by Jonathan T. Howe, esq. | July 01, 2006

The Oxford Dictionary defines a pandemic disease as one that is prevalent over a whole country or the world. The possibility of a pandemic caused by the avian flu is all over the news these days, along with details about past flu outbreaks, notably in 1918, 1957 and 1968. In 1918 alone, some 50 to 100 million people died worldwide.
    The threat of a bird flu pandemic has motivated Pres-ident George W. Bush to issue a series of edicts dictating how this particular threat should be addressed. But many have suggested that his recommendations do not go far enough. 
    Michael Leavitt, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, stated at a recent summit on emergency preparedness that “we don’t know what a pandemic would look like, we don’t know when it will come, but we do know we are overdue and underprepared.” These ominous words should remind meeting professionals to prepare their contracts now, not later.

Recent Past
The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in China and Canada in early 2003 led to the cancellation of numerous meetings because attendees were afraid to travel where SARS had cropped up. Cancellation fees were paid by planners whose contracts lacked a rock-solid force majeure clause.
    As we have advised clients for many years, include in your cancellation clause all possible reasons that your event might not be held.
    Also, in your force majeure clause, define as a reason to reduce liability any advisory given by a government or agency of the government that all travel, or travel to a specific location, is not advised. In addition, define how any threat to health and safety should excuse performance.
    With strong force majeure and cancellation clauses in your contracts, if there is a mild or severe occurrence of bird flu -- or for that matter any other contagion -- that has an adverse impact on attendance, the outbreak will excuse all parties from fulfilling some or all elements of the contract.
    These should be reciprocal clauses. Suppliers probably wouldn’t be able to perform any better than the host organization during the outbreak and therefore also should be excused from the constraints of the contract.

Keep in Touch
Planners should be integral participants as their organizations plan how to handle a pandemic. But the lessons from the SARS scare taught meeting planners it is necessary to prepare not just for cancellations and travel difficulties, but for how best to keep communication lines open during a crisis.
    In that regard, you should help create a solid program for staying in touch with employees who might be out of the office attending meetings as news of an outbreak is announced or who have traveled to areas where the outbreak has occurred.
    Being ready to host alternatives to face-to-face meetings also should be part of the pandemic plan. In this electronic age, planners should be able to set up a webinar or audio conference quickly, so disconnected employees can convene from home or wherever they are.
    For more information on ways to prepare for a pandemic, visit these websites:
    * The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (; 
    * The Centers for Disease Control (; and 
    * The World Health Organization (
    It might sound like I’m playing the “Chicken Little” patter too loudly, but in this instance, the bird flu might be real, and the sky indeed might fall.