by Jonathan T. Howe, esq. | November 01, 2005

Last month, we discussed the legal fallout from disasters like hurricanes Rita and Katrina and ways planners could handle meetings that had to be moved or canceled. This month, we’ll talk about the importance of preparing in advance for natural and accidental disasters.
    For this lesson, we look to the Boy Scouts of America. The organization’s 2005 National Scout Jamboree had it rough. At Fort A.P. Hill, just south of Fredericksburg, Va., in late July, as more than 40,000 leaders and scouts were getting settled at the event, four scout leaders were electrocuted while attempting to set up a tent; the poles they were holding touched electrical wiring. Later, while awaiting a visit from President George W. Bush, hundreds of attendees were treated for heat-related symptoms, and more than 30 were taken to area hospitals.
    What lessons does this hold for meeting planners?

While one can never anticipate every possible thing that could go wrong, planners and suppliers can use the contract to minimize risk to all concerned. At the very least, written agreements should include a specific “force majeure” clause. Detailed in this section should be disasters from acts of God (such as hurricanes) and disruptions caused by humans (such as a labor strike). In addition, the language should state “or other causes beyond the control of the parties” or similar wording.
    Another area to address is performance. Many contracts refer to “inadvisable,” “commercially unreasonable” or “materially affected” conditions that would make going forward with the event impossible, thus canceling the agreement without penalty. In addition, you can include that if a set percentage of attendees are unable to attend, the contract can be canceled.
    In some cases, you might want to go forward with the program. If so, the contract should allow you to do so without penalty. For example, if you have fewer attendees as a result of a disaster, you will not be held responsible for attrition or meeting space rental as a result. Lower room rates offered to guests during your event dates also should be available to your group.

As with all risk management, business interruption or cancellation insurance is a must. (For detailed guidance, see “In Case of Emergency,” page 63.) Be sure to know what is and is not covered, as the policy language tends to be very specific. For instance, those in the Gulf Coast learned that flood damage was not included in basic policies.
    Read the fine print in your contract, and if you don’t understand it, ask for clarification and don’t sign until you’re satisfied.

Anticipate problems
Planners must ascertain beforehand what could lead to trouble at an event, such as obstacles on the grounds or severe weather conditions. Then, attendees must be warned about these potential hazards.
    To find possible man-made hazards, walk the facility before the event begins. Even during an indoor event, failure to alert people about dangers such as a wet floor can lead to liability.
    When weather is a potential problem, err on the side of caution. To cope with dangerous eruptions of nature, meeting professionals need to ask a lot of questions and have contingency plans in place. For instance, lightning is a threat to golf tournaments and other outdoor activities, so ask the venue what warning systems are in place, and find out the location of shelters on the course.

    For tornado-, hurricane- and earthquake-prone areas, ask what plans your venues have in place to handle them, including evacuation plans.