Lawyerly Advice
When it comes to mitigating damages before, during and after a major disaster, caused by nature or a manmade event such as terrorism, having your legal affairs in order is critical.

“My biggest piece of advice to planners is to review and edit their force majeure clauses,” said Tyra Hilliard, a speaker, professor, writer and attorney representing the meeting planning side of the industry for her law firm, Hilliard Associates.

“One of the big things is people need to put language in their force majeure clauses so they can terminate without liability before something happens,” she stressed.

Hilliard will be presenting a very timely education session at IMEX America in Las Vegas Oct. 9 titled Addressing “Uh-oh” Situations in Your Contracts, covering a variety of contract issues that can torpedo a meeting.

Hilliard mentioned one client who was supposed to move into a Florida facility for a tradeshow Sept. 8, and through updates on Sept. 7 found out Hurricane Irma was supposed to hit Sept. 10. Luckily for the client, the contract had a very amenable force majeure clause, so the hotel worked with the planner to waive attrition fees if they went ahead with the meeting.

“It’s better for the hotels to have some business rather than none,” she surmised.

The real gray area with events such as hurricanes is the delay between when weather forecasts tracking a major storm are issued and the time when airports actually close or a state of emergency is officially declared. While everyone knew a potentially catastrophic hurricane was on its way, many planners interviewed for this story noted they got varying degrees of initial pushback from venues that were reluctant to budge before any of the above qualifying events were in place.

Event cancellation insurance is the other essential piece of the puzzle.

“Event cancellation insurance should be on the back of everyone’s mind,” she said. “The first thing to do is to call your insurance carrier to make sure their event cancellation insurance will cover that.”

Another gray area revolves around the term “impracticable,” as in circumstances that would make it excessively difficult to hold the meeting. Examples could include a large number of delegates being unable to attend because of, say, a natural disaster or other emergency resulting in having their flights canceled, or if the venue was not of sufficient readiness to adequately facilitate a meeting.

“That’s where that word becomes important,” Hilliard said. “Some years ago there was a Williamsburg [Va.] hotel that flooded, then reopened, and they found black mold in the walls, and the restaurant was closed. Does that negate your meeting? If it’s an incentive, probably. The law is one big gray area—that’s why they pay the lawyers the big bucks to argue about it, I guess!”

Hilliard recommends doing another site inspection to see if a property is ready for a meeting, and even to consider bringing along an expert who can provide professional information about the status of the facility, especially when it comes to attendee safety concerns. Perhaps even hiring an OSHA expert could be a possibility.