The best thing you can do is the right thing. The next best thing is the wrong thing. The worst thing is nothing. ~ Teddy Roosevelt
Trust me when I say, cancelling the AMCHP Annual Conference was not at all for the faint of heart. From my perspective, it was an incredibly agonizing decision-making process comprised of equal parts hourly situational analysis, trust and confidence in the information you have at the time of the decision, pure gut instinct, and absolute fear of making the wrong choice. Your elected AMCHP leadership did an amazing job of balancing the complexities of this particular decision with the abbreviated timeline that Mother Nature imposed upon us a little over a week ago.
With states of emergency in at least ten states and over 9,000 cancelled flights on the Eastern Seaboard, the storm delivered as promised with average snowfalls of 30 inches throughout the area. It was the fourth largest storm in the Northeast in over 60 years. Schools are still delayed even today, a full ten days after the start of the storm. For all of us living in DC metropolitan area, we know full well the impact the storm had on us personally and on the area.
This past week we spent much time communicating with conference attendees, our sponsors and exhibitor, the AMCHP Board, and staff around the decision to cancel the 2016 AMCHP Conference. Although I won't cover the full chronology of events here, it is important that you understand the due diligence, care, and thoughtfulness that surrounded this decision. On Wednesday, January 20, we began to hear predictions for the winter storm headed to the DC metropolitan area. This was only one day prior to attendees beginning to travel to AMCHP 2016. Conference calls had been conducted throughout the day to identify the impacts and potential risks associated with proceeding with or not proceeding with the AMCHP conference. As the storm was approaching, a decision was made late that day to proceed with the AMCHP 2016 conference.
With Conference Managers (our conference logistics vendor), we discussed the predicted timing and track as known for DC area; identified that airlines and trains were not issuing change policies yet due to the storm; mapped patterns of check-ins noting the majority of attendees as traveling on Thursday and Friday (only 150 remain for check-in on Saturday); created a communication to attendees by the end of the day regarding recommendations to change airline travel away from the target storm period of late Friday and all day Saturday; updated the web site with messaging to attendees; and held subsequent conference calls to discuss the storm and potential impact on AMCHP 2016.
With the hotel, we discussed that the hotel had never been closed for any reason over at least the past seventeen years and was not modifying its cancellation policies; the property was already operating under emergency preparation plans and had contingency plans in place for staff to stay onsite during the storm to service customers. The hotel did not anticipate any issues with accommodating our event on any day at any time including food and beverage preparations, housekeeping, restaurants being opened, etc.; we began to determine flexibility to address changes to food and beverage guarantees based on actual attendance, contractual obligations related to attrition and room nights to determine if they can be flexible on penalties, and ability to move AMCHP exhibitor freight from Saturday move-in to Friday move-in.
Conference Managers had already began earlier in the day to contact all speakers (including plenary), determine arrival days, and work to shift arrivals to avoid cancellations and started to consider alternate plans for speakers who cannot make it including eliminating Wi-Fi in lieu of hardwiring internet to sessions to allow for Skype capability and other technologies.
On Thursday, January 21, storm predictions began to worsen and DC metropolitan area was noted by major weather forecasters to be in the 'bull's-eye' of the storm. Late Thursday morning, a state of emergency was issued by Virginia, and quickly followed by DC and Maryland. States of emergency declarations are critical because the government has the power to close businesses, restrict travel, and call up the National Guard among other powers. As soon as this occurred, we began emergency teleconferences once again with Conference Managers, our insurance company, the hotel, and our attorneys. Early that afternoon, the Executive Committee, reviewed all of the information to date and a decision was made unanimously to cancel the conference and begin an immediate communications strategy.
A number of things began happening simultaneously. The hotel was officially notified of the cancellation. AMCHP attendees and speakers received a mass email communication of the cancellation and the web site was updated. Keynote speakers, AMCHP vendors, sponsors, and exhibitors were contacted. Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook were updated. Many of our staff (please join me in appreciating and thanking them!) participated in a personal phone call campaign to all 800 attendees with Conference Managers. This was stressful at times for staff because they were the messenger of bad news. It was also stressful because of the number of calls they had to make. Please know how important the staff were to this effort and that many, many of you expressed appreciation for their individual and collective effort at communication.
