When it Hits the Fan: How to Manage Events in a Crisis

By Natalie Marino, CMP, DES

Emergencies happen – that’s just life. In the events industry, there are many tiny details involved in planning an event, so it’s no surprise that things go amiss from time to time.

An event crisis can take many forms; a venue closes its doors due to a strike, a keynote speaker is a no-show, someone getting food poisoning, or a worldwide pandemic striking …

I have been through a couple of these situations, but for this article, I’ll focus on the striking venue, a circumstance our Association faced two years ago, 34 days before the start of our national conference and tradeshow!

My first reaction when I saw the announcement online was confusion. Before I had a chance to fully process the information, my brain went into overdrive. My advice to you is to stay calm and take deep breaths. Once you’re logically able to grasp the situation, start rethinking the plan.

While the situation was demanding at the time, the lessons learned were beneficial, especially as we begin working through COVID-19 planning.

Determine Your Options:

Begin by asking yourself two questions about your event:

  1. What is the purpose/goal of the event?

For our annual conference, it’s to share best practices and trends to further the medical laboratory profession.

  1. Can you accomplish this based on current circumstances?

If yes, there are a few more things to consider: Would dates or location need to change? Could you continue with an alternate delivery method (ie. virtually)? Is there a critical mass needed? What is your drop-dead date for making these decisions?

For us, this led to outlining four options: cancel, postpone (hoping things resolve quickly), relocate, or change dates and location (which is basically a new event). We created a pros and cons list for each option and looked at each with a risk management lens. In the end, we decided to keep the dates and change the venue.

Risk Management:

When disaster does strike, make sure you check key clauses in your contracts like force majeure and method of notice requirements to see if you’re eligible for no-penalty cancellation or reimbursements.  Unfortunately, none of these applied to our strike situation.

From a risk management standpoint, there are three main things to consider:

  1. What is the impact to the individuals?

This could be a loss of money or time, effect on workplace or home life. We determined that people would lose money, even if it was just travel-related change fees, which would have a negative impact on individual finances (especially given most delegates pay their own way).

  1. What is the impact to the brand?

A poorly managed crisis can wipe out decades of hard work in a matter of hours. We chose to cover travel change fees so participants could still attend, and provided full refunds for those who decided not to. This seemed to be a reasonable compromise that showed we were sympathetic to their position and save our reputation.

  1. What is the financial impact?

Now this was an intensive process! We researched change fees from each travel provider, created spreadsheets of “worst-case scenario” dollar figures (which were terrifying!), conducted meetings with our CEO and CFO to ensure they were comfortable with the decision before actually announcing it. This process took time, patience and a lot of creative thinking!


Once you have determined which option you are proceeding with and reviewed the risks, you are ready to start communicating.

  • Communicate Early and Honestly

Address the crisis immediately and keep people informed, silence only fuels rumours. As soon as we had something to say, we communicated to all stakeholders. We explained the challenge honestly and outlined next steps specifically for each stakeholder group; what we would do and what it meant for them.

  • Use Various Channels

Not all of your members are on the same platforms. We started by sending direct emails to those affected (speakers, volunteers, exhibitors, delegates), then followed up with a personalized phone call to answer any questions. Once we announced it to our membership in our email newsletter, on our website and through our social media channels, the public announcement was made.

  • Be Clear and Consistent

Keep messaging tight, on-point and factual. Ensure your staff, especially those answering calls, use the same language.

  • Have Empathy

You’re dealing with people in a stressful situation, with individual concerns and reactions. Approach your communication from a human standpoint, not a corporate one. The way you handle a frustrating situation will not only help limit backlash but also form the foundation for successful future relationships.

  • Do the Right Thing and Own It

A well-managed crisis proves your Association has the processes (and people) in place to address the unexpected and show what you’re made of. Remember, no one outside your Association knows the circumstances or the options you had to choose from. Once you have made decisions and created a plan, own it and maintain a united front.

Working within Tight Deadlines:

The nature of a crisis is unexpected and must be dealt with immediately. This means there are tight deadlines to work within regardless of which option you choose. For us, changing the venue and keeping the dates left us only 34 days, instead of a year, to re-plan our national conference. So what can help you get there (with time to spare)?

  • Be Flexible

Things won’t be the way you initially envisioned; the new venue can’t mirror the old. Avoid disappointment by having candid discussions and be open to innovative solutions. Your new vendor partners are familiar with their spaces and have seen what works and what doesn’t.

  • Set Clear Expectations

Determine what’s reasonable. Whether it’s turnaround times (I can have the menus to you today), service expectations (we expect staff at the buffet to answer dietary questions), or anything in between, be clear about what you want. This avoids confusion and potential delays, especially at a time when you can’t afford them.

  • Rely on Your Partners

We work with a third-party company to source venues, so we were able to rely on their expertise and knowledge of various properties to help source alternatives that would fit our program. If you’re doing this on your own, reach out to colleagues or industry partners. In our situation, the new venue responded quickly to the RFP, the in-house AV team made great suggestions and the culinary team created menus to work with the layout of our tradeshow.

  • Rely on Your Team

To make this change as seamless as possible, I relied heavily on our team in the office. From sending emails and making phone calls, to posting updates on social media. You name it and I had support for it. Don’t isolate yourself or think you have to do it all. N no matter what you are going through; you are not in it alone!

Overall, a crisis can be a scary situation, but with it comes a chance to become a better professional and improve your Association’s brand reputation. When I tell people this story and explain that I was excited by the opportunity, they think I’m foolish.

Even now, as we are investigating the shift to a virtual event for a previously in-person only event, we were better prepared and responded quickly because we could apply what we learned from last time.

I truly believe that successful people in life are the ones who learn from the unconventional and continue innovating and improving their skills through times of uncertainty.

Natalie has been in the hospitality industry for nearly 15 years and in the association world for the past eight of those years in Marketing and Events at the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science. She recently earned her Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) and her Digital Events Strategist (DES) designations.