What to Do When Tragedy Strikes


Written by Lori Gershaw

Lori Gershaw started her career in the event industry in 1989 as an Independent Meeting Planner and grew her business into a full-service meeting planning company.   In 2003 she founded her second company, GCG Event Partners, a nationwide network of Independent Meeting Planners and On-Site Meeting Managers.

July 24, 2014

It’s hard listening to the news these days with everything going on in the world. As a meeting planner, my heart goes out to the people traveling to the AIDS Conference on the downed Malaysia Airlines flight.

I’ve certainly handled my share of emergency situations on-site at conferences, including having to cancel a meeting in Washington, DC on September 12, 2001 due to the tragic events of the day before. Although we had speakers and attendees on flights that had to be turned around, we fortunately did not have any participant fatalities en route to our conference.

As a meeting planner, how do you handle such an event on-site at your conference? What is appropriate in this circumstance? No doubt, if I was running a conference that endured such a fate, I would make sure that we paid our respects to those who perished. But how?

  • A moment of silence allows everyone to quietly reflect upon the events in their own way and show their respect to those who perished.
  • While it may seem the right thing to do for some, offering a prayer may offend some people. I would remind anyone making remarks to the audience that all remarks should be kept secular.
  • Offering a place for people to leave messages may help the healing process for attendees. This could be handled in a number of ways:
  1. Line a wall with flip charts and provide markers
  2. Provide post-its where participants can write a message and post them to a board.
  3. Start a #hashtag where people can tweet their condolences.
  • Tone down any receptions or parties planned to take place. Consider the music and decorations.

As much as we need to honor the memory of those who lost their lives, we must also respect those who are attending the conference and be sure the goals of the conference are met. Do you agree? What would you do if you were the meeting planner of this conference? Let us know in the comments below…

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