Crisis management: What to do when a speaker cancels at the last minute
If you’re a seasoned association conference planner, you’ve undoubtedly experienced some sort of last-minute disaster at your conference, or shortly before it. If you haven’t, don’t worry; the conference powers-that-be will surely test your sanity at some point. It’s only a matter of time!
Last week, our team of experienced conference planners was faced with possibly the worse situation I’ve heard of in my time in the association industry. There we were, in the middle of a three-day technical seminar and everything was going fantastic. Attendance and participation were on target. The speakers were doing a great job during our general sessions. The food and beverages were delicious. Nothing could stop us at this point, right? Wrong.
The night before the final day of the technical seminar the phones started to ring. It was our speakers, sitting in airports, trying to find a flight to our location because theirs had been cancelled due to inclement weather. Not one, not two, but three of our speakers for the final day had to cancel. Mind you, they were the only three speakers that day. There we were, just about to head to dinner, and now we had try and Houdini our way out of this mess. Somehow, we had to come up with three speakers to fill three to four hours of general sessions the very next morning. Over the next five hours, via countless emails and trips to any available outlet to charge our phones, our able team lined up three new speakers to fill the entire day’s agenda.
Here’s how we pulled it off:
1. Tap into those already onsite
One of the first things we did was reach out to those on the Board of Directors who were attending. We knew that they would have a vast knowledge of anyone onsite who might be able to present. Keep in mind that in nearly every industry, and at nearly every conference or seminar you’re going to have other professionals who have done speaking engagements. Get the word out that you’re looking for speakers to fill a spot and you’ll be amazed at how many people have access to presentations they have already prepared, and are willing to help.
2. Reach out to your local contacts and resources
No matter where you are, more than likely there are professionals from your industry who are based near the event. Reach out to them to see if they or anyone from their organization would be willing to speak. This can be quite fruitful because little to no travel is required. Make sure to let any potential speakers know that you are open-minded to the topic (keeping in mind, of course, your association’s guidelines for speakers).
3. Use available technology
If your speaker isn’t able to make it due to travel glitches, see if he feels comfortable giving the presentation electronically. One of our stranded speakers was able to present remotely using GotoMeeting.com. It actually worked pretty seamlessly. One thing to note if you go this route is to make sure your venue has the technical capabilities to pull it off. We were extremely lucky to have the expertise of onsite A/V professionals. They were able to get things set up about an hour before the presentation was scheduled.
All in all, we were very fortunate things turned out so well. Having an amazing team like we do, who didn’t panic in the face of adversity, was key. We were also lucky enough to have a great Board of Directors willing to help at a moment’s notice. Their experience and their contacts in the industry really opened up the pool of possible replacements. If you plan enough conferences and events, something like this will happen to you. Just remember to keep calm, and plan on.