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Dec 15, 2010

Risk and Crisis Management – Part 2: Cancel, Relocate, Reschedule or None of the Above

In the last C O Newsletter article “Risk and Crisis Management – Part 1: Preparing for the Unexpected”, I mentioned the government-issued “Traveler’s Advisory Notices” from the U.S. State Department, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and many other national governments. The websites for these agencies should be read regularly before a conference. Another important organization to monitor is the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO may issue a traveler’s advisory in the case an outbreak of disease.

A government-issued Traveler’s Advisory Notice can affect the ability of the delegates to travel to the conference, to return home after the conference, and to enjoy the conference in safety. In rare instances, a traveler’s advisory could be so alarming that it will cause you to wonder if you should hold the conference as planned. On the other hand, available options may inform your decision to go forward as planned.

There are two levels of Traveler’s Advisories, alert and warning.

If an agency issues a simple “alert” there is reason to be concerned. If an “alert” is issued we can assume that it will have an impact on the number of people willing to travel to the conference. In this instance we should work with the hotel and/or convention center to reduce our obligations (i.e. reduce the guest room block, reduce the F&B minimum). It is also important to make sure that you address this alert on the conference website. A simple statement acknowledges the alert but assures delegates that the conference is going forward as planned.

If an agency issues a “warning” about traveling to where the conference is being held there is a need to act. You must notify the VP-Conferences, Executive Director, and/or the Manager Conference Services. He/She will initiate a preset decision-making process. The decision as to what to do in reaction to a traveler’s advisory is solely that of the SPS Executive Committee and IEEE Crisis and Issue Communications Team (CICT). Of course, we will need the Conference Organizing Committee to inform the decision as to what is the best course of action.

There are a few different options and all of them require careful and thorough consideration. Cancelling a conference is the most drastic and difficult of these and should not be considered unless circumstances make it unavoidable. Cancelling involves difficult and complicated tasks such as issuing refunds, finding alternate conferences for authors to present, and handling legal issues. Consider all circumstances. You may find that holding the conference is less risky than the alternative. Rescheduling or relocating a conference, although not as drastic, is still not an easy decision. Both options present financial and legal issues including the publication of papers; refunds; vendor contracts; registration reimbursements; etc.

Cancelling, rescheduling, or relocating may have a negative impact on the conference series, the delegates, the authors, the organizing committee and even the Society. There are no standards and no quantifiable criteria for making these decisions. Each conference has its own set of factors. The best practice is to be aware and communicate with the each other and the Conference Services staff.

- Lisa Schwarzbek, Conference Services Manager,