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Industry Briefs
INDUSTRY VETS REVEAL WHAT TO DO WHEN THINGS GO WRONG AT AN EVENT
DARLENE DONLOE

When things go wrong unexpectedly at a meeting or convention, veterans in the industry will tell you the most important thing to remember is not to panic.

After months of planning, the day has arrived for your event and, as luck would have it, the keynote speaker's plane is delayed, there is a power outage, there's a fire in the kitchen, the Wi-Fi is down, there are transportation mishaps, the audio equipment doesn't work, the caterer's truck broke down, parking is a nightmare, there aren't enough rooms, your event is outside and it's raining like cats and dogs, there's not enough food, and most importantly, the bar is down to its last bottle of wine. And that's all in the first hour!

Countless things can backfire, but the best way to deal with something going off-plan is to stay calm, act fast, follow all emergency regulations, stay in control, investigate, communicate honestly and keep your phone charged.  But, most of all, have a backup plan. Remember, prevention is the key.

When something unforeseen occurs there are two possible scenarios that can play out for an event or meeting planner.

One, they could lose their cool, thereby possibly losing their client and perchance causing a bigger mess than the original issue by making attendees aware that a problem exists. This scenario doesn't bode well for anybody.

Second, the planner could play it cool and not panic - understanding that mistakes happen. Depending on how the situation is handled, attendees will be none the wiser that a problem even exists. And if somehow, they are made aware, they will remain calm because they see the planner is in solution mode.

Crisis averted.

Now your meeting can continue as planned. That's because as an experienced meeting or event planner, you understood the old Murphy's Law adage - "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong," and you planned ahead for that very scenario.

Bravo! You're ahead of the game.

The goal is to be proactive and expect the unexpected, anticipate every possible problem, and have resolutions at the ready.

Karin Aaron and Katrina Ruff are two seasoned industry professionals who know a thing or two about the event planning and damage control game. Both have had their share of things go wrong, but were prepared and lived to plan another day.

Karin Aaron

Aaron, 53, is a 34-year veteran of the hospitality and tourism industry. The Newark, NJ native recently launched KKD Tourism Advisors in November 2020 with Kris Smith and David Jackson.

Aaron, CTA, CSEE, was formerly president and CEO of New Jersey's Greater Newark Convention and Visitors Bureau. She began her career at Continental and United Airlines before spending the next 15 years in hotel management at Hilton Hotels and Resorts, Hyatt Regency, and The Ritz Carlton Hotel brand.  In 2007 she was hired as National Sales Manager for Visit Loudoun (Virginia) before moving on as Director of Sales for Visit Montgomery (Maryland).  Aaron's experience and accomplishments are vast and her knowledge and influence are immeasurable.

Katrina Ruff

Ruff, 54, CMP, CIS is the owner and operator of Forums Meetings & Events, a full service event design and production company. The organization produces events from concept to completion and prides itself with being an "innovative details beast."

A 30-year veteran of corporate event management, Ruff, a MeetingsNet 2015 Changemaker, comes to the table with a wealth of knowledge on any and everything having to do with the meetings/events industry. Until COVID-19 turned the industry upside down in 2020, Forums Meetings & Events produced more than 200 events per year.

Aaron and Ruff both believe every meeting planner should start out understanding that something could, and most likely will, go wrong.  "Yes and double yes," said Aaron, a married mother of three sons. "When it comes to something you can't control, it's almost destined that there is a risk something can go wrong."   Aaron said to remember, the event is the planner's responsibility. Don't allow someone else to take charge.

"Also, pay attention to little details," said Aaron. "For instance, be aware of the height and size of a room for attendees who are claustrophobic. Some people can't have gluten. As the planner, these are things you have to think about it.  Think about how you can still deliver. At the end of the day, the attendees are there for a reason.  Just plan ahead. Know that you're working with unique people."

Aaron said to lean on a conference planning manager or a CVB representative.  "You're holding all the cards in one hand," she said. "It's important to always make sure you have an advocate sitting next to you. You can't do this thing alone."

The CVB can be a huge benefit.

"The CVB is underutilized," said Aaron. "If your hotel has a flood and you need to relocate, you need to have a destination sales rep that you can call. Always have a connection for last-minute changes. They can help with almost anything. They are your best ally."

A good planner knows their program inside and out, according to Aaron.  "In a digital space the last thing you want is to have a hundred thousand dollar conference and the lights go out on you," said Aaron. " You have to have an IT (information technology) professional to get you back online. Always prepare for the unknown. And remember, no matter how much you prepare - something is going to go wrong."

