by Lisa Grimaldi | February 01, 2010

While the spread of H1N1 has waned in much of the United States, the crisis has hardly been resolved. Health officials are warning the public about the dangers of complacency, and they fear that the number of outbreaks could rise again in the coming months.

Pandemic scares are still top of mind for many meeting professionals. Last fall, 83 percent of planners polled by M&C said they were concerned about an outbreak affecting future events, yet only 52 percent had a formal crisis strategy in place or were in the process of developing one. Following is critical advice on how to create an appropriate pandemic response plan.

Assess risk First and foremost, says Vicki Hardwarden, vice president of knowledge for Meeting Professionals International, "planners should be informed of the risks involved in a pandemic -- how it can affect their organization, their ability to meet their objectives, attendance and the attendees themselves."

Julia Silvers authorJulia Silvers, author of Risk Assessment for Meetings and Events, advises planners to look at the scenario as they would for any type of risk that they assess for events. For example, when a meeting is held during the summer in a hurricane-prone destination, planners need to consider issues such as evacuation plans, alternative destinations, postponements, and all the costs and affects on business that a storm could present.

When conducting a risk assessment for a pandemic, Silvers says, "take the fear and panic associated with an outbreak out of the equation and think strategically" about the different ways it could affect the meeting. For example: attendees getting ill beforehand and canceling (or worse, she says, attending anyway because they've paid and don't want to lose their investment); attendees getting ill on-site and needing medical attention; healthy attendees leaving early if illness breaks out; the company and sponsors losing money and not getting return on objective if the event is canceled or poorly attended, and how an outbreak should be addressed in contracts with suppliers.

Involve top brass Silvers urges planners to involve their CEO or other high-level executive when conducting a risk assessment. Find out what that person's objectives are for the event. "In the C-suite, it's all about the bottom line," she notes. "The trick is to get them to come up with numbers for their expectations regarding attendance, money raised, message delivered, increased sales, etc."

Once those numbers are on the table, weigh the costs -- in dollars and business results -- that a pandemic might engender, using scenarios such as the event needing to be canceled, rescheduled and/or changed in format from, say, face-to-face to virtual.