Guest column: How event management pros can cope with supply chain challenges

Event professionals are famously used to thriving amid disruption. Granted, more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be the ultimate test, reminding most of us in the events sector that future-proofing isn't simply a matter of convenience, but survival.


Both a benefit and a challenge of our industry is that its activities have a broad reach. The things that impact our clients also impact us. Several things loom over the horizon, particularly from a supply chain standpoint.


The pandemic itself ebbs and flows, but February case levels in Europe suggest we, too, may face yet another surge or variant at some point. Then, of course, there is the war in Ukraine. Most of our industry will not face a direct impact, but executives will still need to brace themselves for surprises.


As the Harvard Business Review recently noted, rapidly increasing oil and gas prices as a result of the war will negatively impact transportation. Constraints on natural resources used to produce materials like semiconductors will have a knock-on effect for technology. And broader supply chain disruptions will put additional pressure on entry ports and airports. One way or another, the impact will find us.


Whether you work in events or at a company planning to host one, now is the ideal time to assess, plan, and begin to execute certain protective measures, even if no challenges are evident right now.


First, take stock of the challenges that are most likely to have an impact on your operations. This will vary based on your geographic location, the kinds of clients you generally work with, and the issues they are facing. Depending on what you generally do for them, adjusting may simply be a question of determining an alternative source for a product or service, if your usual supply could become prohibitively expensive, untimely, or unavailable. It’s also essential to check in with them as regularly as you can, to gauge what challenges they are facing internally.


Second, conduct a formal audit of your company’s supply chain. We believe that industry players will encounter challenges in several key areas, including delays in accessing decor such as vases, chair covers and linens, scenic construction components, and even printed training materials for workshops. Supply shortages, trucking issues, and labor shortages in work ranging from printing materials to event staging, may all impact events at one point or another during this period.


Identify potential bottlenecks or key pain points in your operations, along with a timed plan to clear them. Consider if all your products, even those you think are likely “safe,” have a backup inventory, and if so, how much backup product you have. Calculations of how much you will need can be drawn from internal data on past use.


Additionally, tactically diversifying your suppliers may be another step — safely planning for at least a few years’ disruption and a resulting need for alternative sourcing. There are two silver linings for this situation and its timeframe: This could be an opportunity to embrace more local partners if you haven’t already; and budgeting for two to three years of alternative suppliers also gives you an adequate amount of time to cultivate and strengthen new relationships.


Third, determine your business’ fiscal wiggle room to deal with rising prices on key products and services. Inflation-driven cost increases, compounded by increased shipping rates, may be considerably higher for some time, which will have to be accounted for somewhere. The Federal Reserve Bank recently raised interest rates a quarter point to tackle inflation. How quickly it will go lower, and by how much, remain to be seen. But the result for businesses may be a higher cost of borrowing in the short term and, though this isn’t a certainty, slower growth in the wider economy in the long term. All these factors will have an impact on how much an event costs for both you and your clients.


Fourth, manage expectations. We lead with “yes,” for our clients. Even if an exact scenario becomes impractical or impossible, we’re always ready with an alternative plan to support them. Our agility is their peace of mind, and this is especially true during periods of disruption.


As a general way to prepare, the advice we give our peers and partners is to closely review standard event agreements and contracts, and the contingency plans within them, ensuring everyone is covered in the event of a supply chain-related inconvenience. Maintain an open line of communication with distributors, many of whom will now have trouble getting things to you within the normal time frame. No one likes delays, but transparency is ultimately a matter of trust and respect, between you and them, as well as you and your clients.


There are never quick fixes for supply chain issues, even in a high-paced sector like event management. Still, careful planning, measured responses, and patience in abundance will get us through — as they have in previous periods of disruption. The show will go on.


This article originally appeared in the Memphis Business Journal and was written by Dusky Norsworthy, founder and CEO of Behind the Scenes and owner of V2 Media.