ASK BUSINESS PEOPLE across the country about "Y2K"-a.k.a. "the millennium bug"-and reactions range from an Alfred E. Neumanesque "What, me worry?" to Henny Penny's "The sky is falling!"
But what exactly is Y2K, and what does it mean to professionals in the special event industry?
Some older computer systems abbreviate years with two digits (e.g., 89 for 1989). So when the year 2000-or Y2K-rolls around, these systems may think the date is Jan. 1, 1900, not 2000. Depending on whom you talk to, the aftermath could include anything from power outages and food shortages to business as usual.
"The special event industry is composed mainly of small businesses and individuals who don't work for some huge conglomerate; we can't rely on somebody else to make our business Y2K compliant," notes Steve Kemble, owner/founder of Dallas-based Steve Kemble Event Designs.
Recognizing what elements of your business might be affected is the right start. "Computer circuitry is everywhere these days, and we take it for granted," says attorney Jim Decoulos of Decoulos & Decoulos in Peabody, Mass. "I think that special event operators should be focusing not on the loss of one particular event but rather on the bigger question, 'Will my business keep running?'"
1 CHECK YOUR COMPUTERS The first step in a three-step program to prevent millennium bug bites involves taking corrective action on your own computer system and any other equipment-including faxes, printers or other electrical devices-operated by date-sensitive microchips. Walk through your place of business, your office and your warehouse, listing every item of equipment you own. Determine which items are operated by computer chips and therefore vulnerable to the millennium bug.
"Have your computer technician or somebody who is well-versed in computer technology check out both your hardware and your software," advises Decoulos.
You can test some equipment yourself simply by setting the clock to Dec. 31, 1999, 11:59 p.m., then turning the unit off and back on about 10 minutes later to see if the date rolls over properly. When running this test on computers that hold important data, be sure to back up all files so that you don't wind up with any unpleasant surprises.
If your computer is Pentium class or better, "most brand-name computer manufacturers will let you download software to make your system compliant," notes Jeff Cox, computer specialist with Intertec Publishing, parent company of Special Events Magazine. "It's simple to do; just visit the company's Web site." He notes that Mac users have a reprieve; their systems have been built to run to 2042.
2 CHECK WITH YOUR PARTNERS Of course, you don't operate in a bubble; you rely on other businesses. Thus the second step in your Y2K preparedness program is a systematic plan to contact the vendors, facilities and suppliers you currently do business with on special event projects or plan on working with in the first quarter of 2000. Don't forget cleaning crews, paper goods suppliers and security services.
Ask them the simple question "Are you Y2K compliant?" Then ask for written documentation so you won't be liable for their failure to plan ahead.
"This is especially urgent for any events planned this New Year's Eve," notes Greg Jenkins, partner with Bravo! Productions, based in Long Beach, Calif. "For any entertainment that is attached to a computer, guarantee that Y2K compliance is, in reality, in place.
"We are working with a pyrotechnic unit to provide fireworks for an event we're doing in Long Beach on New Year's Eve," he explains. "Because this entertainment is computer-connected, we're taking special precautions. You can't turn back the clock to do your event over."
He adds: "It's also a good idea to make it a standard practice to start putting Y2K compliance as a major requirement in all of your business contracts-not just for New Year's Eve parties, but for any event scheduled during the first half of 2000."
3 CREATE PLAN B The third part of your Y2K preparedness strategy is to create a contingency plan that can handle any snafus.
"The buck stops here," insists Kemble, who says his main concern right now is the reliability of hotel and airline reservations. "When clients hire us, it's 100 percent our responsibility to arrange for the proper backup. You don't want to wait until your group of 500 people is standing in the hotel lobby to discover the hotel has no record of your reservation. Double-check, and then triple-check all details of your party." He adds, "I'm starting to see some sort of request for Y2K compliance more and more frequently on requests for proposals beyond the year 2000."
Agent Pat Vanhoy of Waterfield Insurance in Indianapolis cautions that "there is a special exclusion policy about Y2K written in most insurance policies available. A few companies are jumping on the bandwagon and beginning to write special policies that will cover you in the event things go awry due to Y2K malfunctions. But these premiums can run in the $10,000 price range."
If somebody else's negligence about Y2K causes you a loss, filing a lawsuit is always an option. But this is untested territory thus far, says Decoulos, and you might spend years and thousands of dollars in court trying to recoup your losses. At press time, both houses of Congress have approved measures to limit damages from Y2K lawsuits.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency urges Americans to prepare for Y2K problems just as they would for a bad storm, by stocking up with emergency supplies for a few days. Some hotels are taking the hint in regard to their New Year's Eve bashes. For example, the Hilton Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., plans to have gas generators, flashlights and gas stoves on hand in the event of electrical malfunctions. Other properties are cross training employees in case they find themselves short-staffed.
Some hotels are looking at contingency plans in case credit card payment systems falter and they must rely on old-fashioned hardcopy systems. And others are hiring extra security and limiting party attendance at their properties to those guests who also have reservations to spend the night.
Jenkins also cautions planners to be wary of tapping into anybody else's computer system on New Year's Eve, especially if it's an international connection. Experts believe that Y2K glitches pose the biggest risk in countries outside the United States because less attention has been paid to the risks there.
According to a Gartner Group survey of 15,000 companies in 87 countries, Y2K homework has been minimal at best in countries ranging from India to sections of South America and the Middle East, with Russia, Japan, and Germany all expected to be somewhat adversely affected. Potential problems throughout early 2000 include power outages, telecommunications disruptions, spot shortages of water and food, and interrupted travel schedules. The countries at greatest risk include Afghanistan, Bahrain, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Fiji, Indonesia, Kenya, Laos, Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Sudan, Uruguay, Vietnam, Zaire and Zimbabwe.
START NOW A few hours invested today will save emotional wear and tear in all of the 2000 tomorrows. Carol McKibben, international president of ISES and head of McKibben Communications, an event marketing and public relations firm in Chatsworth, Calif., stresses: "There's no one answer to all of this, but it's nothing to joke about. Appoint somebody in your organization to serve as the liaison on the subject. Have a backup plan for cash flow and bill collection. Look into your legal rights of recovery should a Y2K foul-up on somebody else's system wind up costing you."
As President Clinton said in his 1999 State of the Union address, we want to "make sure that this Y2K computer bug will be remembered as the last headache of the 20th century, not the first crisis of the 21st."
http://www.vendor2000.com Electronic Data Services Corp. has compiled a searchable list of 150,000 computer products showing what versions are Y2K compliant.
1-888-USA-4-Y2K or http://www.y2k.gov The President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion offers toll-free information on Y2K issues such as power, telephones, banking, government programs and consumer products.
1-800-Y2K-7557 The U.S. Department of Commerce offers a free CD-ROM-available in 11 languages-to help business owners craft a Y2K action plan. It can also be downloaded free at: http://www.doc.gov/y2k
http://www.fema.gov/y2k The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency offers the latest updates on Y2K issues.
1-800-U-ASK-SBA or http://www.sba.gov The U.S. Small Business Administration offers information on assessment, renovation and testing of systems.
http://y2khelp.nist.gov The National Institute of Standards and Technology helps small businesses with computer problems.