When a delegate dies

Occasionally students tell me that in recruitment interviews for conference planners’ jobs they have been asked: “What would you do if a delegate died during a conference you were organising?” I can only suppose that this is asked as a way of assessing the candidate’s potential to deal with unexpected emergencies. But is it a fair question to ask candidates? And what’s the best procedure for dealing with the death of a delegate, anyway? Uncertain in my own mind of the answer to both of these points, I decided to put these questions to my Linkedin network, which includes a fair number of meetings planners.

The flurry of responses seemed to suggest that there are a lot more dead delegates out there than you might imagine. But replies varied from the facetious “leave fish off the menu” to detailed checklists of what to do when faced with a newly-defunct delegate.

Some people thought the question unfair. For example, Dave Chesworth of Smiler Limited said it was ridiculous, adding that when someone goes for an interview as Shop Manager, they are not asked what they would do if a customer died in the shop. Sallie Coventry of W and O Events agreed, saying that there are more valuable and insightful questions to be asked at an interview: The interview time would be spent better assessing the candidate’s project management skills, financial acumen, client communication approach, etc. In any case, how an employee should deal with the dead delegate situation is usually outlined in emergency procedure manuals,” she said. Nevertheless, when Coventry did a straw pole around her office she found that several of her colleagues had in fact had to deal with a death during an event. Her conclusion was “As with any unexpected occurrence, the secret is to present a calm exterior, despite any internal panic.”

Jill Vandeerweit of the Seamon Corporation said that although she does not directly put this question to her interviewees, some of them have described how they handled the death of a delegate, when asked by Vandeerweit to describe one of their most challenging onsite situations. She said: “This question helps me to assess several factors, including how they react under stress, their professionalism in calmly and quickly taking care of business, their sensitivity to corporate and individuals’ privacy and the depth of their responsibility in onsite management. For instance, if a candidate tells me that his most challenging situation involved a presenter exceeding her time limit and delaying lunch by 15 minutes, I am likely to assume that the candidate hasn’t accumulated much experience.”

One of the most detailed suggestions for the procedure to follow in the case of a delegate’s death came from Sushila Yacobi of Parkinson’s UK. Her advice was: “Get a colleague to be with you as a witness, act as quickly as you can, inform the delegates of a medical emergency (but do not mention death) and tell them to be calm. Ask if there’s a doctor and/or nurse in the audience. Next, ask the delegates to leave the room quietly and wait in the foyer until further notice. If there is a doctor present, ask him/her to confirm the death, inform the hotel, ask the hotel to send a doctor to confirm/certify the death. Get a colleague to supervise and deal with the delegate situation – perhaps continuing the conference in another room or waiting until the body is taken out of the conference room so that the delegates can go back in. When the death is confirmed, inform the delegate’s relatives. Always collaborate with the hotel with regard to the best way to deal with this situation, as they may already have procedures in place for such an event. If it is towards the end of the conference, explain to delegates that there has been disruption due to an emergency situation and tell them to go home, and if any of them have to wait for transport, provide them with food and drinks until they are able to leave.”

The Grim Reaper can strike at any time, but statistically-speaking, he’s more likely to come calling at the doors of those who are on the SAGA side of 60. And, as more and more of us go on working into our late 60s and even into our 70s and beyond, the probability of one of your future delegates suffering literal death by Powerpoint or otherwise can only increase.

Any comments? Email conferencenews@mashmedia.net

Paul Colston


Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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