With so many storms, floods and other natural disasters making the headlines recently, it's little wonder that the need for contingency planning for meetings is greater than ever. Meeting planners who have felt the impact of natural disasters on their events say having a contingency plan is no longer optional—it's a must.

For association meeting planners, often charged with large annual events that are major revenue producers for their organizations, the need to react quickly and put a plan B into place may be even greater than it is for their corporate counterparts.

Close Encounters
Among planners with recent crisis management experience is Sylvia Ratchford, executive director of the Hinman Dental Society of Atlanta. Her organization was into the second day of its annual meeting, which drew 20,000 attendees, on March 25 when a tornado struck the vicinity of Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC), Centennial Olympic Park and the Omni Hotel at CNN Center.

Also in progress that night was a consumer show at the GWCC and a basketball tournament at the Georgia Dome. There were also three off-site private events going on with people in transit to those sites. "In all, there were probably about 50,000 people in the meetings corridor when the storm hit," Ratchford recalls. "We had no warning whatsoever.

"We had to determine whether we could go on with the meeting, and this required a lot of coordination with the hotel and the GWCC," she continues. "People were up all night, getting out messages via all channels that it was not safe to continue. We ended up refunding attendees a third of their registration and money for every third-day event. The refunds came mostly from our event cancellation insurance." Another crisis situation occurred in May last year when flooding in Nashville shut down the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center for several months. The flood left the staff of the Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA) scrambling for another site to hold its annual meeting of about 5,000 people only six weeks prior to the meeting's opening date.

"I have been doing meeting planning for over 20 years, and I never thought I would face this kind of challenge—moving a meeting in just six weeks," says Angela Orlando, director of conference and travel for the association.

When no facility alternatives could be found in Nashville for the HFMA event, Orlando began looking at other cities that could accommodate the group on the same dates. She contacted people at the top of her primary meetings sites list, those at CVBs and hotels with whom she already had working relationships.

In the end, the meeting was moved to Las Vegas, where incentives were negotiated with the Sands Expo Center and Venetian and Palazzo resorts to encourage attendees to follow the meeting's venue change. A room rate $40 lower than the original Gaylord rate was offered to attendees, plus a $100 gift card from HFMA to offset the airline flight change charges they would likely encounter.

Within 48 hours of the flood's impact, registration was open for Las Vegas. Only a small percentage of attendees did not opt for the change, Orlando says.

It Can Happen to You
What's the probability that a natural disaster will impact your meeting? Planners who have come through a crisis with their meetings and organizations intact have a message for their peers: It can happen to you. Whether or not a meeting coincides with blizzards, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes or other natural disasters that seem to be impacting destinations as never before, wise planning includes contingency components. It's especially essential for associations, planner storm veterans say, because it could mean the difference in organizational solvency and survival.

Meetings industry consultant, trainer and speaker Tyra W. Hilliard says she has a new awareness about meetings crisis preparedness after she experienced last April's tornado that struck Tuscaloosa and its University of Alabama campus, where she is an associate professor in the restaurant, hotel and meeting management program.

"I have been speaking on this topic for a long time, but it does feel different now that I have actually been through one of these storms," Hilliard says. "I personally was in our safe place with my family at home and had no damage. But the university had some significant housing damage."

Associations are especially vulnerable to natural disasters, she adds.

"Corporations know who is attending their meetings, and if they are employees, they have more control in managing risk well because they know their people," she says. "Associations may not know who their attendees are. This lack of control that associations have puts them at higher risk and disadvantage. For instance, trade shows are often big revenue generators, and if an association doesn't buy cancellation insurance, they can be at a huge risk."

Crafting a Plan
So how do you plan for natural disasters and other situations that can derail a meeting? While it may be impossible to avoid a crisis, those who have dealt with them say the impact can be mitigated with careful preparation.

"I cannot stress enough how important it is for associations to have event cancellation insurance in place," Ratchford advises. "Our policy cost us about 2 percent of what was paid out in registration and event cancellation fees to attendees."

Meeting planner Nancy Norman, president of The Norman Group in Hopkinton, Mass., agrees.

Insurance, especially if a client is going into a region prone to major storms, is just one item on a long list in her firm's crisis management plan. Although Norman urges her clients to have their own meetings risk management plans, she feels the responsibility to carry one as well.

"We have a small team dealing with risk management, and one of their jobs is getting in touch with local EMT [emergency medical technician] people as well as the CVB, the hospital and so on," she says. "Especially for a large meeting, start with a letter that you are in town. One of our team is even a 'weather monitor' in charge of weather tracking and delivers reports about weather and possible disasters that might impact the area—short and long term."

HFMA's Orlando emphasizes good communications planning.

"After what happened in Nashville, we have more interdepartmental communication than ever," she says. "Before that, I and maybe 10 others in the organization were into the risk planning. Now, department heads are talking among themselves as well. We put a crisis plan in place, and communications and regular updates are among the important pieces."

Facilities should have their crisis planning responsibilities as well. Kemp Gallineau, senior vice president and chief sales officer for Gaylord Hotels, says lessons learned from floods, hurricanes and snow storms that have hit nearly all Gaylord properties have heightened the company's contingency planning.

"Planners need to know that it's okay to ask their properties if they have contingency plans," he says. "I would say to planners, ask about the shared responsibility. Anyone who owns a big building these days has been forced to be more diligent in their planning in the last decade. The world has changed and it's up to everyone to demonstrate their responsibility."