Coronavirus: Advice from the Experts

By Maria Lenhart

Coronavirus is pointing up the need for meeting professionals to be prepared, not only for this particular crisis but for any infectious disease outbreak. Industry experts say a wise approach to contracts, insurance coverage, communication and common-sense precautions can minimize the consequences

Force Majeure Clauses

When it comes to protection from a disastrous situation causing a meeting to be cancelled or lose attendance, meetings industry attorneys say the starting point is the Force Majeure clause in any contract with hotels and meeting facilities.

“These clauses need to cover every situation outside of the contracting parties that might cause the planner to cancel the meeting,” says meetings industry attorney Joshua Grimes of the Grimes Law Offices in Philadelphia. “It may also allow for a meeting to be reduced in appropriate circumstances, rather than a total cancellation.”

However, Grimes notes that a typical Force Majeure clauses may not fully protect the planner from attrition penalties in the case of a health crisis.

“Some Force Majeure provisions may cover a health concern like coronavirus, but they usually do not contemplate a situation where attendees may not want to travel out of fear of catching an illness that is centered in another location,” he says. “Similarly, Force Majeure clauses usually do not anticipate that some attendees may be banned from leaving their countries.”

In these cases, it’s crucial for planners to have a dialogue with their hotels and other vendors, he adds.

“If one group is thinking of canceling an event, others probably are as well,” Grimes said. “The venues and vendors may have a suggested solution that would work for all involved.”

If no resolution can be found through discussions, the next course of action is to read the contract carefully, preferably with an attorney, to see if there are provisions or nuances that would allow the planner to get some relief, Grimes adds.

“For example, if the Force Majeure clause excuses performance ‘in part’ based on an unforeseen occurrence, the planner may have a contractual right to reduce the event without liability,” he says.

Attorney Barbara Dunn, partner at Barnes & Thornberg LLP in Chicago, emphasizes the importance of including a “catchall” provision in the Force Majeure clause that covers anything that prohibits fulfillment of the meeting.

“For example, the clause may not mention infectious disease, but it does say ‘any other cause beyond the party’s control,’” she says. “We can never list all the specific things that can go wrong.”

Insurance Coverage

Purchasing event cancellation insurance is another way to protect against financial loss due to a health crisis or other disaster. Coverage is especially important in the case of meetings and trade shows that are a revenue source for an organization, according to Dunn.

“Many organizations don’t purchase it, despite recommendations from lawyers, because of the high premium cost,” she said. “The reason the cost is high is because the coverage is that good—it really underwrites the bottom line revenue for your meeting.”

Dunn notes that such policies not only cover cancellation, but reduced attendance. However, she cautions that coverage for terrorist incidents or infectious disease is usually not included in basic premiums, but requires endorsements at added cost.

Plan of Action

Tyra Hilliard, an attorney and expert on meetings risk management issues, stresses the importance of having a crisis plan in place. While many organizations have such plans, she notes that all too often they don’t specifically pertain to meetings.

Fortunately, there are resources that meeting planners can use in formulating a plan. Along with consultation with risk management experts, Hilliard recommends visiting the U.S. Government’s FEMA website, which offers an emergency response plan template for events. – https://training.fema.gov/emiweb/downloads/is15aspecialeventsplanning-jamanual.pdf )

Along with formulating a written plan that addresses issues such as emergency response and business continuity, Hilliard says it’s essential to work with hotel and security staff from the very beginning. 

“You need to ask the right questions of your partners before you get on site,” she said. “This should happen at the RFP stage. Make it part of the criteria for choosing partners.” 

Health Safety Practices

To protect against a health crisis, vetting partners on their sanitation practices and educating attendees on precautions also come into play.

“We all need to ask more of our vendors about what they are doing, not just in regards to the coronavirus but with all flus and other diseases,” says meetings educator Joan Eisenstodt.  “For example, do they have hand sanitizers, do they provide flu shots for their employees? As planners, we need to ask hard questions and let hotels know how important this is to us.”

Event planner and food and beverage consultant  Tracy Stuckwrath of Thrive Meetings & Events agrees, adding that planners should learn what they can about  housekeeping and food service practices.

“You need to ask hotels about how they keep rooms sanitized—do housekeepers wipe down handles, do they disinfect the rooms in between guests?” she says. “Who on your staff has food safety certification? What are your practices with buffets? Have you taken steps to remind your employees about safe food handling?”

Also important is to remind attendees about the basics of staying healthy, Eisenstodt says.

“A lot of it is the usual stuff which may seem silly but isn’t at all—providing hand sanitizer and hospital-grade wipes, reminding people to wash their hands and to refrain from hugging or shaking hands. You can do this with firmness but with some humor from a mainstage.”

Communication Plan

When disaster threatens an event, having a strong communications plan in place is also important. According to Stuckrath, there should be a variety of channels in place for communicating information to attendees, before, during and after the meeting.

“You can’t just rely on the meetings app—you can’t assume everyone has downloaded it,” she says. “You’ll need to use the website, texting, e-mails, social media—whatever it takes for everyone to get the information they need. This applies not only during the event, but afterwards. Sometimes people get infected during the meeting, but don’t show signs until it’s over. How do you handle that?”

Barbara Dunn recommends enlisting the aid of a public relations or crisis communication expert if circumstances warrant it.

“What we say and how we say it are very important during a crisis,” she said. “We need to acknowledge the tragic nature, but we don’t want to stoke fear or hysteria. Having someone come across as insensitive could create big problem for the organization. It could spark wildfire on social media.”

Reliable Sources

Risk management experts say it is essential to consult trusted sources in the destination and organizations such as the World Health Organization (www.who.int) and Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov) rather than simply follow media coverage, which may paint a distorted picture.

PCMA (www.pcma.org) is partnering with the Corporate Event Marketing Association (www.cemaonline.com) on a series of interactive webinars over the next few weeks: 

We are partnering with CEMA to announce a series of interactive webinars over the next few weeks to get you what you need. Click the links for more information and to register:

We have also begun working with our leadership, infectious disease experts, regional advisory boards, business partners and our members to define the foundational objectives of our COVID-19 recovery efforts. 

Among the many other organizations offering coronavirus guidelines are the National Restaurant Association (www.restaurant.org) and HUB International (www.hubinternational.com), a risk management services company.

 

Maria Lenhart is an award-winning writer, editor and content marketer specializing in travel, tourism and the meetings industry. Her work has appeared in over 100 publications.