Recipe for disaster

The need for event organisers to be prepared for any disaster that may be awaiting them is becoming increasingly important, says Ian Whiteling

Newsflash: At least 25 people were injured, one seriously, as high winds ripped through the Hampton Court Flower Show today, hurling stands and uprooting the shrubs and trees planted for the event.

This may not have happened, yet, but what are the chances of a tornado hitting one of the UK’s leading horticultural shows? Fairly remote? According to Tim Filmer of Select Services, our climate exhibits the right characteristics to create such adverse weather conditions. His company specialises in offering technological and logistical assistance to event organisers, and risk assessment has become a major element of its operations.

Flower power

Part of this service involves stimulating the minds of event organisers into considering scenarios that may otherwise not be taken into account, as it did for the Hampton Court Flower Show. Filmer says more organisers should carry out this kind of “table-top” thinking as part of the preparations for events, adding that although severe weather conditions have yet to hit the Hampton Court Flower Show, if a tornado did strike this year, the organisers would be ready for it.

So why are extreme scenarios such as this being played out, and what reasons lie behind the increasing demand for Select Services’ risk assessment skills?

You will respect our authorities

“Major venues and local authorities are taking a stronger line with respect to organisers monitoring what is going on in their show,” Filmer explains. “This has arisen from the fact that they have been bombarded in recent years with claims from third parties regarding accidents that have occurred during certain events. We now live in a claim culture and people expect to be taken care of, and not to be put at risk. Venues and local authorities are now starting to pass the responsibility on to organisers.

“This has moved risk assessment to the forefront of people’s minds. A clear sign of this is that in the past five years, the health and safety element of our business has increased by about 30 per cent.”

The need for organisers to “be prepared” is certainly one of the hot topics in the conference and exhibition industry. Tony Rogers, executive director of the Associationof British Professional Conference Organisers (ABPCO), agrees. “It is an extremely important subject,” he says. “It is now a legal requirement for organisers to prepare a written risk assessment document for their events. If things go wrong and disaster strikes, failure to produce these details to agencies such as the Health and Safety Executive could lead to legal proceedings and prosecution.”

As easy as ABPCO

During the past two years, ABPCO has run a number of commercial seminars, with titles including Crisis Management; Health, Safety and Security for Conference Organisers; and Health, Safety and Risk Assessment Training for Conference Organisers.

“Each of the seminars has been well attended,” says Rogers, “and it’s worth noting that audiences have included not only organisers, but also venue staff. In other words, the subject is relevant to both sides of the industry.”

The Incentive Travel and Meetings Association (ITMA) also runs periodic risk and crisis management seminars for its members. Executive director Charles Robinson says: “The standard risk management rules apply to event planning. These are: eliminate high risk; reduce unnecessary risk wherever possible; accept risk where necessary – but prepare for it; and finally pass on the risk via insurance.

Expose yourself

“For event organisers, this means very careful assessment of risk exposure when selecting venues, destinations, suppliers and any leisure or sporting activities that might be included within the programme.

“It means inspecting venues to ensure that fire regulations are being adhered to, and checking contracts to ascertain the organiser’s responsibilities and liabilities. Organisers should also seek indemnity from suppliers for any failure on their part to deliver services to the necessary quality and safety standards.

“Organisers have to accept the element of risk that goes into any event and must prepare themselves for the unexpected. One such step is the creation of an emergency procedures manual, containing essential information in the event of a crisis. Contingency plans should be made in advance and staff should be trained in handling a range of operational crisis scenarios.”

If companies feel that they lack the expertise to handle this, the whole process can be outsourced to specialists such as Select Services. However, this kind of expert help doesn’t come cheap and many organisers can’t afford it. So it’s essential for these companies to improve their skills in the field of risk assessment before disaster strikes.

Are your staff a liability?

When it comes to recouping losses due to unexpected events, event organisers, not surprisingly, rely on insurance. “When companies are taking their own staff to conferences, their employer’s liability insurance provides a degree of cover,” explains Robinson. “However, if they are taking guests who are not employees, such as dealer representatives or clients, then it is important to urge these guests to take out their own travel insurance, or assume overall responsibility for this. Event insurance covers the costs of taking remedial action and minimising or avoiding disruption and there are several companies that specialise in this field.”

Reading between the lines

Small print is never fun to read, but it is worth finding out which areas are not covered under insurance terms, such as adverse weather conditions and terrorist activity, and then weighing up the risks before choosing certain locations.

Organisers of trade and consumer exhibitions may not have the headaches of organising delegate travel arrangements, but they do have other risk elements to consider. Take exhibitors, for instance. Filmer believes that those who book space only and make their own stand arrangements represent “the Achilles’ heel” of an event.

“They are a high-risk element as they control how their stand is built and what takes place on it during the event,” he says. To reduce this risk, Filmer recommends organisers do what his company does for its clients: carry out a detailed stand audit. This identifies those exhibitors whose stands need special handling. This could include those inviting celebrities, who may need some element of crowd control or additional space, and those that are using equipment, displays or stand materials that could present a danger to visitors.

Teaching old dogs new tricks

“For many exhibitors, particularly those which exhibit occasionally, this is a big learning curve and we help to groom them in meeting the necessary risk requirements,” explains Filmer. “But even experienced campaigners can present problems as, although they may have a good knowledge of health and safety issues, much of this is not relevant as it tends to be office-based.”

An event’s registration process is another area that can have serious consequences if it goes wrong. Traditionally, event organisers have to download the database of exhibitor, visitor or delegate details onto a laptop to then take it to the event. This has always been risky – would the laptop get damaged in transit or could the file be corrupted?

This has also led to problems when travelling overseas because of the long journey times, which can mean that any last-minute changes to the data have to be phoned through and manually added to the database.

Technological solutions

Today’s Web-based registration software helps by providing a central database that is accessible from any computer with an internet connection. “There is only one set of live data so amendments, additions or downloads can be made at any time, by anyone with authorisation and from any computer,” explains Mark Green, marketing director of ECR, an event software specialist. “Most venues have a computer that organisers can use should a laptop get damaged, or failing that, the listings could simply be printed out at a local internet café.”

What’s more, should an organiser find out at short notice that a venue has been double booked or a speaker is ill, Web-based registration software offers a rapid and effective means to e-mail delegates about any changes of plan.

It’s one thing taking steps to avoid things going wrong and making the necessary contingency plans, but if disaster does strike, what can you do to save face and minimise the fall out? The answer lies in having a good emergency organisational structure in place that can deal with problems efficiently and project a calm, controlled image.

Skybridge has dealt effectively with several crises, from last-minute changes to travel plans for Clerical Medical’s distributor conference in South Africa due to political instability in neighbouring Zimbabwe to a venue burning down two weeks before the start of an event.

Expect the unexpected

The company’s product development director Sam Howes says: “We prepare a detailed risk assessment programme for each event we organise. A key element of this is the procedure to follow if the unthinkable happens. This involves the immediate formation of a project team, the identification of a team leader to oversee the recovery operation, someone to manage suppliers, someone to accompany clients and someone to inform the participants.

“Effective communications with clients, suppliers and delegates is essential to allay fears and build confidence by keeping each party up to date on what contingency plans are being made.”

With everyone working together, led by the organiser, there is every chance that in many circumstances events can weather the storm and still go ahead.

Knowledge Bank

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