by Jonathan T. Howe, Esq. | April 01, 2016
Worldwide awareness of the Zika virus -- which is carried by mosquitoes and can cause neurological disorders and neonatal malformations, according to the World Health Organization -- has ramped up in the past two months.

When a virus like Zika starts spreading rapidly -- and threatening meetings -- what legal recourse do you have?

With travelers rethinking trips to affected areas like South America and this summer's Olympics in Rio, in particular, events all over the region are under scrutiny.

In evaluating the Zika situation or any instance where a health problem might cause meeting hosts to withdraw from a destination, several factors must be taken into consideration. For example, the World Health Organization, which is an agency of the United Nations, identifies areas that are susceptible to the virus and other health concerns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a U.S. public-health agency, also makes such determinations.

Unfortunately, these bodies can have differences of opinion. For several weeks back in 2003, when the SARS epidemic was in full swing, the WHO and the CDC disagreed on how dangerous it was to travel to Toronto. So, you need to spell out in your contract which organization (or both) is governing your cancellation clause.

When cancellation clauses are not worded well, hosts are liable for the revenue promises they made to hotels, and will face charges outlined in their contracts.

To protect your event against Zika or other concerns that might make attendees reluctant to travel, planners must include in contracts the ability to reduce numbers if attendees stay home due to a perceived threat. For example (and be sure to vet this with your own legal counsel): "Should Organization wish to continue with the event, but because of travel advisories as to health, security and/or terrorism, which might cause a reduction in attendance, upon notice, Organization shall be able to reduce its room block accordingly, without liability and without a reduction in amenities, etc., that are contingent on room block and pickup."

The wording must also define what constitutes the need to cancel the program outright. This way, planners and suppliers will be prepared to work consistently in tandem.

All contracts related to the event should include a uniform cancellation/modification proposal. The number-reduction and cancellation clauses in the hotel agreement should be the same in contracts for all third-party vendors.

Force majeure clauses, generally, are not applicable in this case. It has to be impossible for the event to go forward to invoke this clause.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner of the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd., specializing in meetings and hospitality law. Email questions to him at [email protected]