June 01, 2003
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio June 2003 Current Issue
June 2003 lawandplan.gifPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

The Law & the Planner

By Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.


When a SARS-like illness threatens your meeting, what legal recourse do you have?

With the threat of contracting severe acute respiratory syndrome continuing to be a source of concern, it will be a while before travelers and meetings return full-force to the destinations that were hit hardest by the new disease.

In evaluating the SARS situation or any similar 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 SARS epidemic and other health concerns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a U.S. public-health agency, also takes on the responsibility of making such identifications.

Unfortunately, these organizations can have differences of opinion. For several weeks, the WHO and the CDC disagreed on how dangerous it was to travel to Toronto, leaving travelers in a state of confusion and causing several organizations to pull their meetings from the city. If their cancellation clauses were not worded well, those organizations are liable for the revenue promises they made to their host hotels, and they might face charges outlined in their contracts.

As we continue to experience ongoing travel concerns, the need for realistic ways to work together becomes more important. Meeting professionals must include in contracts the ability to reduce their numbers because of the potential lack of attendance; wording must also define what constitutes the need to cancel the program outright. With this outline, planners and suppliers will be better prepared to work creatively and consistently in tandem.

All contracts related to the event should include a uniform cancellation/modification proposal. This means the number-reduction and cancellation clauses in the hotel agreement should be the same in contracts for all third-party vendors, such as the special-event producer and the transportation provider.

Meeting participants are facing other issues. With companies restricting employee travel in a number of ways, the planner needs to consider these mandates in the same vein as a travel advisory from the State Department or CDC. The meetings professional should address up front with the hotel and other vendors what each can do to minimize the financial risk if attendees choose not to visit the area. For example:

Know your group. Will your attendees be faced with issues or limits that might prevent travel? If your group is made up of individuals who might need to be in point A but cannot make it to venue B, it should be spelled out in the contract. For example, if the group includes corporate executives who are now mandated to go to the home office, not the sales meeting, the contract needs the flexibility to make the change.

Define the process for change. Make sure all involved parties understand their responsibilities for communicating what revisions need to be made to the contract and when they can be made. In good times, the block might need to be increased. In bad times, the block must be reduced. Outline specific timelines in the contract for adjustments.

Speak up ASAP. One cannot be blamed for bad news, but one can be blamed for not sharing it. Thus, even without contract provisions that provide protection, it is the responsibility of meetings professionals to communicate the status of their group. Waiting until it’s too late for the hotel to fill those rooms with other business just makes matters worse.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner in the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton, Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him at

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