Chilling tales from the front and how meeting profs saved the day

Do you ever feel like an icy snowball the size of a ballroom has fallen on your perfectly planned event, forcing you to scramble to protect everyone while making everything look perfectly natural? Sometimes, the projectile comes in the form of a volcano, hurricane, rogue audio visual technician, speaker or guest. But responsibility for finding a solution almost always rests on the shoulders of the event professional.

Smart Meetings asked veteran convention center habitues for their real-life, unexpected encounters with such blizzards of doom and put together a handy guide for recovering with grace and charm.

Gold Medal Reflexes

Robb Thornsberry, Founder, Infinity Events Inc.

“Success is not about what happens, but how you deal with it,” quips Robb Thornsberry, founder of Anaheim, California-based Infinity Events, as a prelude to sharing the story of the time a cold front almost grounded a carefully planned magical experience in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

Thornsberry was producing a conference for Canadian Association of Tour Operators at historic Fairmont Banff Springs in Alberta. His theme: the region’s storied Olympic history. The plan was to float a massive helium balloon with the Northern Lights projected onto it just outside the picturesque arched windows of the ballroom, with an acrobat (flown in from Los Angeles) performing gymnastic feats beneath it and those oh-so majestic mountain peaks in the background.

I think you know where this is headed.

The temperature dipped so low that the balloon, which was worth thousands of dollars, started to crack. This was 20 minutes before the doors opened, and it was not floating anywhere. In a flash, Thornsberry asked the general manager if he could suspend the performer from the fire escape and shine a spotlight on her. She had to be pulled inside every few minutes to warm up, but none of the guests was the wiser.

“The show must go on,” he says.

When a Deluge Almost Drowned Out an Operatic Event

Jenn Artura, Head of Global Events, Incentives and Strategic Programs, Veritas Technologies LLC

That commitment to “curtains up!” ruled the day at another event halfway around the world. Bespoke doesn’t even begin to describe the exclusive nature of the Club VIP incentive trips that Jenn Artura, head of global events, incentives and strategic programs for Santa Clara, California-based Veritas Technologies, designs for the top 10 percent of sales performers in her company. These elite 140 employees and their guests are treated to individualized luxury experiences that create mega-FOMO. No buses or Lyft rides on these trips!

The year before, Artura had scrambled because a long-planned trip to Bali was threatened by a volcano that was shooting fireballs, which required her to find an alternate location three months before attendees would be wheels up. Four Seasons Resort Lanai in Hawaii worked with Artura by calling confirmed guests and asking them to change their dates so her group could enjoy a buyout feel. Then a volcano erupted on Island of Hawaii (formerly known as the Big Island), and though it was not a threat to Lanai, she had to reassure her participants seeing the news on television that it was safe.

The event ended up being a crowd pleaser, but she looked forward to a smoother execution the following year—when she took the VIP delegation to Rome Cavalieri, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

That program was steeped in history, culture, food, shopping and a CSR program that left everyone teary as a group of 60 students received coding lessons and computers. The property boasted Roman Holiday-style views and a Salvatore Ferragamo pop-up boutique inside the hotel that allowed guests to sip champagne while musing over which gift to take home.

The crowning glory was to be a surprise concert after dinner on the patio in a private villa before attendees were ushered through a secret door to a disco.

You guessed it. Four days of unseasonable downpours made it impossible to build the stage, and every tent in the city had been snatched up. Artura’s team quickly moved the disco to the villa’s covered top level, repurposed some of the custom furnishings so everyone would fit inside and snuck the main attraction, superstar tenor Andrea Bocelli and his pianist and violinist, into the building without being noticed.

When the doors opened and introductions began, people were crying, Artura recalls. “It was so intimate and unforgettable inside; I wouldn’t change a thing,” she says. “This was bucket-list Italian opera sung in Italian, in Rome—very special.” Experiences like that create powerful internal competition to get an invitation, and make it even more challenging for her to measure up the next year.

But she’s up to it—if the weather holds and fire doesn’t come out of the ground. Of course, even if it does, she knows she will find a way.

Where There is Smoke

Kevin Cohee, CEO, Do An Event

Call it a series of unfortunate events. Kevin Cohee, CEO of Do an Event, was planning a particularly emotional corporate 50th anniversary gala for a large collision company in Sacramento, California. The founder was terminally ill, so Cohee wanted to deliver a flawless milestone gathering that people would remember for its poignancy rather than for the presence of emergency responders.

