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Are you prepared for the unexpected?

By Sandi L. Humphrey, CAE

Over the course of my association career, I was involved in the planning and conduct of over thirty major association conferences. I’ve had my luggage lost on the way to my association’s annual conference - it showed up the day before the conference ended, after an unscheduled trip to Freeport, Bahamas (lucky luggage). Once, one of my delegates drove a golf cart into the hotel and smashed a mirrored wall while trying to make a u-turn (yes, this was a late night adventure).

But as this issue of Association™ was taking shape, a number of other thoughts and lessons related to association events occurred to me that I deemed worthy of sharing – I hope you find them of value.


My thoughts immediately turned to event planners the minute I learned of the Iceland volcano a few years back and its impact on air travel in Europe and throughout the world.  How many major association conferences were impacted? How many delegates found themselves stuck in the host city unable to get home?  How many delegates simply couldn’t get to the conference at all?  How many conferences and tradeshows needed to be cancelled altogether, and at what cost?

I know of one association event planner who found herself all alone on 9/11 on the other side of the country – she was expecting her exhibitors and delegates to start arriving that very day.  None did. I am also aware of two association executives who found themselves awaiting the arrival of their conference delegates in Calgary in 2013, during the major flood.  If you haven’t thought about these scenarios and others like them, you need to.  Nothing is guaranteed.  Do you need to insure against such risks?  Do you need to give advice to your potential delegates so they too can avoid risk?  Think about it.  Disruptions such as these will indeed happen again.


You can plan your annual general meeting and conference from a logistical perspective, but do you ever give thought to “what if” scenarios?  I recall one year being blind-sided at my AGM when a member of the Board of Directors had himself nominated for the office of Chair of the Board, a challenge to the proposed slate advanced by the Nominating Committee.  In that particular case, not all conference delegates were eligible to vote in the election that needed to follow that nomination.

Thankfully, I had made sure we were always prepared for such a scenario – scripts for the Chair of the Nominating Committee were always ready, which guided that individual from start to finish in a situation where an election was required.  We had a process already established to help easily identify those delegates eligible to vote.  I even ensured we had a bit of spare time in the overall agenda in case we needed time for nominees to make their pitch to voting delegates.

I can’t imagine handling an election at an annual meeting at the drop of a hat.  Being ready for the highly unlikely was prudent.  And, in case you’re interested, the candidate proposed by the Nominating Committee ultimately won the office.  But members were engaged in a fair and democratic process that ran smoothly – they left with a positive image of the association, and the knowledge that they indeed had real input into where it was headed, and who was best prepared to lead it.  That was huge!

On a similar note, a keynote speaker advised me just twenty-four hours before her scheduled appearance that she could not participate in our event.  Her reason was more than valid: she had registered to be a bone marrow donor some time ago, and had been called upon to donate the gift of life to another.   I was able to fill her time-slot with something of substance and interest to delegates.  Would you be able to do the same?   Do you have a “Plan B”?


I’d have a hard time calculating how many conferences I’ve attended during my career – to save me that effort, let’s just say that there have been lots of them.  And frankly, I still find myself frequently watching event planners running around their events like chickens with their heads cut off.  This suggests to me that they really weren’t prepared before they walked in the door.  Planning and preparation are critical.

I recall about twenty years ago arriving at the conference facility the day before my delegates were to arrive and doing a run-through with the hotel representative.  Within the first five minutes of our walk through the hotel and our review of the detailed set-up information I had sent to the hotel weeks before, the hotel rep, in a sincere attempt to be helpful said at least three times, “Well, I know you asked for this, but I changed it to this because I thought you might prefer.....”.  Each time, I assured her what I had requested was what I truly wanted and needed.  And, I indicated that if she followed my instructions to a tee, there would be no need for us to even connect over the next four days.  And that’s exactly what happened.  As delegates were leaving, the hotel rep and the hotel manager asked to speak with me for a few minutes, during which time they indicated they had never received such detailed pre-conference requirements from an association, nor had they ever had an event run more smoothly.  I responded by indicating my view that it would be a mistake to approach such a major association event any other way.  

The lesson is this.  Build an event schedule that ensures you have the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed well before the event takes place.  There’s no need, for example, to be writing scripts, finding people to introduce or thank speakers, or dealing with equipment requirements for specific meeting rooms on site – all of that stuff can and should be handled well in advance.  Doing so will allow you to focus your entire attention on the most important thing at your events, your members and delegates, and give you time to deal with the unexpected, which, based on my experience, is to be expected.