Event planners are a special type of person — they deal with an almost infinite number of variables that can wreak havoc. The decisions they make can impact hundreds — if not thousands — of people, the financial health of an organization as well as the livelihoods of vendors involved with their event.
If you’ve planned an outdoor event, it may feel like you live and die by the words of your local weather forecaster. Deciding to cancel or postpone an event due to bad weather is a difficult and heart-wrenching one, especially when you have put so much work into event planning.
Indoor events have one less factor that may sabotage success, but they are certainly not immune to trouble. HVAC or electrical issues at the event venue, lack of ticket sales, speaker cancellations and local or national tragedies can force you to cancel or postpone as well.
Steps to cancel or postpone an event in the most professional way:
1. Enlist help
Identify helpers to help you communicate, generate ideas and respond to questions.
2. Identify constituents
Make a list of each category of people involved with your event. This may include staff, event chairs, attendees, members, potential attendees, VIPs, local dignitaries, volunteers, sponsors, vendors, local media, board members, speakers and others.
3. Edit your event calendar and event listing
Login to your online event calendar or event registration system to immediately close online sales and add a message as to the reasoning. You can update this information later with the statement from step 6 below. If you are postponing, some membership event systems such as MembershipWorks allow you to move your event and all of its registrants by changing the event date.
MembershipWorks customers should note that an email message will automatically be sent to your attendees if you perform this task, so you may want to be strategic about when to do this. You may want to prepare a message to be sent to registrants before you change the date to avoid a rush of calls or emails with questions. You can use the Email feature within your event to send such a message to all registrants.
4. Specify communications channels
Put a note next to each category of constituent in terms of how they will be notified. The more important the constituent group, the more personal the method of communication — such as individual phone calls — should be. Communication choices can also include email, texting, robocalls, listserves, online bulletin boards, social media posts, direct messages, website posts and more.
5. Create talking points for your key constituents
For personal phone calls to your most important constituents, write talking points that can be shared amongst staff or volunteers to quickly spread the word. You can later convert your talking points into a written statement that can be shared more broadly.
6. Write a statement or news release for wide distribution.
Have a trusted colleague or your executive director review your statement to look for gaps in information and grammar, spelling or punctuation mistakes. Sharing your statement as a Google doc will allow multiple people to offer comments and edits in a unified place as opposed to edits coming in piecemeal from multiple sources. Give your editors a deadline so they know when you’ll be moving forward with the statement and can respond accordingly. Mistakes are more likely when you are running on adrenaline, so don’t forget to ask for proofing.
Your statement or news release may include:
- The reason for the cancellation/postponement.
- An offer to transfer tickets to the new event (in case of postponement) or an indication that you will assume that attendees will use their ticket for the new event date unless you hear otherwise from them. Let ticket holders know how to communicate this information to you and decide what details you want to know. To collect information in bulk, you can create an online form or use your event registration system to create a new event to collect registrations. Note that if you are a MembershipWorks customer, you may decide to move your event and current registrants to another date as mentioned in step 3.
- An offer to convert individual ticket purchases into donations. You may want to follow up with a donation thank you letter to each ticket holder if you opt to do this. Some purchasers may still want a refund. Be generous with your refund policy so as to avoid damaging your group’s reputation and potentially hurting ticket sales for your next event.
- What refunds or transfers are available and how to take advantage of them. If you’ve postponed, consider that your new event date or location may not work for everyone, so refunds will be important to some.
- Information on the rescheduled event (if applicable), including any changes to location, speaker lineup, number of tickets available, etc.
- Whom to contact for more information. You may want to designate different points of contact depending upon the type of constituent. For example, local media should be in touch with your communications staff or volunteers whereas ticket holders may need to reach out to someone else.
7. Distribute messages in a way appropriate to the audience and the urgency of the message
If you offered online event registration and collected email addresses, it makes sense to send cancellation information through that channel. However, if less than 24 hours remains before your event, you may need to text or call your ticket holders. Younger attendees may not check emails that often; texting or social media will be a better way to reach them. Older ticket holders may have included a phone number, but they may have put down a landline number that can not receive texts, so calls may be in order.
One local theatre group that had to postpone opening night with 48 hours notice opted to both email and either call or text each ticket holder. Younger patrons (identified as those who asked for tickets to be delivered electronically to their phone) received texts. Those who asked for will call tickets were thought to be older patrons and were personally called. The theatre considered their communication efforts a success as no patron came to the door on the originally-scheduled opening night.
8. Consider bulk message options. Most organizations have bulk email capability through their event registration system or email marketing platform, but do not have the capability to send bulk texts (SMS) or do robocalls. You can task your communications team with identifying and setting up vendors to use for these services. Your event software should allow you to export contact information to upload for use in a bulk messaging system if you decide to use one.
9. Circle back to social media and local media outlets where your event has been promoted. Edit any existing posts and Facebook events to include something along the lines of, “UPDATE…This event has been cancelled,” to get readers’ attention should they come looking for information. Make new posts on each social media channel that includes the full text of your statement or a link to read the full text. Post in any Facebook groups where you posted messages before. Creating a graphic with a prominent message of cancellation or postponement will catch attention better than plain text. You should change out existing graphics with the new one as well as make new posts with it.
If your local paper or online media have promoted your event, be in touch with them to ask them to edit the event listing with your new information.
Make it easier on yourself to cancel or postpone an event in the future
- Maintain a media list and a list of social outreach channels such as listserves and Facebook groups. Check off where you have posted messages. This will allow you to have a solid list for re-posting information changes.
- Research and identify bulk messaging providers for text (SMS) and robo calls so that you don’t have to do this at crunch time.
- Collect contact information for each ticket purchaser — not just the person who fills out your online registration form — including mobile phone number (so you know that the phone can receive texts) and email address.
- If you are planning an outdoor event, set a rain date in advance, assuming your venue will accommodate you at an alternate date. Include mention of the rain date in your communications surrounding the event. Then hopefully some of your vendors, exhibitors and attendees might keep the rain date open on their calendars.
- Create a list of your constituent groups for each event so you’ll know whom you need to communicate with should cancellation occur.
- Identify whom you’ll ask for help and document multiple ways to reach each person. During the early stages of event planning, let them know how you hope to count on them (e.g. calls to board members, help writing a news release, etc.) to help you in case of event problems.