Corporate event management is Ruff's passion.  "My thing has always been 'risk management'," said Ruff, a Denver native. "As planners, we don't take it seriously enough. As a planner, you have to prepare for the worst. A hurricane is coming, there's a fire, you have fireworks and the live horses took off. The area has rattlesnakes. Vomit is sure to happen. Why don't you have Tylenol, a needle and thread, Alka Seltzer, a first aid kit? Maybe even have an ambulance on standby. Cover the basics. You need to have a plan."

Ruff said it's best to "start thinking about the beginning with the end in mind.  For instance, have a bucket of sand in case someone throws up or they fall and there's blood," said Ruff, a married mother of three. "What if someone breaks an ankle? You have to operate in Risk Management 101 mode. Sometimes we don't do enough of it. It's also essential to know someone at a local staffing agency because you may need additional staff."

Ruff said it's also helpful to ask yourself some questions.  If somebody is missing, what do you do? How are you identifying and keeping track of your guests? Do you know everybody's room number, and cell phone numbers? Did you get a printout of the registration?   "Always have a sheet to look up Sarah Jane's cell phone," said Ruff. "You can never be prepared enough.  I try to stay on top of all of that."

As a professional, people look to the planner to be able to handle and solve problems quickly and efficiently.  "The secret is to remain professional, have a solution, and, if your guests learn about what's happening, be honest," said Aaron. "They will respect you for it."

Ruff, who initially studied electrical engineering at Prairie View A&M, said she tackles her business much like she does her personal life - "like anything can happen.  I live my life in a way where I think everything is the worst," said Ruff. "I go there. In my life, I think what's the very worst that could go wrong. I brace myself for that."

Ruff remembers a time she literally had to think on her feet in order to dodge a disaster.  "I had an event in Pascagoula Mississippi," she said. "The company had an oil refinery. Part of the retreat was to visit the refinery. We got to the hotel and everything had frozen over, so no one could go out or come in. We couldn't go to the refinery. I had 200 execs and we were stuck in a hotel. Of course, the hotel hadn't planned for this, which meant we could very well run out of food. So, I rented costumes from down the street and we came up with the idea for attendees to come up with the company's next commercial. Everything was about shrimp. We turned it into a Bubba Gump theme. We brought in local musicians to do the music. It turned out to be a great team-building event."

While it's important to know what to do when a problem occurs, Ruff and Aaron insist it's equally important to know what NOT to do.  "Don't panic and talk too much," said Ruff. "Think more than you talk. Your guests can smell panic on you. Keep it calm. Keep it moving. You have to have a culture event with your staff. It's the culture of not running that mouth."

Aaron said not to blame others.  "Don't lose control either," she said. "Stay buttoned up as much as possible. Especially don't lose control in front of your attendees. Take care of it away from your guests.  There is always room to negotiate and rectify. Don't become indignant. You don't want to get blackballed."

Before you even consider taking on the responsibility of planning a conference, Ruff and Aaron say it's imperative to obtain a written contract - even for a small event.

"I wouldn't plan an event for my mother without a written contract," said Ruff. "Even if money doesn't change hands, you need a contract. It should spell out what I expect you to do and what you expect me to do. It all needs to be spelled out. What if champagne explodes, glasses break, or the orange juice is sour? Who is bringing the champagne? You should be able to answer all those questions."

"Never do business without a written contract," said Aaron. "Everyone has rules and responsibilities. There are clauses in contracts that reference acts of God and other things that can happen. It's important to communicate with your client."

There may come a time when a client is dissatisfied. Aaron and Ruff said it's best to handle a client fairly and equitably so as not to irreparably bring harm to the relationship.

"We are quick to defend," said Ruff. "Listen, listen, and listen. What's really the problem? What's really the issue? Are the lemons sour? You don't like lemons?  Are they supposed to be strawberries? If you want strawberries, we'll have strawberries. I typically don't throw money at the problem."

For Aaron, it all goes back to communication.  "They hired you," she said. "They brought you on and trusted you to deliver an experience on their behalf.  Being quick and efficient is the best way. Some have unrealistic expectations. Don't over promise and under deliver.  Make sure they are part of the planning process. Keep them involved in everything. Be honest and communicate effectively. That way, there will not be any huge surprises."

In the end, the way an unexpected situation is handled is completely up to the meeting planner.  "There is no excuse for not being prepared," said Ruff. "Always have a risk management plan. If not, there is a problem. Have it in case of a kitchen fire. Look for the exit before you sit down. Be a details beast. Details matter. A series of little problems can equal a big one. Go on a customer journey in your head. From the time they pack their bags, to the time they unpack. Think about the airport. How do they get there? Think about the flights from XYZ.  Think about the customer's journey."

"You're the professional," said Aaron. "Be the professional. Utilize your years of experience. Use your sense of decorum. People are looking at you. Maintain that and things will come together."

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