Unfortunately, that was not to be.

Trouble began when guests arrived at the city garage listed on the invitation for their free parking, but found it locked. The space had been contracted, but the venue had failed to inform the city and so, no parking. As confused attendees wandered downtown looking for alternative spaces, a street fight broke out in front of the doors, where a glamazon performer stood on a table waving feathered fans, and three police cars arrived with a screeching halt, their lights flashing.

The decor was equally over the top, and there was an action station that flambeed pasta with vodka sauce—which set off an alarm that was not supposed to be operational, according to the contract. It squawked for a full 22 minutes without anyone even giving up their place in the bar line. Eventually, firemen, suited up and carrying axes, rushed in and found the alarm controls in an adjacent building.

Cohee is still not sure how a homeless person in a trench coat got past two security guards and was found lighting a cigarette from a votive candle. He was gently escorted out, and the firemen were fed.

Finally, the projector was wheeled out to screen a touching legacy video that had been lovingly prepared. Just before it made its way to the premarked spot, a guest returning to her seat had an encounter with the cord. That triggered the automatic cool-down cycle on the equipment, which left an awkward and protracted silence because the DJ had already directed everyone to take a seat and be quiet. Cohee remembers it as the longest 11 minutes of his life.

Of course, Cohee doesn’t have photos of most of this. The professional photographer didn’t show up, but the person manning the photo booth did his best.

Call it good fortune or bad, but, in the end, the client said she loved it and hired him to do the next year’s gala—though in a different venue, because the group was outgrowing the space. “No matter how much you plan, disaster still finds a way,” Cohee says. Over his career, he has dealt with everything from heat stroke to epileptic falls. “Having to call an ambulance is not an uncommon occurrence,” he says.

Neither is the need for broken-field running, a talent every planner needs. It helps to have a healthy address book so you can call in backups when the rest of the team ends up in the emergency room, and you must set a dinner for 200 people on the USS Midway—something that happened to Cohee in San Diego. Or, there was the time he needed to call all the U-Haul dealers on California’s Interstate 5 to rescue AV equipment when the van broke down.

His crisis-mode approach is as follows: “Prioritize who to talk to first. Stay calm. And pour drinks.”

From the ‘Theme That Was Too Real’ File

Senior Manager, Meetings, Incentive Travel, and Events, Tupperware Brands

Sometimes meetings are stranger than Hollywood. Ronni Burns, now with Tupperware Brands, shared lessons from a former client who wanted a National Lampoon’s Family Vacation theme at an incentive event at an all-inclusive property in the Dominican Republic, where she went all out. She had staff wear moose costumes (with plenty of hydration, since it was very hot) and drove a squirrel around the ballroom on a remote-controlled car. She even brought in the only station wagon (which was actually a purple hearse) on the island and made it look like the pea-green truckster from the movie had crashed into the ballroom.

Unfortunately, a lot of unexpected things went wrong. The property gave away the suites that were contracted. The kitchen ran out of food three times during a meal and took 45 minutes to restock. A storm forced Burns to bring the Griswold Christmas house she was planning on the beach into the conference area. When the ‘80s costume party progressed to the disco that had been rented out, security refused entrance to guests dressed as Richard Simmons because they didn’t meet the dress code.

Burns requested that the general manager be roused from slumber to get the situation resolved. Her approach in that situation and many others could be summarized as: “Be flexible, smile and move on. The word ‘respect’ goes a long way toward fixing things.”

Stacking the Odds

Kimberly Montoya, President, Twenty156 Meetings & Incentives

Kimberly Montoya at Twenty156 Meetings and Incentives had to do some quick thinking when a client delivered elaborately designed centerpieces made for a formal awards dinner. They put company history front-and-center—boy, did they ever. The view to the stage was completely obscured. “They were remarkable pieces of corporate memorabilia with years of corporate memories backlit in 18-inch plexiglass squares,” Montoya says. “But you couldn’t see anything in the room besides that.”

