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

The Law & the Planner

By Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.


Contingency plans and strong communication guide events through uncertain times

The saber rattling has become a cacophony. Terrorism alerts are at an all-time high. State Department travel warnings are issued almost daily.

Concerns with Iraq and North Korea have heightened the discomfort of travelers. While airlines and other industry agencies have developed contingency plans to deal with war-related threats, emergency measures such as commercial planes being diverted to move personnel and equipment for military purposes can leave passengers high and dry.

If there ever was a time for maintaining communication between planner and supplier, it is now. In times of strife, you want to be able to renegotiate elements of contracts already in place, in case location, attendee jitters and corporate travel policies jeopardize the meeting.

Recognizing the changing nature of meetings in this time of uncertainty, several major hotel chains have announced that they are waiving any cancellation or attrition fees in an effort to capture business. Meeting planners should be asking their suppliers if they are prepared to do the same, and what else can be worked out to allow business to go forward.

From a legal perspective, this negotiation will depend in no small part on how your contract and its force majeure clause covers the issue of excusing performance.

The force majeure clause in a 21st-century contract automatically should deal with issues of terrorism, discontinuation of transportation and a high level of national alert, such as an orange or a red warning. The cancellation clause also might include references to alerts, state department warnings and travel advisories, but if you have a strong force majeure clause, the cancellation portion will be moot.

We will also include a line covering the situation where the host or the attendee’s company has issued a no-travel policy, causing the meeting to be canceled or the block to be reduced.

If your organization decides to go forward with an event, try to renegotiate with the hotel to eliminate any liability charges, such as attrition fees. It is to the benefit of both parties to do this. If the parties cannot come to terms here, I can guarantee the result will be a “lose/lose” situation, where the host will have to pay the fees and the property will lose the planner’s future business.

Beyond the contract, now is the time to go back to your client (if you are a supplier) or your vendor (if you are a planner) to discuss contingency measures. You should have in place a “rapid deployment plan” for communicating with attendees, vendors and other customers through e-mail, fax or telephone.

It will be imperative to demonstrate to attendees that they will be as safe at the meeting as if they had remained at home. The planner and the venue need to show they are aware of concerns and that precautions and plans are in place in case of emergency.

All in all, not only from a legal but from a practical standpoint, effective communication and working to encourage attendance are paramount. You need to make your event and program important enough for people to attend regardless of the circumstances.

As was often said after Sept. 11, 2001, we should not let terrorists interfere with what was and is important to us. The admonition used at the beginning of the roll call on the classic TV police drama Hill Street Blues is appropriate here, too: Go out and do business, but “be careful out there.”

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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