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Improving Risk Management

The Special Event Company CEO Sally Webb discusses creating a risk assessment plan

Events are a risky business—anyone in this industry knows that. Look to the news, and you’ll find no shortage of poorly executed events that have cost attendees their health, or worse—their lives. But Sally Webb, CSEP and CEO of The Special Event Company (TSEC), doesn't want this to intimidate you from taking risks. Instead, she wants you to learn better risk management. 

“Doctors can usually kill one person at one time. A really badly planned event has the capability to be catastrophic,” she points out. But with a thorough understanding of risks and how to reduce them, you can create events with a higher return on investment that are safe for everyone involved. 

There are three main areas of risk: risk to your attendees, to your clients, and to your own reputation. The safety of your attendees is in your hands. There can be huge financial risk to your clients. Social media, with its ability to make any occurrence go viral, can amplify the hits to your reputation if something goes wrong.  

Risk insurance is good, but Webb says it shouldn’t be your primary risk management tool. Enter contingency planning. 

Significant contingency planning is the key to foreseeing risks and reducing their impact. You must have a Plan B well in place because there is always a chance Plan A might not work. “Don’t put your head in the sand and truly hope for the best,” says Webb. “You have to not be scared. You have to be informed. You have to prove that there's thought and process behind your risk management.” 

In fact, in the UK, it’s legally required to have thought and process behind your risk management. Catastrophic outcomes of events can land event planners in prison. Because of this severe consequence, the UK has a lot more regulations, certifications, and resources than the US. And while COVID has got many event planners around the globe thinking more about risk management, there’s a lot to learn from the UK. 

Risk Assessment Document 

Webb insists “every event should have a risk management document.” This is a document shared with everyone involved in an event that anticipates risks and preemptively addresses them. While this might sound like a lot of intense work, Webb says that it doesn't have to be rocket science. 

The purpose of a risk assessment document: 

  • Assist you in identifying risks or potential risks 
  • Assist you in identifying what measures need to be put in place for the protection and well-being of the attendees 
  • Identify individual/group/organization roles and responsibilities 

Everyone involved in the event needs to have a thorough understanding of this document and understand their role ahead of time. “No one has time to read a plan when an incident occurs.” 

To prepare a Risk Assessment Document: 

  • Gather your team and walk through the event 
  • Discuss every operational aspect and explore possibilities of what could be a risk 
  • Discuss options for contingency in the event of an incident 
  • Document your plans in the event of an incident taking place 
  • Ask your vendors for a copy of their own risk assessment document for their portion of the event 
  • Put in a folder with your emergency information sheet, incident report, and contingency plan sheet 

Document everything, put it in a folder, and make sure you have the folder with you at the event. Any area you’d consider as normal logistical planning is an area of risk to consider. 

Documents to include in your Risk Assessment Document: 

  • Contingency planning 
  • Emergency event contact information 
  • Incident reports 
  • Evacuation plan (for both indoor and outdoor events) 

It’s best to be as thorough as possible and prepare yourself for any future outcome where you’d need to refer to your preparation. People have a couple of years to file complaints against you, so always have incident reports for referral in the case of any legal action.  

Webb also recommends including a point to reconvene at in the event of an evacuation.  


Training is imperative for all of your team. There are many types of training you and your teams can participate in: CPR training, active shooter training, crowd control, etc. Webb highly recommends crowd management training. In the US, for every 250 people for over 1000 people present, you legally must have one person trained in crowd management. Keep your certificates on hand in your risk assessment folder—if the fire marshal swings by and you have your certificates, you can prevent your event from being shut down. “It’s the best kept secret,” says Webb. She advises having everyone on your team trained in crowd management.  

You should also hold safety briefings so that all team members are refreshed on the risk management and contingency plans and know what their role is in an emergency. 

Thorough Preparation 

Beside creating an official document and strategically planning the safety solutions for an event, there are a few other things to look out for:  

Liquor liability is a huge risk. Webb advises, “Do not personally ever touch liquor, or do not personally let anybody in your team touch liquor, because the liability is absolutely massive.” Even buying a bottle of champagne for a speaker can get you into trouble if anything happens. The only people touching alcohol should be people with a liquor license—caterers, bar staff, etc. 

Volunteer laws vary by state, but it’s required to give volunteers a written brief of all the tasks they will be performing. In many states, the liability waiver is so strict that often it isn’t worth having volunteers. If volunteers do anything outside what is written on the waiver, and something happens, you could be held liable, so be very thorough when writing the brief. 

ADA Laws 
The Americans with Disabilities Act is designed to protect people with disabilities. Refer to the ADA Guide for a better understanding of what to look for when planning an event. Webb pays attention to CART services, which provide instantaneous visual translation so that what is being said can also be read; providing Braille versions of written material; and laying a room out accessibly.  

International Events 

International events hold higher risk than domestic events. There’s a lot to be aware of as you work within a different culture, society, and business world than what you are used to. Here are Webb’s top things to be aware of: 

  • Within contracts: in addition to the right to cancel through Force Majeure, add the provision to cancel with refund in the event that the area is placed on the US Department Advisory List 
  • Tax refunds: work differently outside US & is reclaimable 
  • Event cancellation insurance 
  • Check general opening times (frequent Sunday closing of businesses) 
  • On registration forms, add “name to be printed on badge line” for correct order of names 
  • All international production schedules work on 24 hour clock 
  • US is almost only country to use 8.5”x11” standard paper 
  • Bring a three-ring hole punch 
  • List all measurements and distances in metric (not imperial) 
  • Understand data privacy/protection regulations overseas 
  • Don’t use toll free 800 or 866 numbers 
  • Calendar dates: date/month/year, NOT month/date/year 

Overall, risk management is less about having the right insurance than having the right plan of action. Insurance only helps make up for incidents; thorough risk management helps to address incidents as they happen and prevent catastrophes from occurring.  

Sally Webb, CSEP is Founder and CEO of The Special Event Company (TSEC), based in the Triangle region of North Carolina. She formed the company in 1987 from a background in sports PR and marketing.   

TSEC is a WBENC certified Woman Owned Business. TSEC delivers essential business communications through live and virtual events and for a diverse clientele in education, financial services, technology, pharmaceuticals, media, manufacturing, sports, and non-profits. Over the past three decades, Sally has produced events in over 30 countries throughout Europe, the USA, Africa, South America and Asia. 

Sally Webb is also founder of the Academic Event Professional (AEP), which helps event planners further their education and career. These AEP sessions will be available at Catersource + The Special Event in Orlando March 27-30:

Tuesday, March 28 | 8:30am - 9:30am 
Building & Developing A Successful Events Team 
Speaker: Matthew Regan (Boston University Questrom School of Business) 

Tuesday, March 28 | 10:00am - 11:00am 
Creating Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Events: More Than Words
Speaker: Angie Senter (Washington State University) 

Tuesday, March 28 | 11:15am - 12:00pm 
Why Engage Outside Production? 
Panelists: Carolyn Ent (Elon University), Steve Whyte (University of the Pacific) 
Speakers: La'Zendra Danforth, CGMP (University of Central Florida College of Pharmacy), Meg Umlas  (Boston University) 

To view all AEP approved CS+TSE sessions, click here.

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