When the unimaginable occurs within a week of your event
Ever wonder what REALLY happens when things go wrong at your favourite events?
Lessons Learned is a series that I wanted to share about the behind the scenes life of an event planner. Everyone always gets to see the amazing food and Instagram worthy pictures but the reality is, the behind the scenes planning doesn’t always feel quite as flawless. There are inevitably a long list of problems to solve and people to please to get from abstract vision to stunning experience and the lessons learned along the way are certainly worth sharing.
Now, with more time on my hands, it seems only appropriate that my first installment of this series should focus on my most recent event catastrophe – COVID-19.
Every March I work on a large scale 2 day event that attracts hundreds of attendees. After several years working with this client, the details behind each aspect now run like clockwork – that is until the coronavirus hit us like a ton of bricks. Less than one week before the event was set to take place, we were forced to cancel and all of my years of experience could not prepare us for how things unfolded.
The weeks leading up to this event, there were no known cases in our region. It appeared to be business as usual. The 11 days before load in only two cases were announced. According to our provincial health authorities the risk in our area was considered extremely low, and so we carried on.
A week out from the event and final numbers needed to be submitted for food and beverage along with a number of final sign offs that committed us to an array of different services and vendors. In the midst of our final preparations, a few cancellations began to slowly trickle in. These turned out to be our proverbial canaries in the coal mine but since our area was still operating as business as usual, we again, continued on.
Then on March 11, 2020 the World health organization declared what was happening a Pandemic and life as we knew it was going to start changing rapidly and so was this event.
Lesson One: Postponement vs Cancellation – Communication is Key.
With almost a year of planning for this event, no one wanted to see it cancelled. So a decision was initially made to postpone the event.
It was essential that we communicate with all event stakeholders as clearly as possible which meant a multitude of emails, phone calls, website updates, social media posts, advertising changes – the works. In those initial first few days it seemed like making this happen was still a possibility. So this was the initial messaging that was shared with all of the attendees while we went to work on crisis management for an event that would not be happening as originally planned.
Lesson Two – Event Partnerships – Strong Relationships Make a Difference
In order to assess how we could move forward, we needed to have some very open and honest conversations with all of our event partners about possible scenarios for the postponement or cancelation of our event. Not one of our contracts talks about anything as disastrous as a pandemic and truthfully if these contracts were to be left enforced it would have been financially catastrophic to my client. It should be noted this was March 12th and at this point neither the city or our provincial government had banned public events. We were a bit ahead of the curve and no relief was yet in sight.
As it turns out, our venue and supplemental partners were also doing their own damage control, but the overlying tone was that we were a long time client and they were committed to working with us to ensure the sustainability of this event. These were gestures that were legally not necessary at the time but thanks to our strong relationships, they ensured that our event would eventually live on one day – A huge relief.
Lesson Three – Patience, Patience, Patience
Being one of the first events forced to cancel, there was no roadmap or other events to look to for direction. We were it and information was limited. It’s easy to assume that refunds should automatically go out and plans for a new date be organized but with nearly 600 separate stakeholders, making these decisions without fully understanding the financial repercussions just wasn’t a possibility.
We had to be patient and wait until more information was available – not an easy ask with so many involved in such a large scale operation but we did it and it ensured clarity and organization once the final call had been made.
A wise women said to me while this was unfolding that it’s in hard times that we see who are true partners are. In the weeks that have followed, we have found that we have many amazing event partners who are just as committed to the long term sustainability for this event as we are. Our stakeholders have been incredibly patient and understanding as we work through the hundreds of refunds and our entire team has banded together in solidarity as we work through every new challenge that comes up.
We don’t yet know what the world is going to look like on the other side of this pandemic but after working through the stress and uncertainty that has overwhelmed this project over the past month, I’ve never been more confident that our industry will find the strength to adapt our resources to ensure our events live on and evolve for the better.