The Planner’s Playbook to Crisis Management

By Matt Swenson, November 9, 2015

On the late April night when Baltimore, simmering for days over the death of African-American Freddie Gray, boiled over, Gregg B. Balko, FASAE, CAE, watched from across the country and worried. The CEO of the Los Angeles-based Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering had planned years ago to bring the organization’s second-largest annual event to Charm City a few weeks later.

When a citywide curfew was imposed, Major League Baseball took the rare step of canceling two games before resuming play at an empty Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Baltimore Ravens also canceled an NFL draft party.

Balko wondered whether SAMPE’s event would be next. The concern was magnified by the fact that he didn’t purchase cancellation insurance. “We were toast” if he had to call off the conference, he recalls.

In more than 30 years of planning events, Balko had never faced threats of civil unrest or a situation remotely on the scale of Baltimore’s most trying moments in decades. It was something he simply didn’t have to worry about before. “There is no manual for something like this,” he says.

[Related Post: 10 Ways Planners Can Limit Their Risk]

That refrain is one Donna Karl Sakelakos, CMP, vice president of operations at Tradeshow Logic, has heard all too often in her distinguished career on both the planning and CVB sides. It’s also an argument Sakelakos—who, as vice president of client relations for the New Orleans CVB, wrote the city’s emergency plan months before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005—doesn’t buy.

“Why do football teams practice? Why do they have a playbook?” she asks rhetorically. “When the game is going on, they assess the situation and choose which play to put in. Why would you not do the same thing when talking about emergency planning?”

That type of thinking makes Sakelakos an exception, she says, and it’s a fact she is not happy about. She longs for more voices calling for risk management awareness, but that reality is at least a few years away.

“In today’s world, it’s really frustrating to me that meeting planners are not taking emergency planning more seriously,” she says, warning against a growing complacency across the events industry.

Life After 9/11

By “today’s world,” Sakelakos means the new reality that began for her when the Twin Towers fell on Sept 11. She canceled 11 meetings in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York City and two more a year later during the SARS scare. The normally laid-back Sakelakos learned the hard way she needed a plan just in case a catastrophe—be it a natural disaster, terrorism, civil unrest, etc.—affected a destination in which she was planning a meeting.

“In today’s world, it’s really frustrating to me that meeting planners are not taking emergency planning more seriously.”

In a series of interviews with planners and city officials, a pattern emerges where risk management is commonly put on the back burner until a crisis forces a change in perspective.

“Unfortunately, you don’t realize something can go wrong until it does,” says Stuart Ruff, CMP, director of meetings and events at Risk and Insurance Management Society.

Ruff’s wake-up call came when he was a third-party planner organizing a medical science meeting for federal government workers in 2008 in Mumbai, India. A series of attacks, now attributed to Pakistani militants, erupted in the country’s financial capital. From the hotel staff to attendees, widespread panic threatened to override the event.

Ruff, whose father flew planes for a living, went on autopilot. His focus turned from samosas and speeches to disseminating accurate information and facilitating travel plans for attendees who’d rather be anywhere but Mumbai, which meant presenting a calm front to see the project through. It was a challenging—but pivotal—moment for Ruff.

“Prior to that, my idea of a crisis was an attendee getting sick or a speaker [not showing] up,” he says. “This was something that required leadership and responsibility. I started to transition the way I [thought] about things, from crisis management to risk management.”

Photo by Nathanael Filbert

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