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How to Handle Last-Minute Speaker Cancellations: Successful Meetings


by Elise Schoening |
December 09, 2019

Event coordinators spend months planning out each detail to make sure everything runs smoothly on the big day. Some things, however, are beyond their control. Last-minute speaker cancellations are particularly maddening — but, sadly, not entirely uncommon. Read on for four tips on how to rework the meeting schedule if a speaker falls ill or encounters a major flight delay. 

1. Think Ahead

In the event-planning world, it’s always best to have a plan B prepared. This means having extra staff on hand to deal with any issues that might arise and creating a list of backup speakers and sessions in the event of an emergency.

Elite Speakers International, a social cause speakers bureau, recommends including language about how cancellations will be handled when drafting speaker contracts. Some speakers agents and bureaus can provide an alternative presenter if something comes up. Meeting planners can also look to the city’s convention and visitors bureau for a list of local businesses and thought leaders who may be available on short notice.

2. Consider Swapping Sessions

Some speakers might be delayed due to bad weather or transportation issues. If this is the case and the presenter is able to arrive later, consider swapping their session with another one on the schedule. 

Associations North, which serves as a resource for Midwest associations, suggests upgrading another breakout session to a keynote if you find yourself in a bind. Just make sure to alert attendees of any schedule changes, whether it be via email, social media or push notifications on the event app.

3. Organize an Expert Panel

Another option for meeting professionals to consider is to pull from the talent already on-site to create an expert panel. Associations North advises having a moderator interview a handful of thought leaders on an important industry topic. This can be an opportunity for speakers to dive deeper into something that came up during an earlier Q&A or didn’t make it onto the original schedule. 

In the months leading up to the event, planners should brainstorm a few backup panel ideas and check in with confirmed speakers to see if they are willing to participate if need be.

4. Make it a Networking Opportunity

If all else fails, the session can always be turned into a networking opportunity. According to research from American Express Meetings & Events, networking is the second-biggest motivator for event attendance, just after content.

To make the networking break a little more interesting, Meeting Professionals International suggests treating it like a speed-dating session. Encourage attendees to meet and mingle with as many contacts as possible. Prizes and giveaways can even be offered to draw out more attendees and lessen the blow of the canceled program.


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