by Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM | April 1, 2013

Elizabeth ZielinskiI have given a lot of guidance in this blog about how and why I do things, and advice for improving your own planning processes. What I think gets overlooked sometimes are the ways we come to learn those lessons in the first place -- often, by making world-class mistakes. We can’t avoid mistakes; they’re a natural part of life, work and learning. Sometimes they’re the most efficient way to learn a particular lesson, because the results of a mistake are so profound that we will never make the same one again. What follows are some of my own hard-won lessons.
The mistake I made: I was planning a board meeting for a trade association at a five-star resort. About two weeks out, a major news event involving the association’s industry occurred, in which nationwide public opinion went strongly against one of the member companies that was going to attend the meeting. A few days before the meeting began, I learned that a protest was being organized at the resort location, and that national news organizations were planning to be present to cover the story. The potential for negative press for the company, the association, and the resort was high. I had no plan for properly responding to any of this activity, and not enough time to form a good one.
The lesson I learned: Always have a crisis communication plan in place. If there isn’t an individualized one for a specific meeting, there should at least be a basic one for the host organization that can be implemented regardless of location. One of the keys to managing a public relations problem is remaining calm when others are not, and proper planning allows that to happen.
The mistake I made: A different client this time, but another board meeting. The meeting was planned for Washington, D.C. One week out, I was contacted by the hotel, telling me that a diplomatic party was going to be using the hotel over my dates, and for security reasons they would need the use of one entire floor, as well as the floors directly above and below it. Washington, D.C., doesn’t have skyscrapers, so three floors of the hotel was most of the sleeping rooms -- including the ones I had blocked for the group.
The lesson I learned: It’s beneficial to know what the risk areas are in a particular destination. A diplomatic matter may be uncommon in some cities, but it’s not in Washington, nor would it be in other world capitals. Other cities may have an increased risk of seasonally severe weather, civil unrest or other location-specific challenges. You can’t plan for everything, but knowing where the problems are most likely to occur helps in preparing your response. In this case, my group was offered the option of different meeting dates. Although that option was not ideal and did not reimburse travel that had already been booked, the hotel graciously provided financial incentives to make this resolution agreeable.
The mistake I made: I booked a small boutique property for a group that liked independent, unique facilities. Shortly after contracting, the hotel announced an ownership change that would transition it into a more inexpensive chain hotel. I did not have language in my contract that would protect my group’s interests in the event of a brand or ownership change. The boutique nature of the hotel was a crucial part of my site selection, and that was going to change before the meeting occurred.
The lesson I learned: Economic certainties do not exist. Even if a hotel has been operating under the same brand for decades, it can change. And it’s rare that a new owner or management company will maintain the status quo in all areas of the hotel after taking over. Know the names of the parties to the contract, including the hotel’s actual ownership (vs. the brand it carries, which may not be the owner), and follow the financial news related to that company to stay ahead of the potential influence on your site. Also include a clause in your contract that provides some protection to you in the event the hotel changes ownership or management.
Bonus lesson:  Each of the above problems would have been lessened if I had conducted better risk assessments. Risk assessment doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be as simple as a brainstorming session in which you consider what could happen to prevent the meeting from delivering the expected results, and then considering what could be done to mitigate those possibilities. Risk assessment is like insurance in the sense that you hope you don’t need it, but if you do it is enormously beneficial.
I’d love for you to share a story of one of your own lessons; we can all learn from each others’ mistakes. Please feel free to share via the comments below, or by email to me at