Conference Organizers: What Is Your Duty of Care?

By Dave Lutz.

Just when we thought we were turning the corner on a rise in Covid cases, we are hearing about short-term cancellations of conventions once again as the Delta variant causes cases to rise. Several conventions that occurred in June and July resulted in a number of positive COVID tests, including breakthrough cases among fully vaccinated participants. Some of the host organizations were transparent and shared these reported cases with attendees. Others were not.

As conference organizers, it can be helpful to consider our responsibilities from the viewpoint of duty of care — the legal definition of which is “a requirement that a person [or organization] act[s] toward others and the public with the watchfulness, attention, caution, and prudence that a reasonable person in the circumstances would use. If a person’s actions do not meet this standard of care, then the acts are considered negligent…”

4 Questions to Define Your Duty of Care

Over the next year or so, conference organizers will need to define their responsibilities for duty of care, as well as what is expected of those who choose to attend your conference in person. As you develop your plan, consider these four difficult questions and how to incorporate your responses in your risk-management planning:

  1. Will our preventive measures align with health authority guidelines or will we invest in extra precautions? Some organizations are contracting with suppliers to manage checkpoints for proof of vaccination, enforce mask and social distancing, and even employing technology solutions for contact tracing. Additional precautions like these can be polarizing for participants. Some may appreciate them as an extra layer of protection. Others may see them as an inconvenience.
  2.  What guidelines or policies should we put into place for our staff and vendors? Will attendance be required or optional? Will we require proof of vaccination or a negative test result prior to travel? How will they help ensure duty of care throughout the conference? Will they be expected to enforce the adopted guidelines?
  3. What should be included in our crisis planning? What indicators do we monitor to make go/no-go decisions? What is our drop-dead date for making the go/no-go decision? What actions do we take if an attendee doesn’t adhere to the safety precautions and guidelines that are in place? What is our communication plan for dealing with a crisis during the conference?
  4. How transparent will/should we be? If an attendee reports a positive COVID test during or shortly after the event, who will communicate this, and how, to other attendees? Do you send an email, make calls, and/or publish on your website? To what degree will you assist with contact tracing and notification? What are the implications to your brand for over-or under-communicating?

Should We Ask Attendees to Sign a Waiver?

In risk management, shifting liability to another party is a common practice. When it comes to meeting participation, I really like the duty-of-care approach over a waiver filled with a bunch of legalese. Whichever direction you decide to take, it is important to highlight the personal responsibility that every attendee has for their own wellbeing as well as that of every other participant.

Sample Duty of Care Release

Review and download a sample “Duty of Care” release we developed that could be used as part of your meeting’s registration process. Be sure to get your attorney’s approval prior to use.

In 2006, Dave founded and began serving as Managing Director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting…a business improvement firm that helps conference and trade show organizers grow or transform their major face-to-face conferences. Prior to going down the consulting road, Dave was with Experient for 22 years where he served as President of both the Meeting Planning and Registration divisions.

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