Why is uncertainty so tough? Because we are a community of people who have built our careers on eliminating it through planning. This is an extremely uncomfortable space for us control freaks who just want everything to settle down already.
The bad news is, things are not going to settle. In addition to all the factors we are dealing with — the exponential acceleration of technology, policy and regulation around climate change, a highly divided political environment, increased costs, lowered budgets, and supply chain and workforce shortages, to name a few — there is plenty of research showing that humanity is collectively different in response to the impacts of the past two years. We changed as a people figuring out how to operate in a changed world.
There is a lot that we can’t know, but there are two things that we do know: 1) there will be more uncertainty; and 2) those who embrace it — or at least get more comfortable with it — will be better positioned to survive and thrive. Here are five tips to get you started.
1. Develop a deep understanding of your event’s health. Everyone knows that regular checkups are important to maintaining your health. When is the last time you did a diagnostic workup on your event? What patterns were you seeing pre-2020? Have those become more pronounced as you are returning to in-person? What are your audience’s new pain points? How is your event health compared to that of your competitors? Looking at your event through this lens can help uncover new big and small opportunities.
2. Budget for a rainy-day fund. Most of us know this advice: Put aside a certain amount of money in case of emergency. This is a necessity when planning during periods of great uncertainty. Designate a part of the event budget to cover attrition fees and unexpected cost increases. Creating this breathing room is important, and helps you understand how to prioritize the other event expenses. It’s an opportunity to get creative as well. I have heard of suppliers willing to contribute to an emergency fund to cover attrition or other fees a group may face instead of buying a booth, in exchange for appointments with five to 10 potential valuable clients.
3. Be proactive with your crisis communications. Numerous recent consumer research studies point to a behavioral shift: People are taking their personal values into account when making purchases, and event attendance is no exception. I have had numerous recent conversations with association CEOs and event leaders about audiences demanding an event be moved or canceled due to local politics in the host destination. Associations, which have traditionally remained politically neutral, are being called on to make statements or make changes. A proactive crisis communications plan positions you for a measured and informed response to a situation.
4. Designate a risk calibration and mitigation lead. Risk is not one-size-fits-all, and different groups will need to assess risk differently as it applies to their events and organizations. It is important to calibrate risk over various factors, including control over safety, financial impact, public reputation, and others. Create a list of the impending issues that could affect your event. Then, designate a lead to monitor the issues and provide updates on a weekly basis. Ideally, this person is also able to provide risk mitigation recommendations including milestones for decision-gating and specific actions to take should a certain issue emerge.
5. Overcommunicate. This is no time to stress in silence. Make your senior leadership aware of the situations at hand and what you are doing to monitor and mitigate challenges. Discuss your concerns and budget issues with your vendor partners so they can work with you on creative solutions. Reach out to your planner communities to share what’s working and ask questions to understand how others are dealing with similar situations.
We’ve got a long, tough road ahead of us. But know that you are not alone. There are thousands of others in our events community who are struggling with the same uncertainty. Ask for help when you need it. Offer help when you can. Remember, the one thing that lessens the impact of uncertainty is support.
Beth Surmont, CMP, FASAE, CAE, is vice president of event strategy and design for marketing, strategy, and experience agency 360 Live Media.