These tips can help planners face unexpected challenges

There’s an age-old quip that circulates through the heart-surgeon programs at medical schools: Students need only about one month to learn how to perform all the actions involved in open-heart surgery. However, the remaining years of schooling are necessary to teach them how to handle every possible complication that can arise during the procedure.

A similar adage greets airline pilots at the start of flight school: Controlling a plane is easy as long as things go smoothly; it’s the unexpected glitches that require pilots to have a fully developed range of skills.

While the meeting planning business does have its own formal educational programs, not everyone goes through them. What’s more, even those who have completed a program will inevitably learn a lot more in the real world of onsite event management.

Here are lessons from veteran hoteliers and a longtime planner about how to handle on-the-spot situations in a way that keeps attendees and executives from ever knowing there was a problem.

Lesson No. 1: Use the Collective Knowledge of the Property’s Staff

It’s possible that you plan only three or four meetings per year—or perhaps you plan 100 meetings per year. But the range of your groups in terms of size and objectives is likely no exact match for what a meetings-focused facility has seen and handled over the years.

So when the conference sales and services teams at a property ask at 30 days out for details about every aspect of your meeting—even aspects that they seemingly aren’t responsible for—don’t hesitate to share whatever information you have.

“We have a detailed resume questionnaire we go through with each planner client, to make sure we hit all the little points that might need clarification so that our spaces and our people are completely ready,” says Carrie Gayle, director of catering and convention services for Omni Los Angeles Hotel at California Plaza.

Even details such as the timing of offsite events allow the property to sketch out a contingency plan in case, for instance, the charter buses don’t arrive on time and a few hundred people are left milling around the lobby. Part of the prefunction space could be ready to accommodate a roll-up soft-drink bar and music could be piped in to make any delay bearable.

“Once we explain to planners why we want so much information about every part of their itinerary, they appreciate it,” Gayle adds.

How to Deal with a Heat Wave

Property staff has seen every inch of their space used for some purpose, so they can create effective contingencies for onsite sessions that encounter unexpected difficulty. To wit: In summer 2015, a heat wave came through Los Angeles on the final day of a corporate meeting at the Omni. As a result, an outdoor luncheon for 225 people had to be scrapped just 16 hours in advance, although the patio was already set up.

“I got an email from the planner at 8 p.m. the night before that said we needed to find another space fast,” says Mark Schwabenbauer, associate director of sales at the Omni. But all the other formal event spaces already were occupied by a group whose meeting started the next morning.

“I immediately texted our F&B director, and we planned to arrive on property at 5 a.m. to see how we could prepare one of our foyer spaces to handle the luncheon,” Schwabenbauer says.

With staffers from other departments helping out, all the furniture from the foyer between two of the property’s restaurants was placed in storage and the luncheon tables reset there; the space was completed with drapes and other on-hand decor.

“Our department heads collaborated on that situation right away,” Schwabenbauer says. “They made it work in a way where attendees could not even tell that it was a backup plan.”

Lesson No. 2: Focus on the Solution, Not the Blame

At the beginning of a 10-day, 1,600-attendee event for his biggest client, Walt Galanty of AIM Meetings in Alexandria, Virginia, found himself 30 minutes from disaster with a 70-member board of directors.

“I personally check the details on all the banquet event orders 10 days ahead of the meeting, but I didn’t realize one of them was missing from the hotel’s records: the board of directors luncheon,” Galanty says.

So at 11 a.m. on day one, Galanty contacted his convention services manager to ask that the individually plated hot lunches be brought to the boardroom at 11:45 a.m. rather than noon, as the meeting was ahead of schedule.

“When four hotel people approached me at once about three minutes after my call, I knew something was wrong,” he remembers. “They said they had no record of this lunch, so nothing was prepared.”

Cold Cuts to the Rescue

The 35-year planning veteran swallowed his anger, then contemplated the possibilities. “I said to them, ‘You have a half-hour to assemble a cold-cut platter with as much meat, cheese, bread and condiments as you can find. We’ll make it a picnic-style buffet,’” he says.

At 11:43, several rolling trays arrived outside the boardroom to accommodate Galanty’s requests. Two minutes later, the CEO stepped out to say the group is ready to eat. “So I tell the CEO that we created a deli-style set-up outside the room so as not to disturb the meeting,” he says. “The CEO raises his eyebrow and says, ‘That’s good thinking.’”

As the lunch ended, the CEO approached Galanty and the CSM to note that what was served was not what he had originally ordered.

“I told him, ‘There was a delivery-truck problem this morning, so the items were not here in time to prepare them.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s fine. This worked out better than a sit-down meal.’” Galanty says.

“Once the CEO walked away, the CSM thanked me for not throwing the hotel under the bus,” he adds. “But what good would that have done? The client pays us to make things go smoothly, and we figured it out.

“Besides, for the next 10 days my meeting got the greatest service you could imagine.”