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Contingency Planning for Events: What Could Go Wrong?

By Megan Gosch

By the time the now-iconic photo of one Fyre Festivalgoer’s pitiful cheese sandwich had gone viral, social media platforms and news outlets were abuzz with shock and bewilderment—questioning how the seemingly star-studded island excursion could have resulted in half-built FEMA-issued tents, cancelled musical acts and stranded attendees. But for seasoned planners, the legendary disaster was just another in a slew of daily reminders on the importance of contingency planning and the true value of the many hours spent crafting alternate options for the emergencies they hope will never come to pass.

While most planners are well-versed in the basic elements of contingency planning, we checked in with crowd and emergency management experts, local planners and law enforcement professionals to talk tips, tools and concepts for planners to keep top-of-mind when planning their next event.

Hit Refresh 

Just as custom reigns king in today’s event design, food and beverage, and décor, cookie-cutter plans won’t do in case of an emergency—a concept planners likely already know but need to dedicate more time and effort to.

“To effectively manage an issue as it arises, contingency plans should be unique to that event,” says Rick J. Kaufman, APR, executive director of community relations and emergency management for Bloomington Public Schools. With over 30 years of emergency management experience, Kaufman also works as a consultant to other schools and organizations across the country and finds that although most clients come to him with a plan already in place, many are years old or too incomplete, requiring an audit for vulnerabilities or any possible gaps in operational response.

“A solid plan should consist of elements of prevention and intervention, response and recovery and a crisis plan. The contingency plan should also account for the needs of the client, and attendees, event activities and location specifics,” he says. “In most cases starting with a general framework is OK, but you need to get more specific and drill down from there. You need answers to big questions and that effort takes a significant amount of time.”

For some, finding enough time to contingency plan may be the biggest challenge. “Unfortunately for most people, that planning isn’t a priority until something goes wrong,” says Meghan Gustafson, director of events and programs for the mpls downtown council. “I am fortunate  to have  worked for organizations that take it seriously and make contingencies a part of each event but the task can seem overwhelming. Starting with a communication plan and building from there is a good start, but revisiting past plans to update with what you’ve learned from previous years can help to make that task less daunting.”

Team Effort

“At their events, planners are in a unique role in that they are the most knowledgeable person in the room. They are the experts in their circumstances,” says Steven A. Adelman, an expert in safety and security at live events, head of the Adelman Law Group, PLLC and vice president of the Event Safety Alliance.

“As attendees, we tend to be anti-authoritarian when we go out to play. We don’t listen to directions or pay attention very well. We’re more concerned with who’s going to win or who’s coming out on stage or what’s the next cool display. We’re looking for our friends. We’re not looking at signage, we don’t notice exits and we probably can’t hear your PA announcements, so we’re really relying on event organizers to have the answers if anything bad happens.”

And while that may seem daunting to some, experts like Adelman and local event professionals like Ann Dunne, assistant general manager for the U.S. Bank Stadium, agrees it’s important that planners remember they aren’t in it alone. Successful contingency planning relies heavily on a team approach, delegation and strong, clear communication.

“You just can’t do it all yourself. It’s incredibly difficult to accomplish most other elements of the event planning process on your own, let alone the management of contingency elements like security efforts or community relations. As a planner, you do need to take ownership over the safety and security of your employees and guests and work towards that every day. But on the whole, planning for contingencies should be a team effort and that’s where communication with internal staff and external resources is key,” says Dunne.

Just as planners maintain clear and consistent channels of communication with event partners, from clients and internal staff to A/V providers and custodial staff, to ensure day of production goes off without a hitch, planners must consider how contingencies  can impact all involved with their events and communicate accordingly.

“You don’t want to get caught flat-footed. Issues that pop up are only exacerbated when the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing,” says Kaufman. “Everyone needs to know where direction is coming from, what their roles are and who is responsible for what, and they need to be adequately trained to take on those roles. Any confusion on those expectations can slow down response time and cause more distress or panic.”

“Most people don’t think to share pared-down versions of their plans with their on-site vendors and partners, not just their planning team,” says Gustafson. “Does your committee know they shouldn’t call 911 for a medical emergency because you have all the resources needed on-site  and  getting an ambulance into the site will cause more challenges and add to response time? Does your A/V vendor know who to call if they see something suspicious? You also need to prepare your leadership team and educate them on your plans so that, should some- thing go wrong, they aren’t surprised and can support your efforts.”

Questions Are Key 

“Really, when it comes down to it, contingency planning is all about asking good questions,” says Adelman. When crafting a thorough contingency plan, planners may turn to local law enforcement and emer- gency responder professionals for help, “and that’s a great place to start but there needs to be more of a dialogue.”

