Future-proof your Event Strategy With Contingency Planning

By Devin Cleary, VP of Global Events at Bizzabo

The last two years taught event organizers about change. The events landscape underwent a transformation, and event experience leaders demonstrated agility, pivoting to virtual and hybrid formats to offer attendees engaging experiences while maintaining COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Now, demand for in-person events has returned, and Event Experience Leaders have the opportunity to build on lessons learned from their pandemic pivots to offer the audience a great experience, no matter what unexpected hurdles arise. Unfortunately, while 86% of event teams call their risk management processes “mature” or “emerging,” only 16.6% of teams consider themselves “mission-ready” to respond to event challenges.

With mounting challenges and heightened audience expectations, event teams must do everything they can to ensure events proceed smoothly. Teams must be ready to respond quickly and effectively to shifting circumstances like:

  • Rising travel costs.
  • Economic uncertainty.
  • Supply-chain issues.
  • Future health and safety crises.

In lieu of a crystal ball, contingency planning offers event teams the tools to pursue the best possible event outcome in the face of challenges.

Here’s a look at four steps to help your team incorporate contingency planning into your event strategies.

1. Create an event contingency planning team.

Establish a contingency planning team during an event’s early strategy phase. Assign specific roles and responsibilities for each team member, whether they’re members of your events team or part of a cross-functional workstream. Focus on the job titles and skills needed for each contingency planning position (e.g., event technician, event marketer, Event Experience Leader) rather than a specific person to bolster your team’s ability to manage employee turnover.

Then, determine a chain of command for decision-making. By identifying who’ll make game-time decisions well before your event takes place, you’ll minimize chaotic onsite moments and avoid uncertainty that only adds pressure during stressful situations.

Finally, decide how your team will communicate with each other — a dedicated Slack channel or a group text conversation, for example. Choose a channel that makes it easy to communicate on-the-go and find essential information quickly and easily.

2. Conduct scenario thinking exercises.

Scenario thinking focuses on imagining the unexpected forces capable of changing the course of your event and identifying mitigation strategies. By regularly incorporating scenario thinking into your event strategizing, you’re preparing both for specific upcoming events and developing your team’s scenario-thinking skills for future uncertainties.

As event organizers, we use our knowledge, experience, and creativity for scenario thinking. Then we use those scenarios to fuel our contingency planning efforts.

Consider these recent examples of possible event complications:

  • The transmission of a new COVID-19 variant increases near the event location.
  • Transportation costs rise dramatically, causing potential attendees to rethink traveling to an in-person event.
  • Several event team members leave our organization, and we struggle to fill their positions, impacting event execution.
  • Supply-chain issues prevent us from receiving expected goods and supplies ahead of our event experiences.

Our team strives to identify at least 20 different scenarios each time we convene. While we understand we can’t predict every possibility, these sessions strengthen our scenario thinking skills so we’re not caught off guard by situations most likely to occur.

In addition to regularly meeting as a team, we periodically invite colleagues, partners, and vendors for contingency “hackathons,” where we work together to identify potential scenarios. By leveraging multiple perspectives and areas of expertise, we broaden the scope of our imagining and reduce the likelihood of overlooking a possible issue. We also draw on the breadth of experience to help prioritize potential problems. This kind of collaboration brings organizations closer together and offers colleagues insight into the events team’s responsibilities and the level of planning involved in executing successful event experiences.

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3. Manage run-of-show exercises.

Scenario thinking provides the fuel for run-of-show exercises. During these exercises, your contingency planning team evaluates each element of an event’s program to identify items with a high probability of not going as planned. Spend less time contemplating elements ranked lower in probability, and focus on the higher-ranked aspects. Develop backup plans to keep your event on track.

Here’s an example: Your keynote speaker is flying to the U.S. from Germany, but her travel is delayed. A missing speaker is a high-probability issue, so take a more granular approach. Consider the questions and problems the delay introduces.

  • Will you have the original speaker join the event virtually and present their keynote?
  • What’s the timeline for deciding to move to a backup speaker?
  • Have you selected a backup speaker? Will you assign the keynote to a speaker already onsite?
  • Who will inform staff members of the change? Who will tell volunteers and executive leadership?
  • Have you prepared messaging for this possibility, or do you still need to craft it?

Run-of-show exercises uncover the strategic and tactical issues involved in each probable scenario. They empower teams to think through the moving parts of each mitigation strategy and ask deeper questions until they’re satisfied with the answers.

4. Hold rehearsals

It’s one thing to see a plan in writing and another to put that plan into action. Your team should conduct mock rehearsals for high-possibility scenarios to hone its responses to some of your event’s more unpredictable elements. Our team invites senior executives to rehearsals because their presence adds to the gravity of the run-through, creating a level of pressure similar to the real-life onsite situation.

After conducting three or four exercises, you’ll have greater confidence that your team members understand and can execute your contingency plans with a knowledgeable, unified approach. You’ll also identify any mitigation strategies that need further refining, allowing your team to iterate and improve their plan.

‘No regrets’ moves

As you work out the most likely scenarios and the best mitigation approaches, you’ll likely identify common strategies that provide relief in most situations. Think of these as your “no regrets” moves: a strategy you’ll be glad you employed no matter how your event plays out. After years of event experience, these three moves stand out to me.

Prioritize your audience.

Look at everything through the lens of your audience. When you’re considering several backup options, ask yourself which choice will provide the best experience for your audience. Which option minimizes friction for your attendees? Which option helps attendees feel connected to each other and to something bigger than themselves? Centering your audience will lead you to the right decision.

Leverage your event ecosystem.

Your team will benefit from the wisdom of your event ecosystem: the event technology partners, digital strategists, partners, and other vendors who also work in the event space. Don’t let your relationships stop with contracts and orders. Maximize the value of your strategic partnerships by leaning on them for insights. Learn from their best practices and look to them for fresh perspectives on trends likely to affect your upcoming events.

Manage attendee expectations.

No matter what arises, spend time preparing attendees for changes to your event plans. Some organizations send out videos in advance explaining anticipated changes and offering details about what attendees should expect when they arrive onsite. Others host live “Ask Me Anything” sessions a few weeks before the event to encourage engagement, build anticipation, and resolve confusion ahead of time.

We all want to execute our event visions perfectly, but external forces don’t always cooperate. We’ll never manage to anticipate every upcoming obstacle, but we can always do more to mitigate known possibilities. Preparing for what could go wrong is the best way to help preserve the essence of your event and offer attendees an untroubled, impactful experience. A robust contingency planning approach equips event teams to act decisively and effectively, no matter what comes their way.

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