Risk Management for Event Planning: What to Do When a Crisis Strikes

The meeting and event industry is no stranger to crisis. Natural disasters, political unrest, health scares, or an unimaginable act can happen at any time, anywhere in the world. Event organisers must be prepared to pivot and act quickly. You’ve likely dealt with one-off event disruptions for years, and hopefully have a crisis management plan in place to address those situations. But when massive, widespread disruption strikes, the stakes are even higher. You need to immediately get your hands around your total event programme to make critical decisions about the events you host, the events you attend, and your internal events.

In this post, we’ll explore three different stages of crisis management:

  • Adapt: What do you need to do to address the current situation? What data and systems do you need to take immediate action?
  • Evolve: What lessons did you learn in the crisis and how do you move towards recovery? What are the areas that you adapted that may become an ongoing part of your events programme in the future?
  • Accelerate: Once you understand the lessons learned, how can you incorporate those learnings to accelerate your programme for even greater success in the future? What does your programme need to look like to drive future leads?

Step One: Adapt

Risk Management and Your Events Programme

Faced with a large-scale disruption, organisations may spend days, or longer, assembling the information they need to determine the best course of action. As information and circumstances change, organisers must remain agile and get as much intelligence as they can about the potential human and financial impact of the crisis. In any crisis management situation, information gathering is key. Meeting and event organisers must monitor the news constantly, understand new guidelines and regulations, and more. To get a better idea of how best to move forward for your organisation and event(s), assess your risks, partnerships, and anticipated refunds and financial implications first before making a decision.

Remember, health and safety are always the number one priority.

Understanding the Crisis

Identify the immediate events and attendees that are impacted and make an educated decision. Once the impacted events are identified, you must “triage” (assign degrees of urgency) your events.

How to Triage Your Events

Crises happen quickly and without warning. These steps will often happen simultaneously.

  1. Understand what is happening externally and internally. Follow governmental regulations, internal guidelines, and monitor the situation constantly.
  2. Get your team in place. This doesn’t just mean the planning team, but an internal sprint team that will help make decisions.
  3. Pull a list from your event management platform of every upcoming meeting and event and break down each event in the system by event type, month, size, spend, and  region
  4. Create a risk assessment document to rate events on a variety of conditions such as attendee impact, business impact, and internal impact.
  5. Go through your event list with relevant stakeholders and make a decision about each event. Small events may be easy to shift to virtual. Large events may require more a more strategic approach that uses technology, different communication plans, an altered agenda, and a modified budget.
  6. Stay agile. An ongoing crisis requires creativity and flexibility. Keep your team engaged and working toward providing the best events for attendees.

Conduct a Risk Assessment

Once you understand the crisis and have your list of events, you can conduct a risk assessment for each of them. Run reports based on event location, attendee location, and travel itineraries (including flight connection information) to understand how many attendees are impacted. You also want to ask yourself key questions. What are the risks of hosting your event? Do you know what’s in your cancellation clause with vendors? Do you have event insurance? What does your insurance actually cover? What is covered by your force majeure clause? It’s your organisation’s obligation to know what meetings are currently underway and what events are happening in the future to provide policy and process parameters that will support planning activities and protect the organisation’s interests.


  • Regulatory Risk: What are the state, federal, or industry regulations and how does their guidance impact your events?
  • Financial Risks: How is your organisation’s spend, revenue and ROI being impacted?
  • Contractual Risks: What are your contract clauses with vendors such as venue, destination management company, AV/production company, technology providers, and others.
  • Branding & Public Image:  How will hosting, cancelling, or any action impact your company’s brand and public image? Without oversight, meetings and events may not align with your corporate message.
  • Payment: Subject to human error and/or intentional fraud, make sure that all payments are accounted for.
  • Safety & Security: From natural disasters to political uprisings, conditions can arise that demand crisis preparedness.

Find out more about the need to implement a strategic meetings management programme.

Review Refunds and Financial Implications

Events are expensive, but they are also sources of revenue. When crisis hits your event programme, you need to understand the monetary implications. Revisit your cancellation policies for attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors. You’ll need to understand what money you need to refund each group and what that will do to your cash flow and revenue streams. Make sure your systems are set up to handle issuing online or automated refunds and prepare to handle offline refunds if necessary.

Do You Cancel, Postpone, or Go Virtual?

Once you’ve identified impacted events in your event programme, the risks, and the monetary impact, it’s time to decide whether to cancel the event, postpone for a later time, or go virtual. Each of these options comes with its own pros and cons. Your events range in the value they bring to your organisation. There is a big difference between cancelling a small internal meeting with twenty individuals and cancelling a conference with thousands of attendees.

Postponing the Event

Postponing the event gives you time to alter your plans, while still holding the event. In a crisis, be careful how far into the future you postpone your event. In a constantly evolving, long-lasting crisis situation, you may have to reevaluate the decision if you don’t push your event far enough into the future. Other event professionals will have the same idea as you, which will limit resources such as venues and suppliers. In the end, if the risk is too high, you may look at taking your event virtual.

