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Written Disaster Plans for Event Pros in the COVID-19 ‘New Normal’

This emergency expert shares tips on creating a comprehensive emergency plan for special events professionals.

The global impact of COVID-19 has required event planners around the world to adapt quickly and recognize the importance of a robust plan to remain resilient and responsive to conditions. There were few industries as severely impacted as those of event planning. Therefore, in preparation for a second wave, event professionals should have a written disaster plan fully developed and implemented to ensure that multiple contingencies are considered during a second wave scenario of COVID-19.

A comprehensive disaster plan at a minimum contains three major elements: The Risk Analysis, the Emergency Response Plan, and the Business Continuity Plan. Each plan represents a separate phase in the emergency preparedness cycle and should be considered uniquely with the indefinite threat of COVID-19.

  1. Risk Analysis

The Risk Analysis essentially asks one question: “What threats do we face?”. It should identify potential threats to the event’s operation in the categories of natural disasters (i.e.: hurricanes, COVID-19 etc.), technological disasters (i.e.: power outage, HAZMAT spill) and security emergencies (i.e.: terrorism, active shooters). While there is a temptation by experienced event professionals to simply do this by “gut” instinct, basic internet search, or from past experiences, the Risk Analysis should be conducted by a multi-prong analysis of data from local, state, and federal sources. This is important, because a second disaster occurring simultaneously during a COVID second wave is a real possibility, and COVID can have a massive effect on how you respond to such an emergency.

  1. Emergency Response Plan

The Emergency Response Plan is a comprehensive document covering every element of the initial response to an incident whether digital or physical. This may be termed the “lights and sirens” phase of an emergency. It should cover evacuation, shelter-in-place, and lockdown of the venue (if applicable), and how to set up an emergency leadership structure. However, the plan must also address crisis communication, utilities, worker injuries, equipment, supplies and training. The reason why a written plan should be implemented and updated is because no one knows what a second wave of COVID will look like, and what impact that may have on existing emergency plans. While public health officials and virologists have come a long way, there is still a significant amount we do not know about COVID-19. Controlling epidemiological research is probably 12-18 months away from completion, and in that time, it is likely that standards and expectations will change regarding how to best respond to COVID-19. This will, in turn, have an effect on plans, such as how to shelter-in-place and even how to evacuate. Even events placed entirely online need to have plans for blackouts, cyber-attacks (which have sharply increased in the COVID-19 world due to the increased reliance of online services) reputational issues, and even technical errors that create interruptions to even well-managed events.

A written plan allows event professionals to ensure that the lessons learned from the first wave are implemented in the second. Put simply, without a plan, there is almost no chance that best-practices will be predictably implemented from event to event. No disaster plan is perfect; but it cannot ever improve if written procedures and policies are not written and then updated to fit the latest practices.

  1. Business Continuity Plan

The final plank of a disaster plan that every event professional should have is the Business Continuity Plan (BCP), which is a purely recovery document. Many events have shifted to virtual, with varying degrees of effectiveness and efficiency. Every disaster plan should now have a BCP with a virtual element to it, even if the physical one takes place. One evolution that is likely to develop as a result of a second wave are “hybrid” events, where virtual and in-person participation occur concurrently.

What many event planners are learning now is that it is not simply the case of finding a virtual event vendor and then promoting a digital version. Generational comfort with technology, along with potential vendor reluctance participating in virtual expos and trade shows can alter costs and create expectations for robust refund policies. For instance, a well-known RV trade show scheduled in Los Angeles was converted into a virtual show very quickly by adept organizers. What they did not anticipate, however, was that many of the vendors no longer wished to participate, as their customers preferred a kinesthetic experience and one-on-one interpersonal interaction with sales representatives. The value, for them, then, diminished, even when a virtual platform was deployed seamlessly.

It is not simply the case to put together a simple “Plan B”. Business Continuity Plans CANNOT be developed by laypeople. They are highly technical documents that hinge on a multi-faceted structure of priorities and recovery positionalities that simply cannot be ascertained, even by experienced event professionals. They require technical expertise to develop operational recovery times and points that align with a metric of consequence of late recovery for both brick and mortar as well as Information Technology. The BCP document itself, to be even minimally effective, has a certain format and style that simply cannot be replicated by laypeople.

Conclusion: The COVID-19 Pandemic is an unprecedented challenge to hospitality worldwide. Event professionals working in venues large and small, physical, and digital, should develop and maintain a sophisticated disaster plan, which includes participation from an experienced Emergency Preparedness Specialist. This plan, when properly designed and implemented, provide event professionals the tools necessary to ensure a successful, resilient event and empower planners to navigate a multi-dimensional disaster response. Without a plan, incident responses are inconsistent, confused, and lacks continuity necessary to maintain the highest service standards.

Patrick Hardy is a Certified Emergency Manager, Certified Risk Manager and a FEMA Master of Exercise Practitioner—the only person to hold all three designations. He has extensive experience working in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, with clients ranging from micro-businesses to Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Merck and the Parsons Corp. He has been cross trained and certified in hazmat, emergency communications, homeland security policy, and terrorism. Hardy has also served as a visiting disaster instructor to the National EMS Academy.



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