June 01, 2001
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio June 2001 Current Issue
June 2001 Back to BasicsPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

Back to Basics

By Oren Jaffe, CMP


An outbreak begs the question: What can a planner do to prevent illness at a meeting?

The words “Legionnaires’ disease” bring back memories of the American Legion convention in July 1976 at Philadelphia’s BellevueStratford Hotel, when 221 attendees became seriously ill during and after the meeting, and 34 died.

There have been few headlines about Legionnaires’ disease since, but it hasn’t gone away. According to the Centers for Disease Control, each year between 8,000 and 18,000 people contract what is officially called Legionella pneumophila, and 5 to 30 percent die from it. An outbreak did make news this past winter, perhaps because it struck employees at a high-profile Ford Motor Co. plant.

People catch the disease, a form of pneumonia, by inhaling mist from contaminated water mist that in the original case was spread through the hotel’s ventilation system.

The 1976 outbreak shows how tragedy can result from poor conditions in or around a host facility and other meeting venues. To avoid disasters, as well as less severe problems such as minor food poisoning, planners need to add a few items to their destination inquiries, site-inspection checklist and even contracts.

In the news. After choosing a destination, keep alert for unusual goings-on there by checking with the convention and visitors bureau and chamber of commerce both before and during your event.

During the 1976 American Legion convention, there was a strike of sanitation workers in Philadelphia. At one point, the CDC theorized that the disease arose from bacteria growing and spreading from the uncollected trash on the streets.

The CDC theory was later disproved, but if such a scenario is proven to be the cause of an illness, you and your organization could be held liable. It could be argued that you should have learned of the situation during your routine pre-meeting inspections.

In the corridors. Be health-wary during a site inspection. Assess the cleanliness of the building and ensure that proper sanitation practices are being followed in all areas, including meeting rooms, kitchens, rest rooms and guest rooms. Also, ask the property how many and what types of health and medical incidents have occurred in recent years. Try to get the responses in writing.

Lastly, ask meeting sites for a list of at least five past and current clients as references. Call them.

The contract. Both a planner and her organization might be held liable if someone falls ill at a meeting. To avoid this, add protection in your contracts. The clause should indemnify, defend and hold harmless you and your organization from being held liable for a sudden or unexpected health or medical occurrence originating from any venue used for the meeting, or from any other source that was out of your control or knowledge before or during the meeting period.

Several government Web sites have helpful information on the health hazards a planner might encounter.

Concerning food, details on meat safety are listed by the Food Safety and Inspection Service ( For information on other foods, visit the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (

The CDC Web site ( offers information on diseases and environmental health guidelines. It also has details on indoor air quality issues (

Discussions of pesticides, water and environmental assessment, and foods can be found at the Environment Protection Agency’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances ( For a gateway to additional food-safety sites, go to

Jeremy Weir Alderson is a free-lance writer who works out of Hector, N.Y.

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