“No matter how much time I might spend with a client, I’m never going to be as knowledgeable about their event as they are. I do know where things tend to go wrong and I know what the existing guidance is to help mitigate some of those risks. Experts may know enough about human psychology or a specific security issue, but planners need to take what they’ve learned from those con- versations and adapt it to their events. The better and more specific the questions, the better prepared they’ll be,” Adelman says.

Kaufman concurs: “Your plan can only be strengthened by the answers you’ve gathered along the way. What are the hazards to your event? Are they geographical? Are they intentional? Will dignitaries attend? Will alcohol be served? Who will provide the security and what are they responsible for? What time will doors open? What time does the event end? Which exits and entrances will be used? Your questions will range from broad high-level to the minute detail, but this is a time you don’t want to hold back. It can sound elementary, but understanding that questions like these are your tools can be powerful and keep you prepared.”

Big Picture

Unfortunately, while man-made hazards and acts of violence continue to dominate news cycles and loom as a potential threat throughout the event planning process, experts worry planners may begin to miss the forest for the trees with less attention paid to other likely risks.

“The inclination is to react to what we see in the headlines. We have far too many instances of active shooters, so we pay a disproportionate amount of our  attention  to guns relative to the likelihood that we will have a gun-related incident at our event,” says Adelman. From the placement of direc- tional signage and seating or stage setup to the event of a flood or an attendee health or medical emergency, “we need to be able to deal with crowd management apart from active shooters because crowd management must be done regardless of the reason the crowd needs to be managed. This can get us out of the trap of thinking only of guns,” says Adelman.

Kaufman also advises planners to focus on the task at  hand  when  planning  for the worst-case scenario: the response. “We often focus too much on the threat and less on the response specific to that emergency. ‘Active shooter’ may be the buzz word these days, but any number of threats could emerge that require a similar response protocol,” he says. “The reality is it’s about responding to situations we don’t have all of the information for. I counsel clients to concentrate on and practice drills using consistent protocols to create cultural conditions so that they know what to do in a real-world situation.”

In consideration of the potential for violence at live events, Adelman also notes planning for substance as well as perception. “The fear of acts of violence is far more widespread than the acts of violence themselves, but addressing perception can enhance attendee confidence. Obviously you want to have the basics—security perimeters like a physical fence or  use  of bollards and a check of guests and their bags at the point of ingress, way- finding signage and clear directions to exits—because visual deterrents not only help prevent  bad behavior,  they provide  a sense of confidence to guests. In the past, uniformed security guards might have caused alarm, but these days when they see security, guests are more likely to think, ‘great, they’re considering our safety,’” says Adelman.

On the Radar

While active shooters may be one of the most concerning threats facing today’s live events, experts advise planners also keep issues like cyber security and climate change in mind.

“Climate change should be on every- one’s radar and may actually impact the live event industry disproportionately due to the number of events that take place outside of brick-and-mortar venues. As our climate becomes less stable, we have an increased potential for severe weather evacuations, underscoring the importance of having a severe weather action plan. Planners will need to stress site planning as well as access to accurate weather infor- mation. Hint: Your cell phone app is not  a reliable source of GPS-located weather information,” says Adelman.

“Research suggests issues like climate change are going to have a greater impact on events and lead to further disrup- tions in the industry, but today’s politi- cal climate also poses a threat. As we begin to see more cases of protest and civil unrest—in Minnesota, that’s resulted in freeway closures and airport disruptions—planners need to begin to  plan for politically-motivated issues as well,” says Kaufman.

Power in Planning 

Most importantly, although the complex process of contingency planning may be nerve-wracking at times, Adelman encourages planners to embrace the power that the practice can bring planners.

“Understanding crowd management and contingency planning gives people— regardless of age, skill set, education level or expertise—helpful things they can do in an emergency that are within their power,” says Adelman. “Being told to stand in a corner and wait for further instruction— that’s disempowering. But when you break things like an evacuation plan for severe weather or finding back-up entertainment for an artist that can’t perform down into fairly simple, easily achievable elements, there’s something everyone can do to help solve a problem and to help keep people safe—that’s empowering.” 


Tools of the Trade

While the ideal combination of guides, websites and services will vary by event, local planners and industry experts have recommended a few of their go-to tools:

American National Standards Institute (ANSI): A private not-for-profit organization fostering national safeguarding standards for a range of industries, including the field of safety and security. ANSI will publish a new Crowd Management standard in early 2020 to provide planners with key ques- tions and authoritative crowd management guidance for planning safe and secure events. 

