Be Prepared for When Meetings Go Wrong

Date: March 1, 2019
Originally published in ASAE's Associations Now Plus.

It’s not if, but when: Events beyond your control will disrupt your meeting. To minimize your association’s risk, be sure your contracts and insurance are in order, and take practical steps to fend off preventable problems. 

You can plan your meeting down to the last detail, but how do you prepare for natural disasters and other unforeseeable crises? Traditional disrupters include bad weather, floods, fires, earthquakes, and labor strikes. More recent additions include terrorism, riots and civil unrest, pandemics, controversial social laws, travel restrictions, marijuana legalization, and new privacy regulations. 

Your obvious goal is to hold the meeting - or restructure or reschedule it with minimal losses. Above all, you need to keep attendees safe and satisfied. Hotels and other venues are sympathetic and can be helpful when the unexpected occurs, but they don’t want to bear all the losses. 

What can go wrong? Here are several scenarios that present legal issues and risk management challenges:

Inclement weather. A hurricane is approaching your convention city, but the various weather models disagree dramatically on the storm speed, path, and intensity. Can you cancel or change the venue or the meeting date if necessary? What happens if there is a sudden change in the storm’s path after your meeting starts and your attendees are trapped at your meeting site?

Food-related illness. Dessert was served just before the beginning of your annual awards speeches. You learn that most of the nut-free desserts that were ordered for attendees with allergies are still in the kitchen.

Speaker trouble. Your paid speaker is stumbling and incoherent during your opening program, so you hustle him off the stage. Later that week, many attendees leave your closing night event because they are offended by another speaker’s strong political commentary and by your entertainer’s obscene gestures. All three want to be paid in full and threaten lawsuits.

Illegal activity. Two prominent members and one of your staff executives are arrested for smoking marijuana in the park across from the convention hotel in a state where recreational use is allowed—but not by visitors in public locations.

International travel disruptions. Many international attendees and speakers cannot get to your meeting city because of travel bans or changes in travel rules. 

Sexual harassment. A board member is making unwanted advances to your staff, volunteers, contractors, and attendees.

Controversial social laws. Lawmakers in the state or city where you will hold your meeting have introduced a controversial measure that is offensive to your members and could substantially reduce attendance.

Contractual Protections

To protect your organization should these or other problematic scenarios arise, the place to start is with your hotel and venue contracts. Because of their size, they often pose the greatest potential liability. When negotiating these contracts, pay special attention to several key clauses: 

Attrition. If your contract establishes room block, food and beverage, and other minimum commitments, this clause will likely specify the penalties for falling short. Build in flexibility to review the commitments as the meeting year approaches and to make changes as late as possible. Also make sure that formulas used to calculate damages are fair and consider profit margins, if possible. 

Force majeure. This clause is critical to eliminate or reduce your liability if things go wrong. Since it is almost always possible for some kind of meeting to be held, make sure you don’t use the word “impossible” in your force majeure clause, and negotiate broad language to cover as many situations as you can. The clause should allow you to restructure or cancel your meeting if it becomes impractical or unreasonable to hold the event as originally planned due to these situations beyond your control.

Special clauses. If necessary, negotiate special clauses to cover situations such as controversial social laws or travel bans. 

Other contracts related to the meeting should also include provisions that protect you if unforeseen circumstances threaten your event. For example: 
  • Draft your contracts with exhibitors, contractors, and suppliers to include performance standards and release, indemnification, and insurance provisions. 
  • Consider including language in your registration materials to manage expectations and protect the association from disgruntled attendees.
  • In speaker agreements, allow presentations to be delivered remotely if necessary. Also specify your right to record and preserve the content for later use online.
  • In sponsor agreements, address the possibility that a featured speaker might not appear in person, or state more generally that you may need to substitute promised sponsor benefits if the meeting must be restructured. 


Many of the scenarios mentioned above may expose the association to liability for bodily injury or property damage, defamation, invasion of privacy, harassment, or other legal risks. These claims are normally covered under your directors and officers and general liability insurance policies. If the meeting represents a major source of your annual revenue, consider obtaining event cancellation insurance.

Risk Management in Advance

Although well-written contracts and the right insurance policies are helpful if things go wrong, the best protection is to avoid these issues in the first place. Here are some steps you can take to manage your meeting-related legal risks:
  • If your members are sensitive to controversial social laws, schedule meetings in friendly states, even if doing so is more expensive. If the law in your scheduled state or city changes, start negotiating to move as early as possible. Or you can choose to stay and use your presence as an opportunity to advocate against the controversial change.
  • Provide guidelines for acceptable conduct by staff, attendees, vendors, contractors, and others who may be involved with your meeting. Include meeting behavior in your sexual harassment training for staff. Act immediately and decisively to address such behavior if it happens at your meeting. 
  • Research the impact of laws and regulations like the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation. Make sure that your IT data protection, privacy policies, and consent forms are updated to accommodate attendees from the European Union.
  • Be precise and include appropriate cautions in the materials you provide to attendees, including information about any local laws or restrictions that may be problematic. In states that have decriminalized marijuana use under state law, consider reminding attendees that marijuana possession and use remain prohibited under federal law, and flag any exceptions to state-law tolerance of marijuana use (such as no public use). Also note that such drug use may violate employer drug use rules both for the association and attendees, regardless of state law.
  • If attendees or speakers may be unable to attend due to a travel ban or any other reason, plan ahead to provide virtual alternatives. Arrange for your speakers or attendees to participate remotely, or record your sessions to be viewed later online. Identifying these alternatives in the registration materials may help manage expectations, but be prepared to offer refunds to maintain member and attendee satisfaction. 

Take these simple steps to plan ahead and be prepared to handle these situations and other challenges that may arise and disrupt your best-laid meeting plans.