• When Is Too Late To Cancel Your Event?

    Posted on October 26, 2012 by Events For Good in Risk Management

    Named “Frankenstorm” by the National Weather Service, Hurricane Sandy is about to hit the Atlantic coast of the United States and wreak havoc in its path. Its impact is expected to be unprecedented. Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Creative Commons license.

    As the East Coast of the United States braces for impact by Hurricane Sandy, the question of whether you and your event are prepared for a major storm, inclement weather, power failure or other natural safety issues should be at the forefront of your mind. We often think of the financial repercussions to ourselves and our organizations when making cancellation decisions, but what about the impact on our attendees, and more importantly, determining when the peak impact of that decision may be on any and all of our stakeholders? How can we make sure that the decision strikes that delicate balance between those unhappy that the event wasn’t cancelled soon enough and those unhappy that the event was cancelled at all?

    Just a couple months ago, the American Political Science Association was due to hold their Annual Meeting of 7,000+ attendees in New Orleans just as Hurricane Isaac was threatening the city via the Gulf of Mexico. On Sunday, August 26, after days of coverage following the hurricane’s potential path to New Orleans, the organization postponed the beginning of the conference to Thursday, just two days after the original start date. It wasn’t until that same Tuesday evening that the organization finally made the call to cancel the conference. This was after many participants, exhibitors, staff, and conference vendors had traveled to the conference in hopes to complete their intended schedule. International attendees, many who flew into the United States prior to the postponement, were stuck in a city being ravaged by a terrible storm. In the time between the postponement and cancellation, participants agonized over a potentially empty tradeshow floor, education sessions, and the possibility of one panelist needing to present findings sans the rest of his panel. Deirdre Reid of Reid All About It wrote a detailed account of her experience with the association and the effect the decision had on attendees online. APSA was widely criticized by the media and its own stakeholders for their seemingly haphazard approach to the conference cancellation.

    Back to the present, this weekend is the the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC, one of the cities’ most recognizable events, which this year will host more than 43,600 participants, and perhaps another 50,000 more volunteers and supporters. The marathon may very well escape the “Frankenstorm” threat, now being forecasted as rain beginning in the early morning on Sunday and its most dangerous impact being felt Sunday evening through Tuesday morning up and down almost the entire Eastern seaboard. Lessons should be learned from APSA’s tragic situation. Runners may be quite unhappy with any cancellation, and postponement may not be possible with the bureaucracy that surrounds city, county and state permits required for closing roads and preventing a maze of traffic concerns. But the most important question for any event during the time period of Sandy’s arrival, just before, and just thereafter, is whether the safety of their attendees will be jeopardized by either participation in the event itself or their travel to and from. As of Friday afternoon publishing time, the Marine Corps Marathon has not been postponed or cancelled. Events over four days are expected to run smoothly. But in the case that Sandy’s path is altered, or that potential damage is more severe than currently being indicated, marathon runners and their friends and families may be in an increasingly dangerous situation.

    An argument can be made for several decisions; a cancellation at least a day ago, prior to when many would be traveling to the event, a cancellation tomorrow or early Sunday morning before the race begins, or just hoping for the best and being prepared for the worst as the race goes on. In my opinion, the late cancellation that often seems to be used in the event industry, especially one just a few hours before an event begins, is perhaps the worst possible choice. In that situation, your participants are in for a rocky time no matter what, and the hesitation to make a decision may have a more dramatic effect than you anticipated. Event organizers often see this choice as one that relieves them of the need for a backup plan and covers their own liability, but that is surely not the case.

    There is not a clear day and time in many events when a decision about cancellation should be made. But we should be prepared no matter what the case. In the meantime, consider these tips in the event of an unforeseeable situation.

    1. Make sure you have event cancellation insurance. Event cancellation insurance is available through many insurance vendors and is always worth the small amount necessary to cover what may be extensive losses for many parties. Don’t hold an event without it.
    2. Have a clear protocol for how to communicate effectively. A communication plan should not only be used for event promotion, but also in the case important information needs to be relayed. Crisis management is a vital component of any risk management plan and communication in as many forms as possible should be utilized.
    3. Attempt to secure the safety of all of your event stakeholders. You should have emergency contact numbers, travel and lodging information, and plans to deal with many risks, such as fire, power outages, terrorist attacks, and inclement weather, quickly available to you.
    4. Have a backup plan. Don’t just have a backup for yourself and your attendees, have a backup for your event. Can’t hold it in person? Host a hybrid event with online components and get creative with participants. See ASAE’s 2010 Technology Conference and how they dealt with a crisis of their own for ideas. Know how you are going to refund ticket sales, deal with sponsors, and solve any other issues before the crisis hits.

    Good luck to any and every event planner holding an event over the next week on the East Coast. And just like the boy scouts say, “Be prepared!”

    UPDATE: Information on weather conditions for the Marine Corps Marathon is available here.


  • Joan Eisenstodt

    Well-done and:
    - FIRST consideration is people and their safety. Even if the runners & spectators are fine on Sunday, what will happen to them when they try to travel home on Mon. or Tues.? What about their families? What responsibility do the race organizers have for those who come here for the race?
    - Then consider too the impact of the race for those who may try to fly or drive in and who may be unable to do so. Their safety is number one. Then will they be owed refunds from hotels? other providers? if they didn’t come in because they feared being unable to get out.

    We could discuss this from so many angles and it should be discussed. Let’s see what happens and talk more as it does.

    As for us .. we have water, batteries, emergency radio, flashlights, battery operated fans, kitty litter and kitty food, and more.

