Event Management

When Tragedy Strikes at Events

Blurred night-time image of ambulance driving through a city

Skift Take

The CEO of the software company Vistex died after falling 20 feet to the stage with approximately 700 audience members watching. Accidents happen. Do you have contingency plans in place?

The scene was set — the stage entrance of the top executives of tech company Vistex would be a wow. A stunt cage decorated like a hot air balloon would descend from above. This moment was designed to kick off the Illinois-based company’s 25th-anniversary celebration. Suddenly, tragedy struck right in front of the approximately 700 in attendance.

An iron cable snapped and ultimately resulted in the death of Sanjay Shah, 56, who founded Vistex in 1999. Company president Raju Datla, 52, was also badly injured. The incident occurred at Ramoji Film City, a movie studio complex that also hosts business events.

According to Asia News International, it took more than 15 minutes to get an ambulance for the two victims. Datla was taken to a hospital by a private car. Now, a legal case has been filed against Ramoji Film City.

Avoiding Tragedy by Managing Risk

“Event professionals want zero risk. But no one can guarantee zero risk,” says Mark Herrera, director of safety and security at the International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM). “That is why it is imperative to have the right contingencies in place.”

Assessing potential consequences is critical. “Contingency plans are survival tools for event planners. They are vital tools to anticipate, respond to, and recover from any unexpected situation. Plus, having a well-thought-out contingency plan instills confidence in sponsors, exhibitors, vendors, and key stakeholders that there is a commitment to delivering a safe and secure event even in challenging circumstances,” says Herrera. 

IAVM hosts monthly online town hall meetings for members as well as non-members, where conversations about safety and risk planning take place. 

“What a horrible accident and tragedy. It’s further exacerbated because both the CEO and president were in the same stunt cage. Although the president is in critical condition with a head injury, his survival and ability to lead Vistex is in serious question,” says Kevin Iwamoto, an independent consultant who recently retired as chief customer officer and head of enterprise at Bizly. “Losing your top two senior executives is considered a catastrophic event that could endanger the livelihood of your company. This is why companies have corporate policies that do not allow management and executives to fly together, especially if they’re using corporate jets.” 

Always Safety First

The Vistex tragedy shows how important it is for meeting and event professionals to exercise the necessary duty of care. Mitigating accidents and reducing liability if an accident does occur is a key responsibility for planners.

“It seems the smaller the company, the less correct protocols are in place,” adds Iwamoto.

The unfortunate reality in the event planning industry is that many take safety for granted. “Most know they need a plan, but many don’t have one,” says Tyra Warner, PhD, JD, Associate Professor, Chair, Department of Hospitality, Tourism, and Culinary Arts, College of Coastal Georgia.

A Duty of Care plan ensures the safety of attendees and helps protect from liability. “Planners are always trying to wow their guests, but some of these things are not worth it,” Warner says.

Unfortunately, Tragedy Happens

Although rare, tragic accidents happen at meetings and trade shows, some in the most mundane situations. For instance, an attendee died after falling off a swing at the NeoCon design show in 2018. According to the Chicago Tribune, no medical personnel were present at the convention. Also, it took the Chicago Fire Department a half hour to respond to the accident.

The FEMA 141 Emergency Management Guide for Business and Industry is a step-by-step approach to emergency planning, response, and recovery for companies of all sizes. The guide stresses the importance of assessing the vulnerability of the venue hosting the event. The first step in this process is to list all potential emergencies. Then, it helps estimate the probability of such emergencies occurring.

Another resource is the Event Safety Alliance. This non-profit is focused on safety throughout all phases of event production and execution.