What would you do if your show was hit by catastrophe? Nadia Cameron asks organisers to outline the biggest crises they’ve faced and how they prepared for the unpredictable.
In the words of Niche Events’ Peter Jones, live events can be “unpredictable beasts”. Political disputes, economic threats, acts of God and transport strikes are just some of the potential disasters awaiting even the most prepared exhibition organiser in the lead-up to and during an event.
In recent years we’ve had some whoppers – from weather phenomena such as the Icelandic volcano ash cloud in 2010 and the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year, to political upheaval across North Africa and Western Asia. Each presented unique logistic, operational and business challenges for shows running in these territories and required communication and quick thinking from organisers to overcome.
It’s not just the big stuff either: Even health and safety issues such as food poisoning can derail a show.
“A crisis is something that requires rapid mobilisation, the involvement of outside agencies, suspension of normal business, all the while posing a serious risk to business continuity, loss of life or even worse; business reputation,” MD of X-Venture Global Risk Solutions Simon Garrett said.
Not every exhibition is a disaster waiting to happen, and most pass without incident. But if a sudden crisis hit, would you know how to cope? How can you ensure your approach is the best possible when catastrophe strikes?
EN asked several organisers to detail crises they’ve faced and how they dealt with them.
Tarsus Group MD Doug Emslie was playing golf with industry colleagues at Hever Castle when news broke of the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. The organiser, which also has an office in New York, was due to launch a spa industry show that morning in Los Angeles, and stage one of its clothing shows in New York’s Madison Square Garden later the same week.
“After the attacks all flights were cancelled and the police even closed major roads,” Emslie said. “We were suddenly in a situation where we had all exhibitors onsite in LA but only a handful of visitors.
“The key crisis management strategy we employed was continuous communication with our exhibitors. After the horror everyone had witnessed, we spoke to each exhibitor and asked whether they wished to proceed with the show. Everyone wanted to continue. We reconfirmed this position each day throughout the three-day event.” In New York, the venue had been taken over by the emergency services so Tarsus had no choice but to cancel the event. Again, the key was to speak to each exhibitor and refund their money on a proactive basis, Emslie said.
Key lessons learnt were the importance of discussion and planning, he said. After ensuring staff and customers are safe, Emslie advised other organisers to regularly communicate with stakeholders and make sure any customer financial issues are immediately dealt with. “Since 9/11 there have been many challenging events that have shaped our crisis management strategy but the one that remains constant is that the human issues must always take priority,” he added.
Montgomery Exhibitions MD Damion Angus admits the company often works in less than conventional markets, many that are more prone to crises than others. Over the last few years, the organiser has been confronted with natural disasters, disease, political instability and the threat of terrorism or war. Its most recent challenge has been Libya.
“As well as the breakout of war last year, in 2010 we were a month out from running our Oil & Gas and Infrastructure Event when Colonel Gaddafi, in retribution for his son being arrested in Switzerland, refused to let anyone from a Schengen country enter Libya,” Angus explained. “This not only prevented most of our European exhibitors from attending, but also our contractors, who were Maltese. We had four weeks to go, no way of building up the show and only half of our exhibitors able to attend.”
In this case, it was quick thinking and strong communication that got Montgomery through.
“We had very experienced people working on the event who knew this territory and our exhibitors extremely well and we worked closely with our local partner to keep abreast of what was happening politically on the ground in Tripoli,” Angus explained.
“The first question that needed asking was whether the show was still viable. We immediately assessed what we had left and decided that on the basis we could find new contractors, we would commit to running the shows and manage the expectations of remaining exhibitors as well as our visitors. Admittedly, we were not insured for this type of scenario, however with our reputation at stake we had to ensure we could retain the trust and confidence of our remaining exhibitors and prevent them from pulling out.”
Montgomery refunded those refused entry and took a big profitability hit. However, strong dialogue with those still involved has strengthened relationships for future years, Angus said.
“The nature of a crisis is that it comes abruptly and when you least expect it. At Montgomery, we try to assess what our worst-case risk is on any one event and the implications of more than one crisis happening in any short period of time,” he said.
“I do not believe there is a single policy or strategy one can put in place to cover all eventualities. We believe in rapid decision-making, strong communication to all parties involved and the view that on the whole it is better to run an event than to postpone.”
