How to Handle Last Minute Event Cancellations

It’s the 11th hour. The venue is booked. Catering is paid for. The guests are excited. 

The scheduled event is a week away.

Then you see that dreaded email in your inbox — your client has pulled the plug on the event. 

First things first. You have to reply to the email. What do you say? 

The contents of your email will vary depending on the event and reason for the cancellation, but one thing remains true for every single situation —you must remain calm.

That sounds obvious, but in the heat of the moment, this is valuable advice to remember.

Event Cancellations

It’s important to take a minute to collect your thoughts so you can write a sympathetic, and yet firm, email that covers all the details.

Whatever the reason or excuse is for the last-minute event cancellation, you still have to go into crisis mode, undoing everything you’ve done.

The only thing that could make this worse would be not getting paid.

What are your rights, and what should your reasonable expectations be? You put a lot of time and effort into planning the event. 

Let’s hope you covered all your bases in the contract you had your clients sign.

What does your contract say?

Developing a cancellation policy to include in your contract is an absolute must. Otherwise, last-minute event cancellations could result in a substantial monetary loss.

Some things to consider when creating a cancellation policy

  • How much notice does a client need to give you before canceling an event?
  • What happens if the client cancels outside of the agreed-upon cancellation timeframe?
  • Will you set a cancellation fee, and if so, how much?
  • Are there any circumstances under which your client can cancel, and get their refund back? If so, how much?
  • What happens if the client cancels because of a mistake or breach of contract on your end?
  • If you fire your client, will they receive a refund?

Modifying the cancellation policy for each event is a good idea. An even better idea is making sure the client signs on the dotted line if they do actually cancel. This acts as proof that it was them, and not you. 

Then there’s also the matter of recouping any costs your client may have incurred from the goods and services you have outsourced. It’s more than likely they won’t get any deposits back, but what about the remaining balance on services like photography?

Even though it’s your client who will be absorbing all of the cancellation fees, it’s a sign of good faith for you to use your connections to help them recoup as much money as possible.

But, as you well know, there’s much more to managing a last-minute cancellation than worrying about deposits and refunds.

There’s a whole gambit of tasks to tackle. 

Who does what?

Who tells the guests? Unless you have made special arrangements with your clients, they are the ones who are responsible for uninviting the guests.

However, it may be best to have a discussion with the client about the quickest and best way to let everyone know. You don’t want guests showing up at the venue!

Depending on the magnitude of the event, you might have to deal with notifying the guests if refunds are required.

I don’t know about you, but I was one day away from a major event that I spent 6 months planning…and then Covid.

It was amazing how many individuals, groups, and businesses I had to inform.

Fortunately, because I knew this was a possibility, I had emails written to everyone and ready-to-go in my emails’ draft folder. I had already assigned an Un-Do list to each of my team members.

Everything was handled within a few hours. 

I had to inform:

  • Venues
  • Caterers
  • Florists
  • Entertainment
  • Photographers
  • Videographers
  • Guest speakers
  • Presenters
  • Hotels
  • Airlines
  • Car rental companies
  • Sponsors
  • Exhibitors
  • Volunteers
  • Security
  • Trade show vendors
  • Production & conference supply vendors

If your event just happens to allow ticket sales right up until the event (like mine did), be sure to halt ticket sales and advertising.

If relevant, posting on social media is also a good idea — posts and Stories go a long way to spread the word quickly.

It’s even possible that you’ll have to get PR involved if a press release has gone out about the event.

Remember how I mentioned the Undo list that saved me from a lot of scrambling? It’s easy to make and could help you too. What is it? It is basically your To-Do list in reverse. 

While you can create a generic one that applies to most events, it’s important to customize each list as you plan the event.

That way you can easily change your To-Do list into your Undo List.

Pro Tip: It is wise to have an email drafted ahead of time so you can send it to the necessary contacts immediately.

When it comes to a last-minute cancellation, it goes both ways.

What if you are the one who needs to cancel at the last minute?

A last-minute emergency or illness could make this possible, but it is important for your reputation to have a backup plan. 

Perhaps have a third-party planner who can take the reins? 

Termination Clause

What if the cancellation isn’t the fault of either party? 

Perhaps it’s due to inclement weather, another Covid lockdown, or a natural disaster. A Termination Clause will cover this sort of occurrence. 

While not all situations (like natural disasters) can be avoided, there are a few things you can do to help minimize cancellations:

  • Use your experience to properly vet potential clients
  • Look for early warning signs, like the client being unresponsive
  • Have regular check-ins with your clients
  • Identify what could cause a cancelation and develop a contingency plan
  • Keep an eye on the weather and news

Pro tip: If your client has canceled an event due to illness, emergency, or relationship issues, you may want to consider sending them a personalized condolence card. 

If your client cancels for a reason that’s out of their control, do you follow up and see if they want to reschedule (if possible?) Let me know your thoughts in the comment section!

Can a contract help with last-minute cancellations?

Contracts are the best way to avoid or deal with last-minute cancellations. Part of the Event Toolkit Bundle Pro that I offer includes contracts, in addition to everything else you’ll need to plan a successful event. 

Melanie Signature

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