Event Safety Alliance: Dedicated to helping event professionals mitigate foreseeable live event risks through education, skills training and advocacy, this nonprofit creates resources for planners like its Event Safety Podcast (an ongoing discussion for ideas and news from the world of live event safety), Event Safety Access Training (an online program for professionals in all aspects of event production), and “The Event Safety Guide,” the country’s first published safety guidance manual created specifically for the live event industry. The Guide compiles relevant safety standards, insight from industry experts and reasonable operational practices regarding emergency planning, weather preparedness and more. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service: The national organization provides weather, water and climate information for the general public, but can also help planners prepare for hazardous conditions that may put attendees in harm’s way. Planners can register their event with the organization’s local branch for assistance with accurate day-of forecasting.

National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4): As one of the world’s leading academic research institutions in addressing sports safety and security risks and threats and offers planners a variety of online resources, best practice guides and more. 

Tips from the Pros
Minneapolis Police Department Lieutenant Mark Klukow and Phil Schliesman, Block Event Special Event Committee coordinator for the City of Minneapolis, share their tips for successful community and public sector relationship-building.

  • Plan your event twice: “I tell all new planners I work with to double the time they’ve spent planning event version A. You need a back-up plan for everything so you essentially need a second event ready to go at the drop of a hat,” says Schliesman.
  • Be realistic: “Planners are often looking through rose-colored glasses when it comes to envisioning their event on the perfect day, especially when it comes to outdoor events in public spaces. These spaces may be someone’s home 365 days a year and planners often overlook the unshel- tered people they may be displacing when they’ve repurposed a public space,” says Klukow.
  • Air-tight  weather plan: “You’d  be surprised  at  the number of times we’ve had to ask, ‘What’s your weather plan?’ to even the most experi- enced planners. Who’s going to moni- tor the weather in the days leading up to your event? At what temperature will it be too hot? At what temperature will it be too cold? How much humidity is too much? You need these answers well in advance,” says Schliesman.
  • Make an appearance: “If you’re trying to establish a relationship with a public sector or law enforcement contact, you need to meet them face- to-face—that’s across the board. The worst thing you can do is send an email and wait for a reply. You have to build up that rapport and  that  relationship is best established in person. The pros become regulars, stopping by through- out the year to check in and stay ahead of what’s new or might be changing,” says Schliesman.
  • Find a mentor: “I try  to guide contacts to fellow planners who are steeped in experience. The gold-standard planners are generally pro- ducing major events like the Basilica Block Party, the Twin Cities Marathon, the Twin Cities Pride Festival or the Minneapolis Aquatennial. New start- ups should find time to meet with these folks and experienced public safety partners to learn the pitfalls before they get too deep into their first event. It’s a favor to themselves as much as it is to us as community partners,” says Klukow.

Build Your Network: Meghan Gustafson, Director of Events and Programs, mpls downtown council 

With over 17 years of experience in the event industry, including production of Minneapolis’ annual Holidazzle and Aquatennial celebrations and the Basilica Block Party, mpls down- town council Director of Events and Programs Meghan Gustafson has not only built strong working relationships with local vendors and suppliers, but also with local law enforcement, city officials and colleagues.

“[When it comes to contingency planning,] a multifaceted approach is the best way to make sure you have all your bases covered. Talking with local experts through the process, whether that’s law enforcement, emergency responders, insurance or legal representatives, or other people who work on similar events in your industry will only strengthen your planning,” says Gustafson.

“Talking with your city permits office, local police and other government entities can also be a time-saver. Their input and advice can usually provide you with helpful contacts and tips you can use as a start,” she says. Gustafson also recommends planners check for resources from agen- cies like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). “Resources like the ones provided by the DHS ( are fairly new, but due to all the issues happening at events around the world, there really needs to be more collabo- ration and dialogue happening with the events industry and these departments and law enforcement are really starting to connect with event producers to cre- ate connections so that we can all work together to keep people safe.”

It Takes a Village

When hosting events at the U.S.Bank Stadium practice, community coordination and idea sharing are especially vital.

For U.S. Bank Stadium Assistant General Manager Ann Dunne, who oversees the booking of events large (accommodating up to 70,000 guests at any given time) and small from start to finish, communication with event partners could not be more important when it comes to contingency planning.

With events taking place at the stadium almost every single day, Dunne’s seasoned team works tire- lessly community-wide to ensure guests enjoy a safe visit. “We’re in constant communication with stadium partners, so everyone from our food and beverage and security teams to the stadium’s cleaning and guest services crew as well as community service partners including HCMC, the Minneapolis Police Department, the local fire department, Metro Transit and even the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are all up-to-date on event plans,” says Dunne.

“With a venue as large as ours, those community members need to be in the loop so they can also efficiently manage safety throughout the city.”

And while the stadium has a proven track record for hosting major events without a hitch, Dunne says her team is always eager to learn from others. “Our company, ASM Global, manages over 300 venues across five continents including six other NFL stadiums, and with that network we’re able to share best practices and learn from other teams to develop some really creative event solutions. It’s been such an amazing resource to have on hand.”