As well as cultural and political issues, organisers could find themselves facing a crisis at a local operational level. Eventshare employees Louise Kiwanuka and Stevie Hassard were contracted to Virtual World Forum at London Bridge when they were confronted with a major catastrophe on the event’s one-day buildup: Someone had been shot.
“Our team and contractors arrived onsite to find it sealed off by the police with no indication of if or when the venue would be accessible,” Kiwanuka explained. “With just one day in the schedule for build and that day eventually being unusable, the event was postponed.”
With limited options to get hold of potential attendees, especially those already on planes, the team set about arranging an alternative and much smaller networking event to take place on the days the event should have been on in a nearby venue. It also established an information hotline for people calling in, and organised staffing for both sites.
Hassard said key steps included grouping together all parties to made sure reactions to the crisis were considered, establishing a good system of control, communicating clearly by keeping the message simple, setting up a crisis call centre, and finding somewhere local to have a smaller, replacement event.
Kiwanuka said the operational crisis took months of work post-show including settlements to out-of-pocket contractors. “The worst thing would be to not make decisions,” she concluded. “Your decision may not always be the best one in hindsight but not making one would be a lot worse.”
On the flip side, Niche Events found itself the victim of an avoidable operational crisis on its Transport Security Expo after its mains contractor failed to meet updated electrical wiring standards during buildup. The mistake was only discovered at 8pm on the eve of the event by the venue’s health and safety marshals.
“We were unable to open the show doors for 45 minutes and had speakers and visitors queuing around the venue while we finished the rewiring,” Jones explained. “This had a knock-on effect, because exhibitors hadn’t had any power to set-up during buildup and spent most of the first morning getting their equipment operational. By lunchtime, most were demanding their money back as it reflected badly on them in terms of PR in front of their customers.
“In addition, we had to have an emergency meeting with all 200 speakers to get them to shave a few minutes off their presentations to get back on schedule.”
Thankfully, the expo proved the largest to date, but Jones also put its success down to remaining calm and keeping everyone abreast of the situation at all times.
“The thing that winds people up the quickest is not getting information,” he said. “We made sure we had people communicating constantly and there was lots of apologising and appeasing onsite. As the management team you also have to retain that air of calm as the rest of the team is feeding off you.”
Getting to grips with a crisis
While the types of crisis are different, Earls Court and Olympia Venues (EC&O) group head of health and safety Michael Anderson reminded organisers and venues that all require effective and immediate action.
“The first step is always communication; tell the duty manager and tell the client, identify the required actions and implement them, and ensure you provide feedback on what is happening,” he advised. “It’s all about planning: We rely heavily on the five ‘P’s’ [prior planning prevents poor performance] and there is no excuse for not doing so. Everything foreseeable is considered and each event brings different concerns, hazards and personalities.
“Communication is again the key, and we expect the organiser to be open and honest so we can understand its limitations or challenges and work with them to ensure we are prepared. Audience profile, exhibitor expectations, visitor expectations and any restrictions need to be considered at the earliest stage.”
X-Venture’s Simon Garrett also pointed out organisers are often selling to powerful stakeholders, who are the first to call if things go wrong. “When a crisis breaks, you’ll instantly find yourself being pulled in two directions,” he claimed. “When the volcano struck in Iceland, management at the London Book Fair received calls from half of its exhibitors looking to cut their losses and urging the cancellation of the show. The other half said the show must go on.
“You have to act fast. The press are usually onsite, and everyone has a phone.”
Garrett advised organisers to establish their own crisis terms and a business continuity plan. This should include representatives addressing business recovery, media and incident handling. In addition, it’s important to know when the last safe moment is to make a decision. One way of aiding this process is to engage in real-time role-play to get a better understanding of what’s required. As Garrett points out, the exhibition game is highly time-critical.
Make sure you have the contingencies in place to keep your show and team and you’ll have a better chance of dealing with all eventualities.
Being prepared: UBM’s crisis management training
UBM’s international team has experienced significant crises – from the 2008 bombings in Mumbai, India during its CPHi and P-MEC exhibitions, to last year’s tsunami in Japan a week in advance of several events.
In a bid to ensure staff know how to react, UBM Live MD Abu Dhabi and Amsterdam Nik Rudge has introduced an annual training day based on replicating a major incident or potential crisis on a show.
