It seems only yesterday that this column last addressed the issue of pandemics -- but it was in July 2006. Then, of course, the topic was severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, followed by the avian flu.
At press time, the H1N1 virus is in the news, having so far been found in more than 33 countries, and cases in the United States have been increasing exponentially.
This strain, according to health officials, is a composite of swine, avian and human viruses that infects through airborne contaminants. It is a descendent of the pandemic flu of 1918, which killed as many as 100 million people worldwide.
So far, H1N1 hasn't proved any more deadly than more familiar strains of flu, and many governments seem better prepared to deal with such a disease than even in the recent past. However, history teaches us that while the first wave of a flu virus generally is mild, it goes through numerous mutations and can come back in a more virulent form. So the fear is not for the first time around but rather the rebound effect.
Preventative Steps What is the planner to do when a situation like this makes attendees decide to stay home, makes holding an event in a destination unfeasible for the moment or makes it hard for attendees to get there because airlines have cut capacity? As we advised three years ago, contracts with a well-articulated force majeure clause can do much to protect organizations.
To work effectively, force majeure clauses need to be as specific as possible, outlining all instances that will allow cancellation by either party. Also, they need to have a degree of objectivity in them. Remember, the clause is based on the inability for the entire event to take place unless otherwise spelled out.
When dealing with issues of health or, for that matter, safety, the ability to use a third-party source such as a travel warning as an indicator of what will trigger a legitimate excuse to cancel a program becomes very helpful.
For example, a force majeure clause can state that a government warning or health advisory for a meeting's destination, or against travel to that destination, can be used to excuse performance without liability. But note that such a warning in place today does not necessarily excuse performance a month from now. Thus, have the clause be effective for a few weeks before and during the event, as in: "Should a traveler advisory be issued any time during the period of one month before the event through the time of the event, performance by either party may be forgiven without liability."
Looking Ahead Don't think for a minute that you'll be able to cancel a meeting scheduled for January 2010 because of the outbreak of a disease such as H1N1 today. It doesn't work that way.
But be sure to stay on top of the issues. Keep abreast of advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov), the World Health Organization (who.org), the U.S. State Department (state.gov) and equivalent departments in other countries for all your meetings.
Also, be sure to review your cancellation or business interruption insurance. Most policies exclude communicable diseases from coverage unless you have a specific rider for this. Note also that if your program is outside of the United States, coverage might not apply.
Pandemic is a scary word and often causes quite a bit of overreaction. But the health and safety of staff and attendees should be of paramount concern to any prudent meeting professional. Such diligence should be practiced every day, not just when the headlines are screaming.