‘Everyone Has to be Empowered:’ COVID’s Impact on Event Risk and Crisis Management

Key Takeaways: 

  • COVID may be new but crisis management is not.
  • Risk cannot be eliminated—but it can be mitigated.
  • Contingency plans need to be actionable.
  • Work with health partners and providers to ease the burden of setting and maintaining health and safety parameters.

A lot can go wrong at an event, no matter how well it’s planned—a fact of life with which event professionals are well acquainted. So, when the pandemic hit and event professionals were forced to move events to virtual or cancel altogether, navigating health and safety naturally became a priority when planning for in-person events resumed once again.

But how has the pandemic impacted risk management in the long term? Experts in the field of risk management and assessment, Juliette Kayyem, faculty director of the Homeland Security Project and the Security and Global Health Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Frank Supovitz, president and chief experience officer at Fast Track Events & Entertainment and author of “What to Do When Things Go Wrong: A Five-Step Guide to Planning for and Surviving the Inevitable―And Coming Out Ahead,” addressed the COVID impact on risk management processes and more in the recent webinar, Event Risk Management: Planning for the Next Crisis.

How is the risk management process different now than it was pre-COVID? “We’re just in the risk minimization stage,” Kayyem said, noting that while COVID is new, it’s a risk like any other, including the flu, terrorism, and climate disaster. And just like there are different roles and professionals involved when it comes to security at events, health precautions need to be in place, which may include health professionals on staff. 

Are you seeing the role of the planner change in terms of the emphasis on risk management? “I think that norms just change over time,” Supovitz said, adding that for companies that don’t have chief officers of security or health, it’s really everyone’s job to identify vulnerabilities when planning an event.

“Everyone has to be empowered,” Kayyem agreed, noting it’s not just one person’s responsibility—there should be a unified defense. That’s why planners need to follow three rules: minimize it, maximize and unify your defense, and maintain your mission. The mission? Make sure your attendees are safe while also enjoying their event experience.

Is there a feeling that planners are moving more toward minimizing and mitigating risk, as opposed to risk avoidance? “You know you can’t reduce the risk to zero, it’s impossible. There are just too many variables. All you can deal with when your contingency planning, for example, is to deal with the things that are the most likely, or the most impactful, in terms of being existential to your business or event,” Supovitz said. 

What are the key ingredients of a good risk management plan or strategy for smaller events and events in general? Contingency plans need to be actionable, not a plan that you check off a list without properly discussing and analyzing. “I do believe in dealing with the things that are probable. And the things that are probable don’t need to be 50% or greater, they can be 10%. Here’s what I know about something that is 10% probable. If there’s a 10% chance of rain, and I don’t bring an umbrella and it rains, I’m going to get 100% wet,” Supovitz said. “So I better be prepared for that 10%.”

Kayyem added that communication strategies, making sure employees know their responsibilities, and taking ownership that it’s your responsibility as the planner to have contingency plans in place are all components of the planning process.

What are the best steps for those responsible for gathering people to protect against domestic or other terrorism? Noting that domestic terrorism is the biggest threat currently in the U.S., Kayyem said planners need to set their own conditions. Take into account, what will your customer base accept? You can work with local law enforcement and run active shooter drills. But ultimately, “you’re setting the conditions of your vulnerability and your exposure,” she said. “We have agency … You have the agency to raise your own floor, whether it’s rules about COVID, rules about guns, or rules about who’s going to be your speaker.”

What are the stages of risk and crisis management? The first stage leading up to an event is planning and prevention. When a crisis happens, you go into response, recovery, and resiliency mode, explained Kayyem. Depending on the event, planners should think about their budget and distribution. If more dollars are being used primarily for planning and prevention, then maybe more dollars need to be put into response.

“As event planners, we plan really well, that’s what we do for a living,” said Supovitz. But real-time response is just as important. That means not panicking and keeping yourself under control so you can manage the situation.

COVID may have brought with it new challenges, but ultimately, risk management considerations don’t change as much as they are fluid, evolving as new risks enter the playing field. “This is new but not entirely new, because there have always been risks to what we do for a living, both for the participants and for the audience, so on both sides of the equation we have to be a little bit more mindful of all the things that could happen,” Supovitz said. “When it came to about twenty years ago, what we were thinking about new and differently was security and public safety, and now we’re thinking about health.”

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