The definition of “risk” has grown beyond the traditional definitions of financial, operational, reputational and security issues meeting professionals checked off their list as they prepared to bring people together in days of old. While a live shooter may be what comes to mind first when considering worst-case scenarios, today’s planners also have to be on the lookout for a mistimed social media post or optics that are not aligned with the DEI or sustainability goals of the company.

Veteran strategic planner Elizabeth Warwick understands too well the stakes of not preparing for all possible disruptions from her time as director of global hospitality for Coca-Cola, vice president of meeting management and event strategy at Liberty Mutual and head of the global event team working on the Winter and Summer Olympics and the advance team for President George H.W. Bush.

She is co-chair of Events Industry Council’s Meeting and Event Design Group Covid-19 Business Recovery Task Force and now consults leading companies on their return to events approach. She presented a special session at Financial and Insurance Conference Professionals’ (FICP) 2022 Annual Conference titled, “Event Risk Management: 2022 Risk Categories.”

Defining Risk

“Any interruption to pre-planning or on-site execution that disrupts an event is a risk,” Warwick said. Risk categories include financial, operational, reputational and security/safety. But those buckets have become more complex and new areas have emerged. Operational and reputational concerns now include sustainability and diversity. Security now includes technology. “You need to be aware of your company’s objectives and align with that,” she said.

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That is a lot to consider: create what-if scenarios for and rehearse responses to “just in case.”

Call to Action

Warwick advises breaking the variables into low, medium and high-risk categories for each decision, such as where to source an incentive program. Evaluate threats, such as weather and how dangerous the destination may be using tools such as state department recommendations and historic weather patterns. You can also create an event classification grid with likelihood and impact on the horizontal and vertical axis of a matrix so everyone can visualize the possibilities.

Warwick suggested keeping your own incident-tracking log separate from the hotel’s which includes any wellness checks or confrontations. Anonymous surveys can also help to identify problems that need to be addressed. Conduct event-readiness exercises that outline who is responsible for what if specific things go wrong. That includes hotel front-desk staff, the communications team in your company and any contractors on-site. Rehearse it so it feels real rather than just words on a piece of paper.

Have a call-of-command if something goes wrong like attendees go missing or someone dies, she advised. “Don’t let fear get in your way. Hope, unfortunately, is not a strategy.”

Call out what might be a risk and your planned mitigation steps. “We want to address all of this before everyone gets on-site,” she said. “You want to be the calm in the storm.”

Warwick cautioned that there is no playbook that covers everything, but if you have the right processes in place, you can more easily find some kind of a solution if the unexpected happens. “Your purpose is to preserve and protect the integrity of the brand using processes,” she said.

New Risks

If planning conferences wasn’t complex enough, a global pandemic with literally unprecedented consequences raised the stakes even more. Warwick suggested expanding a signed attendee “Code of Conduct” to require that everyone acknowledge the responsibility to show up healthy, drink in moderation, use social media appropriately and treat everyone with dignity and respect.

Another “soft” risk that needs to be addressed: the changing needs of attendees. The possibility of an incentive not being motivating if it isn’t what the qualifier enjoys, regardless of the price tag, is a challenging one because the attendee pool is not changing all at once. Some may want more adventurous activities and some more traditional or passive ones. One-size-fits-all may not work anymore. Not personalizing comes with risks and costs. She called it the “incentive gap.”

A related job duty is understanding the level of pain tolerance of attendees and executives when it comes to disruptions such as weather, electricity outages and lines and having alternatives available when possible.

Another new nuance is that attendee expectations are often built by forces outside your control, such as what is on the news and what friends say. Covid was an example of people hearing different pictures of what is safe in the news compared to what the company might be saying. “You have to be aware of what people are hearing and communicate accordingly,” she said.

Technology Risks

The category of risks and rewards related to technology has grown along with the adoption of new tools by meeting professionals and attendees. That includes the real possibility that audiovisual components, registration sites and mobile apps will not work as designed. Or they may work, but pose a cybersecurity threat.

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Content needs to be considered for appropriateness to company messaging, current events and brand. That includes company platforms and attendee postings. Warwick suggested establishing guidelines for social media postings to avoid sending the wrong message.

“Risk is not just the “harder risks” such as a handgun at a meeting or a bus being hijacked during an incentive, but also “softer risks” such as not effectively motivating because of changing demographics or not aligning with company goals,” she said.

Risk Ownership

In most companies, the event team makes recommendations, but the executive team must make critical decisions. That is why Warwick stressed the importance of giving them the information they need in a format optimized for how they process it. “For financial and insurance companies that is most likely benchmarks as data and charts, not pretty pictures,” she said.

“Things happen!” said Warwick realistically. “Stay curious. If something is waking you up at 3 in the morning, there is probably a reason. Pursue answers to those thoughts.”

Her final piece of advice: “Remember it’s about people and supporting them in addition to the operational side.”