The turn on the room was already tight, as it had to go from general session to dinner seating. So, Montoya and her team suggested that most of the towering centerpieces be stacked as a dramatic element outside the ballroom’s entrance doors, leaving only a few in each row on the tables. She called on a trusted local vendor to provide simple florals for the remaining tables.

“This solution allowed the custom pieces to be prominent and appreciated, but lessened the negative impact of low visibility for an important recognition event,” she says.

Is There a Waiter in the House?

Terry Matthews-Lombardo, Independent Meeting Planner/Professional Conference Management, Trip Director and Freelance Meetings/Travel Writer

Ever been in the thick of things with 1,000 hungry attendees ready to walk through the doors for lunch only to learn—surprise!—that the waitstaff had just walked off the job? Terry Matthews-Lombardo only found out later that it was an unauthorized, unorganized attempt at a union rally, but yes, this really happened.

“Fortunately, the tables were ready, salads preset, with entrees stacked on rolling racks. The convention center’s management team rallied big-time, along with every able-bodied member of my own staff, to serve our guests just as fast as we could spring into action,” she says. “Even more amazing, the whole lunch service only took an extra 40 minutes beyond the originally allotted time—not bad for amateur servers!”

During the scramble, Matthews-Lombardo alerted the after-lunch speaker and moved his talk into the banquet venue, allowing the staff to leave those dirty dishes on the tables while the conference continued as if she had planned it that way all along.

Precautions & Pre-Planning

No matter how much experience you have, or how well prepared you are, there will always be the odd and very hairy moments that come from working in the unpredictable world of event planning. Spinning plates and facing the unexpected head-on is the nature of the job—but it’s also what makes it an exciting career. While you can’t always predict problems, you can prepare yourself to deal with whatever happens, calmly and creatively.

The Venue

You booked 5,000 sq. ft. of space—and it’s all unusable. The venue flooded overnight, and you were notified the morning of the event. Do you cancel? How will you let all your attendees know? Will you be able to draw the same number of attendees if you reschedule? Being proactive can help answer these questions.

  • Always have one or two backup venues in mind—and the contact information for their general managers on speed dial. Knowing who to call is half the battle.
  • Leverage the power of online ticketing to message attendees in real time as conditions change. This way, you can even move to a bigger venue with a larger capacity, if needed.

Speaker No-Show

You were able to land three great speakers and a big-name keynote for the main stage. Their faces are plastered all over your marketing material. But life happens, right? Your prized keynoter can no longer attend. How do you dress up your last-minute replacement so no one gets booed off stage? What if people ask for their money back?

  • Stay in contact with the keynoter or the speaker’s representative all the way up until the event. Don’t pester them, but make sure they are all-in on your event and don’t go AWOL.
  • When the worst case happens, let your attendees know, so there are no surprises (see registration contact info above). The worst thing you can do is pretend nothing happened and let attendees show up to a new, unannounced speaker.
  • Consider putting a refund policy in place to cope with disappointed attendees.
  • If you’re given enough notice, ask for a prerecording of the keynote to screen at your event alongside your new speaker.

IT Support

The speaker slides are frozen, the venue lights flicker mid-presentation or the mic continues to boom and ring in the ears of your attendees. What was a slick, cool event has gone flat. Suddenly, your attendees are no longer immersed in the content, but are finicky because it’s been 10 minutes, and there’s no audio accompanying the presentation. Audiovisual is a major budget item; create your own insurance plan.

  • Involve an AV partner as soon as possible. Include your production manager on venue site visits and review of the technical terms of contracts and move-in schedules.
  • Rehearsal is crucial. AV can be one of the most overwhelming parts of the event-planning process, so have it squared away early rather than waiting until just before the event.
  • Have hardware and software backups, such as a spare USB, presentations downloaded in two places and a laptop charger. Sometimes the Wi-Fi and lights go out, but that doesn’t mean your event has to.

Weather or Not

“Rain or shine” is printed across millions of tickets a year, but what do you do when water starts falling from the sky on your outdoor festival? Even if the event is indoors, bad weather can affect access to your event. What is your rainy-day plan?

  • Is there an indoor space you can move guests to? Even if it is smaller and employs a combination of tents and heaters, have options ready, regardless of what the weather app predicts.
  • If you do shift, communicate the change to all parties as soon as possible. Communication is like sunshine that brings light to whatever situation arises.

Sofia Wright