Issue #30

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Today’s Topic: Dealing with emergencies.

Organizers 😊

This edition is for the organizers primarily but I think it’s good for speakers and attendees to absorb this as well. This was one draft I started last year but in light of recent events decided to move it up.

I was a lead organizer of a WordCamp that experienced a sudden emergency. I wanted to share how that when down, what I learned, and review some tips and procedures to make sure your team is ready as possible in case something on a major “catastrophic” level were to happen.

With recent talk about the COVID-19 virus and cancellations of WordCamps and tech conferences, it’s a good time for some reminders.

Dealing With Immediate Emergencies

A day before WordCamp Miami 2017 started, the venue (FIU college) experienced a catastrophic event. A personal walkway (or bridge) that spanned from the venue to a parking garage over a busy street suddenly collapsed. Although it was Spring Break week and few students were on campus, lives were still lost. This occurred on a Thursday morning, the same day a WordPress meetup was scheduled to occur that evening. I actually was driving on that same road and would have driven under that bridge nearly at the same time of it’s collapse but I choose to take an exit that avoided it.

I knew something was wrong when I could hear constant police sirens (and later helicopters) from the campus. The bridge was located on the outer edge of the campus, but was within walking distance of where WordCamp Miami would be. As lead I was lucky to meet another organizer there (Jean Felisme) and since he worked at FIU we used his office as a “command center”. Since nobody was scheduled to come that early at the venue, it was just the two of us.

Because this is a WordCamp, WordCamp Central was notified and provided their assistance. I had access to Slack to contact the fellow organizers while Jean monitored the news and alerts issued by FIU. The evening meetup ended up being canceled at that afternoon, we updated via social, website, and sent out emails to all those attending (especially those attending the workshops).

Some lessons learned:

  • Having fast and reliable communication with your team is a no-brainer but it probably saved us that afternoon. We had minimal Slack channels and everyone’s phone numbers were ALREADY in the phone of the organizers (this is a day before the event started).
  • Multiple people having access to send global Slack messages and access to WordCamp social was also important. Having one or two people have this access would have cost us time. Even when I did have access, I made sure most communications (social and website) were quickly reviewed by someone on the organizer team (our social/PR person wasn’t immediately available).
  • Patience. You want to act but sometimes you have to sit and wait. There was going to be a cutoff time in the afternoon when we agreed to alert attendees via email. Email is probably the most critical of communications since you want to include as much accurate information as possible. You can send multiple tweets as developments occur, but it’s harder with emails. Emails should also be more professional, streamlined (focus on the critical changes attendees will need to know), and easy to understand.
  • Rely on Your Team. If you have done your job with open communication, sharing decisions with your team, then you should be able to trust their collective input. You might not be able to make all decisions quickly with all the input, but keeping them updated and letting them know why a decision is being made will keep the team strong. Being physically in a room with team members is ideal.
  • Have a backup for all organizer’s responsibilities. Example: if someone was in charge of communication with the venue and can’t be reached in an urgent time, that information should be available in a team document AND also someone should be familiar enough with procedures to fill in. It’s ok, especially for volunteer events like WordCamps to have some overlap in terms of knowledge. Don’t create a single point of failure, even when there isn’t an emergency.
  • As lead organizer, let the team do their jobs unless you see a struggle. Your job should be focused on making sure everyone has the resources and open communication channels to do their jobs. Also patience – since some team members might be doing things they aren’t too familiar with. And everyone is under stress.
  • If you are a WordCamp, then obviously contact with the WordPress Central people is vital and helpful.
  • Last but not least safety of your team and attendees comes first. If there’s doubt to cancel a meetup or a day and it’s safer even marginally for attendees, then give it consideration. Available team members should have input, although keep in mind if you are a WordCamp then WordCamp Central likely has ultimate authority. Regardless make sure all teams members know the decisions being made. You might find it best to let team leaders inform the volunteers of those on their team – so you can focus on keeping just a few informed. This is why an organized command structure is helpful.

I consider the example of what me and my team went through that year to be a “sudden emergency”. Close to a worse case scenario (day before a conference, no warning). Worst case would be DURING the conference… in which case many items of the above I feel would apply although of course factors such as venue owners, direct contact with offsite organizers (in the case of WordCamps that would be WordCamp Central) and even local law enforcement would be playing a greater role.

For problems that aren’t THAT close to the conference… say weeks or months away… when you have time to plan… can be very stressful too. Some natural disasters and emergencies (most hurricanes, some outbreaks, etc) don’t usually happen as suddenly as a bridge collapse. Therefore you can usually monitor the situation with your team, sometimes on a daily basis. It’s important to have a page on your site devoted to updates for those wondering about the status of the conference.

BTW I would also include FINANCIAL or VENUE emergencies in all of this. It’s not unheard of for conferences to encounter some sort of sudden issue in these areas (venue has to shutdown or a sudden large unexpected expense). It’s important to communicate not just the status of the problem but the causes behind it when appropriate. These are man made problems and therefore require certain additional details.

What If You Cancel An Event?

I personally have never had to cancel a conference or become part of a cancelled conference. That being said decisions about a conference moving forward should be made with consideration of the travel and hotel arrangements of the speaker and attendees in mind. Make sure whenever you sign a contract with a venue, a caterer, in fact with ANYONE… make sure you note the circumstances around any fees or procedures regarding cancellations. Sadly these days once you are past a certain point, refunds for deposits are VERY difficult to obtain. You might even need to bring in legal consults before you sign to make it clear to both parties, and with perhaps some room to negotiate.

Sometimes events can be postponed and not cancelled. However if an event is truly cancelled, depending on circumstances a live stream of speakers (who no doubt worked hard to prepare their talks) would be a nice offering.

That is all I will share on the subject on this issue. I’m welcome to hear your thoughts – have you had to postpone or cancel an event? What lessons do you feel would be helpful to share for other organizers?

Speakers 🎤

A quick note to speakers – make a note to consider making at least one the talks you submit to be “online or virtual” friendly and note that to the conference organizers when you submit. Due to the conditions currently in the world, we might be looking at virtual conferences being much more common in the approaching months – make sure to be clear to organizers that if anything were to change, you would be prepared to accommodate.

Misc. Stuff 🤷‍♂️

These tips were written and/or gathered by David Bisset, someone who’s been helping organizing conferences (such as WordCamp Miami, but others too) and meetups for over a decade. He’s still learning so share any of your tips and it might be included in a future newsletter.