Meeting Mentor Magazine

March 2024

5 Legal Essentials for Bringing Back Live Events Safely

While the U.S. still lacks a widely available vaccine to stave off COVID-19 infections, the country is beginning to reopen — including a cautious return to in-person meetings and events. Meeting Professionals International recently held an “Executive Rethink Tank” webinar to talk about the legal, ethical, and logistical issues involved in bringing live events back.

“We don’t have a vaccine yet, but we do have a responsibility as meeting and event professionals to lead the way on teaching people how to convene safely,” said webinar leader Kristi Casey Sanders, CMM, CMP, DES, HMCC, MPI’s director of community.

Here are five top takeaways from the legal piece of the session:

• Force majeure may apply — or it may not. Tyra Warner, PhD, JD, CMP, Chair of the Department of Hospitality, Tourism, and Culinary Arts College of Coastal Georgia, said meeting professionals are still concerned about an issue that first cropped up this spring when the pandemic caused the first wave of meeting cancellations: Their force majeure clauses. “One of the things we’re realizing is that force majeure doesn’t apply until it applies,” she said. This spring, when government leaders instituted travel restrictions and shut down or severely limited public gatherings, including meetings, it was clear that force majeure most likely applied as those meetings became illegal, impossible or impracticable, depending on how the clause was written. But going into 2021, where there aren’t necessarily mandated restrictions at this point, “We’re still in a gray area” and you likely will have to wait for clarity as to when or if further restrictions making the meeting illegal, impossible or impracticable will be put in place, thus releasing the event organizer from liability.

• You likely will need to add some new questions. The need for social distancing also is causing many to renegotiate the amount of meeting space needed, as well as ask about whether amenities such as spas and restaurants will be open. “Will there be buffets? If so, will they be catered, or will everything be served plated or cafeteria style?” You can’t assume anything anymore, Warner said. “All of those things need to be spelled in the contract.” With so many hotels having had to furlough employees as a result of pandemic shutdowns and economic slowdowns, it also may make sense to address staffing for the event in the contracting phase.

• Make your cleaning, sanitation and hygiene expectations explicit. “I’m seeing cleaning and sanitation clauses where none previously existed,” Warner said. The clause should clearly outline whatever your expectations may be, as well as the cleaning and sanitation standards that particular property is following. For example, if the meeting is at a Hilton, the hotel likely adheres to Hilton’s CleanStay and EventReady programs. Your hotel may be complying with the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s Safe Stay program, or the GBAC STAR certification standards from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council division of the worldwide cleaning association ISSA. You want your contract to spell out that the hotel warrants that it will follow the cleaning and sanitation standards as outlined in whichever publicly published standard that particular hotel is using, she said.

• Take a hard look at your indemnification protections — including some that may come from local government. “Everybody wants assurances that, should someone come down with COVID-19 at an event, they will have some protection,” she said. In addition to ensuring the meeting will meet your organization’s duty-of-care standards, there may be other protections available as well. For example, the governor of the state of Georgia in August signed into law the COVID-19 Pandemic Business Safety Act, which offers businesses some protections from COVID-related liability as long as they adhere to some basic duty-of-care protocols as spelled out in the act.

• While all this may seem new and daunting, there’s really nothing new under the sun — even in contracts. “A lot of people think that contracts change radically as new things pop up, and we lawyers don’t mind that they think that! But there’s really nothing new under the sun — we’re just applying the same legal language in a different context. It’s still force majeure, it’s still indemnification — before COVID-19 [the context] was SARS, or avian flu, or a hurricane, or a tornado.”

In most cases, your legal counsel should be able to tweak your clauses to address the specifics, in this case, pandemic disease as evidenced by the World Health Organization.


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