    • http://www.eventsforgood.org Lindsey Rosenthal

      Thanks, Joan. Your comments mean a lot to me, especially on this subject! 

      My objective was to point out exactly what you have; that safety should come first and making a last minute decision to cover your liability may actually make it worse than better. I hope that the race turns out fine and that the hurricane will not take a significant toll on any of those in its path, although the already 21 dead (Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba) beg to differ. Good planning from a risk management expert like yourself is not a surprise!

  • Robert Meisnere

    Lindsey Nice post. This reminds me of the Chicago Marathon which is in Mid-October.  A few years ago there was a heat wave during the race.  They ended up stopping the race during the race because too many people were having heat related issues and the ER rooms in the city were being overwhelmed. There may have been one fatality too.  From what I read they dealt with it well.  Lucky for the Marines, most of the runners are local and not traveling.  So, to protect those traveling and would end up being left in the rain (pun intended) Thursday morning would be the latest time to cancel. Marines run a very good race/event but I hope resources are not wasted on the race that should be going toward storm prep.  I will be watching to see what they do for Sunday. 
    I agree, that postponing is most likely not possible with all the organizations that are involved with putting on this event so the only choice they have is cancellation. We’ll see what happens and hope everyone is safe. 
    On another note, where did you get your 43,600 participants number? That seems double the number of runners. 

    As I’m writing this DC is now added to the list of those under a State of Emergency.

    • http://www.eventsforgood.org Lindsey Rosenthal

      Hi Robert! Thank you for the kind words. 

      I remember that Chicago Marathon very well myself. I had several friends running it and was very concerned when organizers did not seem to take the precautions they should have to make sure their participants were safe. There was one fatality, although I don’t think he died from heat stroke. Still, it was quite a risky move going into that weekend. 

      I actually think as the number of runners has increased in the MCM, the number of out-of-towners has also increased. I believe the route is becoming seen as an important challenge to many competitive runners. You’ll notice that the top 100 in almost any marathon are pretty surely from out of state, if not out of country. I put in a request to the MCM team about their numbers, but I haven’t yet heard back. I’ll let you know if I do. Either way, travel of not just runners but families and friends absolutely needs to be taken into consideration. 

      Lastly, the 43,600 participants came from this press release: http://www.marinemarathon.com/Assets/Press+Releases/37th+MCM+Weekend+Spurs+Excitement+in+Nation$!e2$!80$!99s+Capital.pdf. I imagine that you are thinking of the race finishers number, which has been around half that the last few years. I think generally 5,000+ start the race and don’t finish it, plus there are participants in the 10K and the Fun Run as well. 

      Thanks for the comment, you rock!

  • http://www.eventsforgood.org Lindsey Rosenthal

    An update on the weather conditions for the Marine Corps Marathon can be found here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/post/will-hurricane-sandy-rain-on-marine-corps-marathon/2012/10/26/046e0968-1fa5-11e2-9cd5-b55c38388962_blog.html. Stay tuned for updates!

  • Ruth Gregg


    Excellent post and great comments by all! Like Joan, I agree that there are many conversations to be had here. I’d throw in the following for consideration as well.

    Hurricanes versus other events
    The advantage of advance notice with hurricanes for awareness and prep can also be it’s disadvantage with the go/no-go decision process. Having more time to make a decision (particularly one where the outcome isn’t certain) can lead to decision paralysis. Earthquakes, tornados, terrorist events – events with more immediate, well understood impacts – often result in a quicker decision making process.

    The Chicken-Little Issue
    As accurate as some of the predication models are on average, none of them are right all the time. Emergency management pros will tell you that if there are too many calls to evac or prepare and the event doesn’t happen (or doesn’t happen to the severity predicted) people start to tune out. So the possibility that the hurricane may not hit is reasonably a part of the should we/shouldn’t we disucssion.

    Event Cancellation Insurance
    Sadly depending on your event and what you want the insurance to cover, the insurance often isn’t cheap. Or people may work for an organization where purchasing separate event cancellation insurance isn’t encouraged. I once worked for just such an organization which also had a very large deductible. Great for the organization overall, but that meant that the value of some of our events wouldn’t even come up to the level of the deductible. So any loss was considered a cost-of-doing-business and expected to be covered under our department’s annual budgets. Doesn’t mean that safety doesn’t come first – anybody who knows me knows I believe we have a moral and ethical imperative to keep our attendees safe. But if you don’t have or can’t afford insurance, that lack is going to be a part of the decision process for management. And meeting planners have to be aware and prepared to have that conversation.

    That all being said, and to come back to #Sandy, it’s imperative to find people you trust and then follow their advice. When the Euro model, Jim Cantore and Craig Fugate at FEMA all tell me to get out – I get gone. Once was enough (Hurricane Gloria).

    Stay safe & as dry as you can!

  • http://www.danjberger.com Dan Berger

    Great post Lindsey. Going to share this one for sure.

  • Robert Meisnere

    We have a rear opportunity to talk about what to do with a similar event (NYC marathon) but different circumstance (during hurricane clean-up).  It is a unique chance because there are no hypotheticals this time.  As uncomfortable I was with the marathon in DC to go on, I’m even more uncomfortable with NYC to go on with the marathon. This seems like a very bad idea. I’ve run both races, and the logistics for the NYC race are so more complicated and involve than in DC. So much equipment and people used, that it will have to effect the recovery effort of people in both NY and NJ.  If I was in need and saw the race still being run, I would be beside myself.  I understand the need for $$$ for NY but to put that before the safety and needs of the residents and racers AND police and firefighters that will have to work the race after working so hard after the storm is crazy!   Thanks Lindsey.