The training covered a crisis as it unfolded onsite during a show, where staff were effectively locked in a room and fed information in real-time. The training then dealt with the implications of a strike the day and month before an exhibition was due to open. “We experienced an immediate crisis, plus the proposition that a strike was going to happen, forcing us to look at the business continuity implications,” Rudge said. “What this demonstrated was where the gaps are in our risk assessment and management systems. It also highlighted that people can read the strategy, but don’t remember it all.”
The simulated training environment also demonstrated the challenges of thinking in a high-stress environment. “There are management decisions that have to be taken, but the person responsible in these situations is not necessarily the one best equipped to take charge in a crisis,” Rudge continued. “We have ‘purposed’ people to have elevated roles in these situations.”
UBM Live Amsterdam is planning to expand training to several scenarios including onsite, strikes and environmental challenges, as well as in the lead-up to the event. For example, where a strike threatens a show, organisers need to look at what percentage of exhibitors and visitors come by plane, train or car. “You also look at alternatives – we’ve had to cancel events but then followed them up with a virtual event within days for that community, as it was as much as we could do in the circumstances,” Rudge said.
Ultimately, the safety of staff, exhibitors and visitors is paramount in a crisis, followed by the commercial considerations, he said.
“We have had exhibitors wanting shows to run where it’s obviously not been safe. We have a duty of care and you can’t jeopardise that,” Rudge added.
5 steps for dealing with a crisis
Plan for it
Organisers have a responsibility to their staff and customers to plan for a crisis and deal with it responsibly. This includes having a business continuity plan and emergency procedures in place that outline practical steps to be taken when a crisis hits.
X-Venture’s Simon Garrett said the first thing to do is mastermind the use of your company’s existing strengths so you’ve already got optimal use of your own resources. “Define what you consider to be a major incident,” he said. “What’s surprising is how many people even before designing a crisis plan can’t even define a crisis.”
Garrett breaks potential crises down into several key categories: Instant/catastrophic, such as a fire or structural compromise; emerging threats, which may or may not impact your show; political, including protests and strikes; weather; hidden, such as an E-coli outbreak; and unpredictable, or things which make it impossible for exhibitors and visitors to get to your show.
“Ask yourself, in terms of this event, what are my unique circumstances? How am I likely to be able to assist them?” Garrett added.
Another vital step for organisers facing a crisis, whether it’s in advance of the show, onsite during buildup or while an event is being held, is to constantly communicate with staff, exhibitors, visitors and partners. “I believe success is bred from sharing,” EC&O’s Michael Anderson said. “From emails and telephone calls to ‘face-time’ with the organising team and their contractors or exhibitors, no opportunity should be wasted. Combine this with the quality and experience of the teams at your venue of choice and a practiced set of emergency procedures.”
Speed is of the essence
Eventshare’s Stevie Hassard pointed out speed of response and communication is absolutely essential when it comes to coping with a crisis and keeping your exhibitors and visitors on-side. A good way of sharpening your reflexes is to dot your i’s and cross your t’s as much as possible on everything you know, Eventshare’s Louise Kiwanuka added. “Time is of the essence in a crisis and if you already have your ducks in a row, you can be ready to react to an unfolding crisis more easily and have your wits about you,” she said. “Those extra few minutes you gain from having a clear head will allow you to think through your options more carefully.”
Practice makes perfect
The best way to ensure your team can respond to the situation swiftly is to practice your procedures, UBM Live’s Nik Rudge said. “Our exercises have shown that even if you know the processes, often you forget to refer to them in a crisis when the adrenalin is pumping,” he said. “You have to practice so you automatically know the steps you have to go through.”
It’s also important to think as far beyond the immediate crisis as possible. Kiwanuka recommended organisers ensure sufficient members of their team who are not directly affected by the current crisis are available to hold the reins for the aftermath. “This is particularly important if the crisis is one that will emotionally affect the members of the team directly involved,” she said. “The show still needs to be run smoothly and efficiently once the crisis has eased and a strong team needs to be in place to do that.”
It’s also important to be aware of the reputational impact a crisis can have on your brand. “You have to prepare yourself for the reaction afterwards,” Rudge added. “We didn’t have universal support for postponing CPHi in India and were criticised for our decision because it could paint the country in a bad light. It comes down to being proactive, communicating and having a plan that enables you to move forward.”
This was first published in the June edition of EN.
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