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Event Management When Things Go Wrong: Alarms, Tech Fails And Speaker Mishaps

Photo by Ben Schumin, via Wikipedia

Photo by Ben Schumin, via Wikipedia

If you’re like most conference managers, you know there are a lot of things that can go wrong at a conference. Here are some of the biggest problems I’ve encountered (and reacted to) while producing events–is your biggest event disaster on this list? Share your story in the comments–and tell us how you handled the situation.

1. An Alarming Scenario

Recently, during a general session filled with several hundred people, our speaker was describing the need to generate an air of excitement among employees. We certainly encountered that air of excitement first hand, as the hotel’s fire alarm went off in the middle of his presentation.

Fortunately, no one panicked, and nobody got up and ran. The speaker remained calm and tried to reassure the audience, and the hotel public address system announced that the security staff was investigating. We were able to check with the hotel and quickly determine there was no need to evacuate.

I sent that message electronically to the stage, the speaker repeated it to the audience and we continued. Panic averted – even though the alarm went off a second time (as if anyone in the building could have missed the first one).

2. When Technology Fails (And Why Back-up Is Essential) – Part 1

Another time we were doing a live cross-country interview via Skype between a moderator on stage and a speaker unable to fly to our event. It worked perfectly for about 30 minutes. Unfortunately, the keynote was scheduled for 45 minutes.

We stalled for a minute trying to get the transmission back, and it did come back up – for only about 40 seconds, before crashing again. At that point, there was nothing to do but tell the moderator to end the session. I didn’t believe in giving the system a second chance.

3. When Technology Fails – Part 2

Whenever anyone wants to do a live Internet demonstration on stage, I cringe. These things fail far too often. At the least, your speaker needs a backup. That should be screenshots of the Internet sites he or she was planning to show.

But at one conference I produced recently, the speaker had a different idea of a backup: a second computer in case the first failed. You guessed it: the website froze near the start of the presentation, so the second computer was just as powerless as the first one to show the demo. Without backup slides, the speaker was forced to tell, not show — the opposite of what we advise speakers.

4. Entrance and Exits Are Key

Not too long ago I was directing the processional at an educational conference where hundreds of people march up the aisle to be recognized and take their seats in front of an audience of several thousand attendees. We’re all set to start the processional when some members ran up to me to say the aisle was too narrow at one spot for the people in wheelchairs and electric carts. Oops.

I grabbed a couple ushers and we blocked off some other aisles. While we had to make two 90-degree turns, the group marched with pride and successfully navigated along the new zigzag path.

5. Have An Extra Copy On Hand

How about a speaker who forgets their speech? Yup, that’s happened, too.

The speaker was about three-quarters through her presentation when she suddenly looked up at the camera and announced to the audience, “I don’t have any more pages, I can’t find the rest of my speech.” But I had a copy, although not in the big print she was using. I ran my copy up on stage, the speaker reached in her pocket for her glasses so she could read the smaller font and was able to reach her conclusion.

6. Running To The Rescue

And of course, there’s always the problem of microphones failing. We always have a backup, a handheld wireless microphone near the stage that we can run up to the speaker. But I wasn’t prepared when the president of an association was speaking and the power pack fell off her belt in the middle of her speech. Up on stage I ran, grabbed the power pack and as delicately as I could, re-attached it to her dress.

Do you have any stories of unexpected problems encountered during events or conferences? How did you handle them?