Later that evening, I arrived at the Hyatt and met with Eileen Forlenza, AMCHP President-Elect, to discuss on the ground strategy for attendees at the hotel or en route to the hotel. (Sam Cooper was able to divert travel and avoid the trip to DC altogether). We began to plan for a brief attendee session on Friday morning to gather attendees who were already in DC, as well as to hold hours in the lobby area for any AMCHP travelers who wished to talk or connect about the conference cancellation. We also met with Conference Managers to discuss next steps onsite. Together, we conducted another personal phone call campaign to all AMCHP attendees checked-in to the Hyatt, inviting attendees to come to the lobby to meet/greet with us and to personally invite them to attend a morning session the next day. Together, we stayed in lobby area until Midnight, January 21 chatting with attendees on site.
On Friday, January 22, Eileen hosted attendees for a two hour session (with myself and a few other staff present) attended by twelve AMCHP attendees. It was great to get the folks together who were at the conference and they deeply appreciated the chance to network even in small groups.
With the communications and other efforts, we were able to reduce the number of attendees impacted significantly. With a high of 65 attendees arriving on Thursday, many were able to halt travel, turn around at stop-overs, or make immediate arrangements to fly back to their homes before the storm. In the end, we had approximately 30 or so attendees in DC at the time of the storm. All appreciated the many, many efforts to engage them while they were stranded in DC in spite of the awful circumstances.
Not all of you obviously plan conferences and events in your states, but there still are some lessons learned (and many, many more to come for sure) from this event that might be applicable to other foreboding types of decisions that have far-reaching impacts and weigh heavily on managers and organizations. Here is a sampling of a few top lessons learned from this experience. These are not the ONLY lessons, by the way. The aftermath of a singularly critical decision like this goes on for quite some time and, with it, more lessons can come.
Evaluate risk comprehensively.
Risk is tricky and can be cloaked in surprising disguises. There are threats related to human impact (included the all-important aspects of safety and well-being); financial impact, reputational impact, contractual impact, and so on. All are important to consider and factor into a decision but all may not carry the same level of significance.
Engage decision-makers early and often.
Ensure those making the final decision are fully briefed and engaged as soon as possible, and throughout the process, with detailed information, key considerations, risks, options, alternatives, and predicted impact across the risk categories. This creates a momentum that results in well-informed leaders who are not afraid to reach a decision quickly if needed.
Seek legal advice.
If there's ever a time to invest in external advice, it is this situation. But, whatever the critical decision, if there are
potential repercussions related to operating legally and in compliance with agreements, it is worthwhile to consult with experts who are in a position to offer sound advice to help inform good decision-making.
Be prepared to change course and modify a previous decision.
Just when you've applied good standards to your decision-making and defined a solid process, things can and do change to throw decisions off course. There is a need to re-evaluate and sometimes make a mid-course correction. This takes a lot of courage by the way, but in the end it is far more preferable to reconsider all available information to ensure a decision that is for the greater good of the organization.
There is NO level of communication that is too much.
During emergent situations, there really is no such thing as communicating TOO much. When decisions impact individuals, plans, families, obligations, and responsibilities at all levels, people naturally want and need to know why a decision is made, how the decision will impact them personally, and what they must do for themselves, and for others around them, to prepare for the impacts of the decision.
Don't lose sight of the people most impacted by your decision.
Although some high-level decisions have to be made for the broader good of the organization, don't forget that people and individuals are ultimately impacted. Be compassionate and take great care thinking about the persons impacted from decisions.
Our story does not end here just yet. We are carefully considering all of the options available to AMCHP at this time, including rescheduling the meeting or issuing credits or refunds. We are busily gathering information from many sources to inform this critical decision and will continue to do so in the coming days. I hope by the issue of Member Briefs, we'll be able to share more about these discussions and upcoming decisions.
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