, that’s a crisis, but not in the way we think about crisis—not like how we think about building disaster plans. 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?
How important is it to see a venue in-person first?
One of the greatest assets you have in building a crisis plan is visiting the location first. But in today’s world and with today’s budgets, some people don’t have that luxury. In the federal government, I didn’t have the luxury to go to India in advance. It didn’t occur to me to ask for that. Even if I asked today, the answer would be no. That underscores the need for U.S.-based planners to have a solid partner in the destination they are doing business, be it a tourism board or DMC—someone to make sure you have the right plan in place.
Is there one aspect of risk management you think is particularly overlooked?
One of biggest questions we ask all vendors for—this is something I would not have thought of until working at RIMS—is a copy of their business continuity plan. If they don’t have one, we don’t want to work with them. We want to know they’ve put every thought and consideration into how they are going to keep their business operating in event of catastrophe. For example, let’s say we are doing business with a vendor in Suwanee, Georgia. God knows it never snows in Georgia, but what if Georgia experienced a once-in-a-lifetime blizzard, and everything shut down for two weeks and people couldn’t get to work? How is our vendor there going to continue to operate so it doesn’t cause a disruption to us? At the end of the day, [attendees] are going to come back to me if no one is returning calls or a website is down and say, “What’s going on?” I don’t think a lot of event professionals consider those ripple effects.