Unexpected events such as Ebola can cause havoc for travel and, consequently, for meetings. This has forced meeting planners to pay more attention to a term that has often been cloaked in mystery. The term is “force majeure”, which literally means “superior force”. While to most people this phrase means an “Act of God”, this phrase actually has a specific legal definition. When used in a legal contract, this provision excuses a party from liability if some unforeseen event beyond the control of that party prevents it from performing its obligations under the contract. To meeting planners, what this means is that in a force majeure situation all or part of a meeting may be cancelled.
So what is a force majeure situation? Many contracts might specifically refer to Acts of God or nature which covers hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and so forth. However, this will not cover a number of other cases that might lead to meeting cancellations, so other wording should be introduced. Your contract should include actions of the government, fires, strikes, transportation stoppages, civil disturbances, terrorism and acts of war. Stronger contract wording might also cover power, communications, satellite, or network failures.
For a planner to properly discern whether or not a force majeure situation applies, he or she should consider whether a situation, beyond his or her control, makes it “impossible, illegal or inadvisable” to hold an event. These three terms are the key to understanding when a planner might be in a situation where they might be able to cancel a meeting without being held liable. For example, if the meeting facility cannot be accessed – perhaps because of a civil disturbance – then it would be “impossible” to have the meeting. If the facility has been condemned due to structural problems, then you might be faced with a situation where it is “illegal” to have the meeting.
The most interesting and likely case the planner might face is one where it is “inadvisable” to hold a meeting. The key here is to ask the basic question, “will the attendees show up for the meeting?” Note that this is quite different from “can the attendees go to the meeting?” Since poor attendance effectively makes a meeting a failure, then any situation that will lead to most people not attending will make it inadvisable to even put on the meeting. If a blizzard hits your city the day of the event, you are probably in a situation where it is inadvisable to hold the meeting. (Hence, a force majeure situation). However, if the sound system is ruined because of carelessness, it might be inadvisable to have a meeting from the planner’s standpoint, but not from the contract’s standpoint since this was something that was not out of the planner’s control.
Make sure to consult your attorney about force majeure and cancellation clauses.