Planning for a trade show calamity needn't be a fiasco unto itself – if you follow a few basic steps.
One doesn't have to be a news junkie to know that we live in uncertain times for exhibitors. From the marked rise in extreme weather and natural disasters to the spike in incidents of civil unrest, there is no shortage of events that can impact your participation at a trade show. And while there are many players that have a hand in making the big-picture decisions regarding how to handle a crisis (e.g., show and venue management; local law enforcement; and national weather, health, transportation, and security agencies), it is still up to us exhibit managers and our senior executives to have contingency plans in place that will make the difference between organized calm and oh-my-God chaos.
However, creating a comprehensive emergency-management plan is a complicated and nuanced process, with such variables as the size and location of the show, the scale of an exhibitor's presence, and the nature of the industry – factors that make providing an all-inclusive guide next to impossible. But here are some tips and steps I take when planning for the worst that are applicable to any disaster-readiness strategy.
Review Show Materials
Depending on the size of the event, show and/or venue management may have established emergency procedures for fires, inclement weather, acts of violence, etc. So before coming up with a game plan that could possibly conflict with those procedures, review the exhibitor manual to see if there are emergency-response policies in place. And with today's heightened awareness regarding event security, some shows are taking steps to make it easier for attendees and exhibitors to send and receive information. For example, at the most recent International Consumer Electronics Show, organizers printed the phone numbers for the security offices at each of the venues on the backs of attendees' badges. Check with show management to see if it is using similar strategies, and include this information in your pre-show orientation materials.
Assess Your Potential Threats
In the course of my career, I have been responsible for supervising many of my clients' risk-management assessments, which is the first step in establishing a plan of action in the event of an emergency. After all, if you don't know what possible threats you may be facing at a show, how can you prepare for them? As such, I've created a document I call my Matrix of Event Risk, which provides a concrete framework of considerations (e.g., environmental, health and safety, technological, and social threats) and a starting-off point for emergency-management discussions with your internal and external stakeholders. The document is included at the end of this article along with step-by-step instructions on how to complete it.
Choose Designated Meeting Points
During a worst-case scenario, such as a show-floor fire or an active shooter, it is most likely that the venue will be evacuated. In such an event, it is critical that every member of your team be accounted for. The easiest way to do this is by establishing a designated place to meet outside of the convention center. Keep in mind that emergency situations can also occur off site, such as at a hotel or a hospitality event, so it's best to choose meet-up locations for every locale connected to the show. Use Google Maps, the hotel concierge, and/or local vendor partners to help in your selection. Optimal sites are far enough away from the crisis to avoid the accompanying chaos and congestion, yet close enough to be reached quickly. Also look for locations that are open 24 hours a day and can provide access to water, electricity, and a landline, such as hotel lobbies or convenience stores. Once you've selected your designated sites, share their addresses and maps to their locations with your staffers, ideally in your orientation materials and in a digital format (e.g., a PDF or JPEG) that can be quickly accessed remotely on a smartphone.
Gather and Consolidate Information
I always have one master document listing essential information for all on-site staffers so I can contact them in case of an emergency. If you have vendor staff who are part of your on-site team, add them to this list as well. This spreadsheet includes each team member's name; email address and cellphone number; arrival and departure dates; hotel name and room number (or the address of his or her nonhotel accommodations, such as an Airbnb property); and the name, phone number, and relationship of an emergency contact. I also like to include medical conditions that could affect a staffer's well-being during the show (e.g., diabetes, asthma, or a disability), but be sure to discuss gathering such personal info with your company's human-resources department beforehand.
Establish Communication Procedures
When disaster strikes, how do you plan to communicate with staffers who could be spread across the convention center, back at the hotel, or in transit to the venue? For situations that create an immediate threat to staffers' safety, it's essential to alert all of your team members as quickly as possible. Apps such as WhatsApp and a number of Software as a Service (SaaS) mobile event-management systems allow users to send group text messages and push notifications in seconds. Less urgent debacles can be communicated via individual text messages, emails, or phone calls.
Make Sure Everyone is in the Loop
All of your careful planning will be for naught if your staffers don't know what your emergency-management plans are. It is therefore crucial that you make disaster preparedness a priority during your pre-show orientation. Review what threats are most likely to occur, how those threats will be communicated, and what actions the team members should then take.
In addition to including the aforementioned established evacuation procedures put in place by the event venue and detailed information regarding your designated meet-up locations, make sure staffers know the name and address of the closest medical facility. I also recommend including the contact information for a designated emergency-response person at your home office should you or other senior members of your team become injured and unable to manage a crisis in the field. Finally, if you don't email staffers all of your orientation materials, consider sending the emergency-management sections so they can access them remotely.
There is no "one size fits all" way to manage threats, but using these steps can enable every member of your team to respond appropriately when the unthinkable occurs.
Charting a Course Through the Storm
CTSM, CEM, CMP, CMM
"The Booth Mom," is an independent exhibit project manager, trainer, speaker, consultant, and an Exhibitor Conference faculty member. CandyAdams@BoothMom.com
One of the first steps I take when creating an emergency-management plan is completing what I call my Matrix of Event Risk form, which helps me review the various potential calamities that my client could face at a particular show. To download this document, click here
Step 1: Identify all potential threats.
I begin by brainstorming all possible threats applicable to a given show and organize them into four categories: Environmental, Health and Safety, Technological, and Social. The most common emergencies are listed here, but every show, location, and industry carries its own risks, so take the time to consider all of the disaster situations that may arise.
Step 2: Determine the likelihood of each threat.
Ascertain the probability that each scenario could occur by researching the various threats. For example, use the National Weather Service (www.weather.gov) to review the show location's historic meteorological patterns and the weather forecast during the show dates, and check with the general service contractor or show management to identify possible labor issues (e.g., the expiration of union contracts).
Step 3: Check your insurance coverage.
Review your insurance policy or contact your carrier to determine if your are covered for each potential threat, and if so, to what extent.
Step 4: Identify all external decision-makers.
Determine which outside entities and agencies will: 1) establish that an immediate threat exists – e.g., the National Weather Service declaring a tornado warning – and 2) assume a leadership role in a crisis, such as local law enforcement responding to a protest near the venue.
Step 5: Select your internal leadership team.
Who on your team would be best suited to assume a leadership and/or decision-making role in each scenario? This will most likely include the exhibit manager and other senior staffers on site, but also consider off-site personnel. For example, members of your company's human-resources department should be involved in managing staff medical emergencies.
Step 6: Determine how the external decision-makers will communicate in the event of an emergency.
There are many ways the external decision-makers you've identified may pass along information during a crisis, e.g., via alerts on the show's website, public-address announcements at the venue, email, and social media. Contact these key players to ascertain what mode of communication they'll use so your team leaders will know how vital alerts and updates will be conveyed.
Step 7: Establish your internal communication strategy.
Finally, decide how your internal leadership team will share pressing news with on-site staffers and off-site stakeholders. Options range from apps such as WhatsApp – ideal when communicating an immediate threat – to standard text messages, emails, or old-fashioned "phone trees."