On Friday, as Hurricane Matthew was barreling into the South East coast, one of my clients mentioned they would be exhibiting at a conference in Florida in a little over a week and wanted to drum up some media interviews and foot traffic for their booth. Of course the first question I wanted to answer was whether the show was still on given the hurricane’s path and predicted devastation. Since the hurricane was still ongoing, it was as yet an unanswered question. But it got me thinking further about event and communications planning for disaster situations.
In my previous life, I worked for a nonprofit that ran an annual educational conference and tradeshow. As the PR and communications point person, I did a lot of communications planning for “disaster” situations. A disaster situation could be anything from a natural occurrence that threatens life and limb, to a civil uprising in the host city that could threaten the safety of your attendees, to a government shutdown and budget cutbacks severely restricting your registration. But for our purposes here, it’s essentially a worst-case scenario that causes you to have to cancel the show before it starts and will be a “disaster” for your annual budget.
In these types of situations, planning and communication is key to future success. You should start a full communication plan that includes disaster/cancellation planning at the same time you begin planning your event. The ultimate goal is to ensure that registrants or prospective registrants are safe and will attend the rescheduled event or the next annual conference.
Below are a few things to keep in mind as you create a disaster plan. This is not a list of the things you will need to logistically consider when canceling an event, just some best practices for communicating to your intended audience to be sure they come back in the future.
YOUR BEST DEFENSE IS A GOOD OFFENSE.
Develop the plan as if you need it tomorrow and hope you never have to use it.
PLAN OUT WORDING FOR MULTIPLE SCENARIOS
You want to plan what you will say to prospective registrants, people who have already registered, your vendors, exhibitors and more.
ASSUME YOU WILL HAVE QUESTIONS FROM MANY PEOPLE, INCLUDING MEDIA
Not only plan out your communications to people who have registered, but develop answers to possible questions and talking points for different scenarios. Plan for this type of communications scenario just as you would for a regular crisis scenario.
YOUR ATTENDEES ARE ALWAYS THE PRIORITY, ESPECIALLY IN COMMUNICATIONS
Be honest with them as to why you are canceling, whether it’s for their safety or because you can’t guarantee them a good conference with such low registration.
GIVE THEM ALL THE INFORMATION THEY NEED AS SOON AS POSSIBLE
Tell them up front how/if their registration fees will be refunded or if they will automatically become a registrant for the new event. Give them the contact information for any hotels, airlines, ground transport or other travel arrangements they may have booked with you and whether you are working with those vendors to ensure cancellation fees are waived and refunds are available.
COMMUNICATE TO THEM IN EVERY WAY POSSIBLE
Make sure you meet them where they are. Email them, call them, post a message on the event site and your company webpage, post several messages on social media and highlight them so they stay “pinned” to the top of your page when possible. Ensuring everyone knows of the cancellation is your responsibility and the worst thing that can happen is you cancel the event and people still show up because they didn’t know about it.
TELL THEM YOUR PLANS FOR THE NEXT EVENT RIGHT AWAY
Tell them your plans for the next event and, if applicable, how you plan to make it better, safer and drive more registration. Whether you are rescheduling your current event or just canceling until the next annual meeting, you want people to be able to start planning for the new event right away. And you want them to want to come back.
Remember, if you have to implement your plan and cancel an event, you are not the first or last group to plan an event and have to cancel. Your registrants were looking forward to the event, but providing them with well worded communications explaining the cancellation, any actions they need to take and your plans for the future will ensure they continue to trust you and look to you for future events.