Some unexpected crisis can upset even the most finely-tuned event. Peter Smith explains how potential problems can be minimised by sound contingency planning. Peter Smith runs his own conference and event management service. He was event manag

The potential for disaster during an organised event always exists. The problems that occur are wide-ranging and sometimes have considerable knock-on effects. Many of these situations are not really serious but result from everyday occurrences, such as industrial action, travel delays, acts of God or pure bad luck.

It is not always the same things that go wrong and it is therefore not practical or possible to have a contingency plan for every emergency. But at the same time, contingency plans should not be separate elements which are brought into action as soon as trouble arises. Obviously the type, size and location of the event will be a governing factor, but some simple precautions can be made.

Practical steps implemented on site can also help to get remedial action underway as soon as possible, both to resolve the problem and to reassure the people caught up in the emergency that every effort is being made to minimise the difficulties. If problems are managed quickly and effectively, then the overall impact on the event need not be too disastrous.

There are some fundamental elements in the organisation of any event that will help ensure that risks are minimised and that emergencies are managed effectively.

Have an up-to-date event plan that covers, in detail, all aspects and the timing of each element of the event, giving due consideration to the possibilities of problems and emergencies arising. This should be kept up-to-date as the event progresses, and all parties associated with managing the event should have a current copy. The plan should also contain the names, addresses and phone numbers of health and emergency services at the destination, which have agreed to provide cover for the event.

Have a current database containing all the information relative to each participant; travel arrangements, accommodation, any special dietary or health information and the like. It is useful to supplement this with a file containing details of next of kin information, which can be used, if necessary, to pass on information regarding delays and emergencies.

Have experienced and well-trained organising staff and sub- contract agencies which understand their responsibilities, and are familiar with the event plan. They must be available to respond to emergencies if and when they occur. There are times during most events when several activities occur simultaneously and staff must be able to take responsibility and be empowered to make decisions if the principal organiser is temporarily unavailable.

Ensure that there is good liaison between all the parties involved in managing the event and hold a daily meeting to discuss the forthcoming day’s programme.

My own experiences include a fire aboard a charter aircraft; an emergency aircraft landing caused by adverse weather conditions; unhelpful behaviour by national and local government; outbreaks of armed conflicts; acts of malice by local agencies; the sudden death of a member of the organising staff; and inappropriate behaviour from guest speakers and performing artists.

No practical contingency plan could have covered these problems in their entirety, and effective contingency planning should consider the main problem that is common to most emergencies: communication – or the lack of it.

Contingency planning must be based on communication between the organisers, suppliers and the event participants to ensure that the correct action is taken and that everybody is kept informed as to what is going on. A few simple steps can be taken in the early planning stages to help minimise the effects of travel delays and other potential crises.

Pre-event research

Check with local agencies, embassies and so on, whether there are particular dangers or risks related to crime or other issues that might result in problems. Trade associations and event industry publications are good sources of information.

Pre-event visits

Unless current personal knowledge of the intended location is available, at least one inspection visit must be made before the event is confirmed. Old information is unsafe and all the facilities to be used should be checked out in detail before plans are formulated. The availability of health and emergency services should also be identified.


Appoint a fully licensed and experienced specialist agency for all air and group travel arrangements.

Pre-event communication

Advise passengers what delays could occur and tell them of contact points at the airport or other locations where they can get help or advice. For groups travelling unaccompanied by agency staff, appoint a party co-ordinator from within the group whose identity should be made known to the rest of the party and, if necessary, to the airline or other travel staff. The co-ordinator should be briefed before the event about their responsibilities and provided with a list (extracted from the database) of all the passengers in the group who are on the flight. The co-ordinator should maintain contact with the organisers or travel agency staff at the departure point until departure is confirmed.

Destination travel agency

Appoint an experienced agency with good local knowledge of the destination, which has strong links with hotels and restaurants and other facilities in the area. Early discussions should cover the possibilities of providing emergency accommodation and meals if serious delays occur and alternative arrangements are required.

The agency should also have good contacts with local government officials in case of problems with municipality-owned or managed services. Good relations with customs and immigration officials can mean rapid clearance through arrival and departure formalities and similar relationships with the police and health services can help in the case of accidents, injuries and crime related problems.

Company standards

Guest speakers and performing artists should be briefed before the event on any company policy regarding acceptable standards of behaviour and guidelines that are to be observed.

Health insurance

For the period of the event, arrange supplementary travel insurance cover for all members of the group and advise them, in the pre-event literature, of what cover is included and if they need to take out any supplementary or additional personal cover.

Contracts and payment scheduled

If possible, negotiate cancellation clauses that allow for deposit payments to be carried forward or transferred to a future or alternative event.

Some practical steps that can be implemented on site for the duration of the event include:

Travel desks – Locate travel desks dedicated to your group at both departure and arrival points, staffed to provide reliable information and support.

Information desks – Locate an information or hospitality desk in a prominent position at the venue which can be opened at pre-determined times and staffed to provide back-up information regarding changes and alterations to the programme.

Apart from pre-event research and taking sensible precautions like avoiding areas of high risk, little can be done to protect against malicious acts or outbreaks of armed conflict. When these sorts of problems do occur, it is now that the benefits of having an experienced organising team and travel agencies with good local contacts really pays off.

Finally, learn from experience. Attendees should be asked to complete an event evaluation. Hold a post-event meeting with all the staff and agencies contributing to review the evaluation results to prepare a report summarising the particular strengths and weaknesses of the event.


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