I’ve planned meetings for nearly twenty years. In a previous job, I rescheduled a meeting because of an approaching hurricane. The meeting wasn’t in the hurricane belt, but the storm would have disrupted enough flights to limit attendance. The following year, I helped another group move a meeting that was scheduled to take place just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina decimated the Big Easy.
As it happens, the third time wasn’t the charm. Hundreds of people were scheduled to converge on Orlando for an industry event beginning September 11, 2017: Hurricane Irma had other plans. Many people had voluntarily devoted considerable hours to make the event a great success. Enthusiasm for this new venue, the content and fun networking opportunities was at an all-time high. The team was very proud of the event it had created, and rightly so. Excitement turned to sadness, and yes – some grief – as it became clear that the event would not take place.
Following are some observations and lessons learned from my experience with a force majeure event:
Establish a small, authoritative and nimble leadership team.
Many people are involved in the planning and execution of an event. Force majeure-related decisions, major and minor, need to be made, and quickly. Small groups operate more efficiently, especially when time is short.
If the safety of your attendees might be in jeopardy, your decision has been made for you.
Communicate early and often.
At the first hint of a possible force majeure cancellation, acknowledge that the situation exists and explain that you’re monitoring it closely. Manage expectations about how, when and where updates regarding the event will be communicated.
Once you’ve announced an update or a decision, remain consistent and on message. You’ll likely be contacted by those whom you know and don’t know, seeking inside information on next steps. Stay on message, and resist any temptation to speculate.
“I don’t have an answer yet” really can be an acceptable answer.
In the days leading up to landfall, Hurricane Irma changed course frequently. Anxiety breeds impatience: do not yield to demands for answers that you’re not yet prepared to deliver. Circumstances like these are often new territory for planners (like me). You can’t always have immediate answers during a fluid situation.
Find some light.
Working through a force majeure event is stressful. One of the first things that I did was change my phone’s ringtone. I selected, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger,” by Kelly Clarkson. Each time my phone rang thereafter – and it rang a lot – I smiled at the friendly reminder that we would get through this.
Good and bad.
This experience, the drama and stress that it caused, has shown me some of the best and frankly less attractive qualities in humanity. Pledges of encouragement and support were sometimes overwhelming; critics from a great distance – geographically and metaphorically – will make their presence known too. Expect both.
My experience, while nerve-wracking, still doesn’t begin to compare with that of the folks whose personal safety and property were in jeopardy or compromised by Hurricane Irma. Those in Hurricane Irma’s path will remain in my thoughts for the foreseeable future.