Like most associations, the annual meeting is the centerpiece of our always busy year. Site searches, contract negotiation, months of event planning, member questions and reservations, hotel and destination deposits, and, equally important, significant staff emotional involvement and anticipation are all integral to a successful meeting.
When all of this collides with Mother Nature’s terrifying force, a clear decisive mind, sense of urgency, and quality insurance become “must haves.” I have found only a few colleagues in the months since our event was cancelled in September who have experienced what myself and my staff faced. Possibly, details of how we approached it could be of help to you, should you ever be put in this unimaginable situation.
As Hurricane Irma moved toward Florida in the week leading up to the September 11 landfall, our brows furrowed a bit and the “what ifs” began to appear. Although concerned, we believed it unlikely that our meeting beginning on September 14 would be severely impacted. “That just doesn’t happen very often,” we told each other.
It did. The following a synopsis of what happened next.
Wednesday, September 6: Although the storm was still far off Florida’s coast, and tracking away from our Clearwater Beach location, the hotel staff conferenced with us. Essentially, they were warning that any power outages or damage that resulted from a “possible” near hit would compromise their ability to service our group the
Therefore, they invoked the force majeure clause in our contract and allowed us to cancel with no penalty if we chose. And, I emphasize, they left it to our discretion to cancel at that point. The ball was in our court. I requested their contract release be sent via email. [Lesson 1: Always protect both you and the supplier by requesting everything in writing.]
Thursday, September 7: We carefully followed the track of the storm, and we believed it would stay on the east side of the state. However, by late afternoon, this unpredictable storm began to track westward, and we cringed. However, we stayed in close contact with our president and executive committee. [Lesson 2: It is critical that you communicate with your leadership. The more they know, the better informed will be their decisions.]
By late evening the track was moving west toward our location in Clearwater Beach. I received a call from my president who felt that continuing to defer a decision could result in members starting to travel into possible peril. She instructed me to start the cancellation procedures.
Friday, September 8: We wanted to expedite notification to our members, but we also wanted to ensure that insurance procedures were prudently followed. Contacting our event insurance company, Showstoppers Association Event Cancellation Insurance, put me in quick contact with our insurance adjuster. He questioned me about the meeting, location and threat, quickly concurring that we were in the window to cancel. Cancelling without insurance coordination can jeopardize your policy. He then asked for a copy of the email I would be sending to membership and guided me on the correct wording. [Lesson 3: Your insurance carrier is your best adviser during this time. Follow their instructions.]
Most associations will consult with their attorney once cancellation is imminent. I certainly feel this is prudent advice. Once our message was approved by the insurance adjustors and our Board President, membership was notified, as well as the hotel and other suppliers, and the meeting was officially cancelled.
We then had to determine whether the meeting would be rescheduled. Many organizations do re-schedule, but speaker, hotel, and attendee schedules made it difficult for us to accomplish that. After consultation with my executive committee, we agreed to cancel and not reschedule.
Thankfully, our insurance experience was outstanding. The adjustor assigned to our case clearly knew he was talking to an insurance neophyte, and showed patience and empathy. He walked me thru the process and assured me we would be reimbursed for all prepaid expenses that were not reimbursable from vendors. The adjustor asked for the following information to process our claim:
- Cancellation announcement
- Event Budget (revenues and expenses)
- Final actual revenues and expenses
- List of revenues you need to refund by name and category (members/exhibitors/sponsors)
- Details of actual final expenses incurred
[Lesson 4: Have staff keep accurate records throughout event planning.] With this information, the insurance company was able to fairly complete my claim. From cancellation to money in the bank was under two months.
Emotional impact on staff and the financial challenges to the association of a major cancellation must be carefully managed. While the insurance issues are being worked, staff must refocus on the next big event while answering the normal questions from membership. Disappointment hangover is a reality, but it can and must be minimized. Our staff did an outstanding job. We promised all those that registered full refunds or the opportunity to have their money kept as a credit toward a future meeting. To date, most have opted for the latter.
While an annual meeting cancellation is a traumatic experience, both emotionally and financially, it can be navigated with success.
Author Tom Chapman, CAE, is the executive director for the American Orthodontic Society and a past TSAE board chairman. If you have any questions about event cancellation or insurance, you may contact him at me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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