Taking the Event Virtual

Going virtual is no replacement for an in-person event but is better than cancelling. In determining whether to take the event virtual, identify the original goals for the event. Was the goal to share content, information, or updates? Then the event could easily be virtual. Was the goal to gain leads and network? If that’s the case, a virtual event may not be the right option as you won’t achieve your goals. Taking an event virtual may seem complicated, but it isn’t. The good news is that the fundamentals at the core of in-person events also apply to virtual events: capturing registrations, measuring engagement, collecting post-event data, etc.

For more on taking your event virtual, read Virtual Events: The Ultimate Guide.

Cancelling the Event

Cancelling your event completely is the worst-case scenario, but sometimes it needs to be done. If the benefits of the event don’t outweigh the cost of making an alternate event plan, it might be better to cancel. If the crisis is one that occurs suddenly and with little time to plan around, cancelling may be your best and only choice.

What to Do Once You Make the Decision

You have a plan, now it’s time to move forward. That means communicating with attendees, working with vendors, and making any additional plans. Communication is key. Use your resources and attendee, exhibitor, and sponsor data to communicate immediately with registrants and event stakeholders. Make a clear decision from the start and amplify the decision and the reason for that decision in one place. As expenses tighten, save money where you can. If you have event technology in place, using it to automate processes and gain visibility into event programmes means you can make decisions that impact attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors quickly while remaining agile.

Once you make the decision, communicate the change with attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors

  • Custom email communication with all key information and an email or phone number to use if there are questions.
  • Update the event website with the new date or information about cancellation.
  • Update the mobile event app. If you’re going with a virtual event, add the links to on-demand videos or live streams to the agenda.
  • Send specific communications for sponsors and exhibitors as this will affect them differently than attendees.

How to Postpone Your Event for Attendees

Don’t want to cancel your event entirely, but unsure when you’ll reschedule? Follow these steps to postpone your event and inform registrants.

  1. Determine the impact this will have on invitees who’ve already registered. Before you decide to postpone your event, do the following:
    • Determine if you’ll allow attendees to cancel their registration as a result of the postponement.
    • Review your refund policy for clarity and determine when, or if, you’ll process refunds.
    • If you’ll be processing refunds, create a planner alert to be sent each time an invitee cancels their registration so that you’re aware of the cancellation as soon as it happens.
    • Plan how you’ll handle time-sensitive continuing education credits.
    • Establish how you’ll handle incurred event-related expense reimbursements from registrants.
    • Consider what will happen if registrants decide to keep their hotel and air bookings. If the event is postponed, consider when and how will their travel be re-booked.
  2. Create a regret survey. To capture additional information from those who decide to cancel, create a regret survey to be sent to the registrant upon cancellation.
  3. Close your event to registrations. Once you’ve decided to postpone the event, you’ll need to close it so that no one else can register.
  4. Inform your invitees and registrants. Create a custom email to efficiently address attendees. Don’t forget about guests, registrants who are pending approval, and waitlisted invitees.
  5. Ensure that you provide clear instructions for how to register for the event once it’s been rescheduled, as well as instructions for cancelling or re-booking hotels and flights.
  6. Revise your event website. Update your website to include all necessary information about event postponement. Consider adding an additional website page with attendee FAQs.
  7. Update apps, such as mobile event apps, appointment scheduling apps, and abstract management tools.

How to Take Your Event Virtual for Attendees

Taking your event virtual can be simple or complex depending on your event. Below, you’ll find the basic steps to take your event virtual.

  1. Inform your invitees. Send registrants and invitees an email with information about how to join the virtual event.
  2. Revise your event website. Update your website to include all necessary information about the virtual event.
  3. Provide a guide. Create a guide to teach invitees how to join live streams, view on-demand sessions, and engage with other attendees through the mobile event app and online guide.
  4. Add links to the agenda. In the information section of each session in the agenda, add links to the live streams and on-demand sessions.

Read The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Events.

How to Cancel Your Event for Attendees

Does cancelling your event make the most sense? Be sure to communicate clearly with attendees.

  1. Inform your invitees. Send registrants and invitees an email with information about the event cancellation.
  2. Close your event to registrations. Make sure you aren’t still accepting registration through your registration site.
  3. Revise your event website. Update your website to include all necessary information about the event cancellation. Consider adding an additional website page with FAQs and an email or phone number dedicated to answering attendee questions.
  4. Refund registrants. If registrants paid online, refund their credit cards and confirm that all registrants were reimbursed.
  5. Update apps, such as your mobile event app, appointments tool, and abstract management tools. Update or delete any notifications.
  6. Be available to answer attendee questions. Provide registrants with the reasons for cancelling the event, resources to help them through the cancellation, and give them a channel to pose any questions they might have.


To read about Step 2 and 3, visit cvent's blog here.

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