April 14, 2020

Events and COVID-19: Managing uncertainty during a global crisis

Anne Manning
EVP, Operations

Life was completely different four short weeks ago. 

The month of March felt like it was an entire year long, yet our heads are still spinning because of how rapidly things changed. There isn’t a single person who hasn’t been affected in some way by COVID-19. 

For those of us in the events industry, our entire world has been disrupted. We’ve faced cancellation after cancellation, we’ve quickly pivoted to virtual events when possible, and our teams now work from home. It’s been all about adapting—fast.

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We look forward to the day when in-person events are back and stronger than ever.

We know that putting on a great show takes a tremendous amount of time, coordination and planning no matter if it’s a physical, virtual or hybrid event. But in this current environment where nobody can predict exactly what things will look like 12 months, 6 months or even 6 weeks from now, how can we manage uncertainty as event professionals? 

This has been on our minds at Hartmann Studios, and we want to share a few ways we’re managing uncertainty in case it’s helpful to our fellow industry pros, or anyone out there who’s currently struggling with an event scheduled within the next year.

Let’s use an example: Say you’re moving forward with producing a two-day, in-person conference scheduled this September in Chicago. You already have the venue booked, vendor contracts signed and 400 attendees registered, most of whom will be flying in from cities across the U.S. and Canada. Things are moving along perfectly according to the timeline you’ve mapped out.

But what will happen if parts of the country are still under orders to shelter-in-place, or another scenario that would prevent holding a live, in-person event? There are any number of valid concerns to keep you up at night but the good news is—event professionals excel at contingency planning. 

We know exactly what to do if anything unexpected happens...and there’s a lot that can happen. 

  • Your  keynote speaker may fall ill
  • A city-wide labor union strike may shut down normal operations for your hotel and convention center spaces
  • A tornado may hit your event venue
  • An unexpected shut-down in a foreign country may impact your event’s supply chain

These aren’t hypothetical situations to us, they are real circumstances which our Hartmann Studios team planned for and successfully navigated for our clients. The trick is planning not only for everything you think might happen, but also having a system in place to handle things you can’t possibly anticipate.

Contingency planning in the era of COVID-19 is no different, though we think it’s more important than ever right now so that we can help keep people safe. 

Here’s how to make sure you have all of your bases covered so you can pivot as quickly as possible:

Each of your teams should create dedicated contingency plans for their areas of responsibility.

If a broadcast network fails in the middle of a live transmission, does your technical team have redundant systems in place to ensure a smooth transition and no interruption to your virtual event?

Is your event set design built with multiple scenarios in mind? When your client’s mind or conditions change at the last minute, are you set up to provide quick and inexpensive alternative options?

If your large-scale graphics print vendor goes offline unexpectedly or runs out of a critical substrate, does your in-house graphics team have alternate vendors lined up? Would they be able to start production on a weekend or at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday? 

Who’s on first? Set your team up with clear roles and responsibilities so that when push comes to shove, no time is wasted figuring out who will own what aspect of your contingency plan. These people should have involvement in creating the plan, assessing the situation and making adjustments as needed. 

And this is really important: Have a clear process for making decisions and know which stakeholders need to be involved and when. 

Know how to minimize the impact to everyone involved. To continue the conference example from above, you will want to know the last possible day you could decide to pivot to a virtual event, the last day you could cancel the venue contract, the last day you could cancel vendor contracts, and all other hard deadlines that will mean expending resources that can’t be recouped. Your goal should be to minimize as much financial and rework impact as possible.

Have an elaborate Plan B, and even a Plan C. If you can’t hold your conference in September, what’s the backup plan? Will it become a virtual event? If so, what will that look like, and how will you ensure it’s an engaging experience for the attendees? You’ll want to map out your backup plans just as elaborately as your Plan A. 

Cover your bases when it comes to legal, financial and insurance matters. If you don’t have pros you can turn to for advice, this might be a good time to expand your network. 

Communicate, communicate, communicate. With vendors, clients, attendees and your own team. Right now, communication has never been more important. Make sure you’ll have a way to, if needed, effectively and succinctly tell attendees that things have changed and why they should be excited about what’s to come.

We know how challenging things are right now for everyone—not just those in the event industry. 

This really can’t be said enough: We’re all in this together. As we all adapt to these unprecedented times, we hope that you stay safe and healthy. 

We’re looking forward to emerging from this crisis stronger and more connected than ever.

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If you’d like to read more about virtual events, check out our posts on the technology and content and creative aspects of venturing from in-person to online. 

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