Case Study: What Would You Do If Your Keynote Speaker Canceled on You?

Juraj Holub

Getting a call from a keynote speaker canceling a session is the nightmare of every event professional. It is even worse when the announcement comes in the middle of the night! This is exactly the situation that the MPI event team behind World Education Congress (WEC) had to face when Magic Johnson backed out of his All Attendee Lunch keynote late in the evening of the second day.

The team couldn’t afford to waste a moment. All hands were brought on deck. The production team, hotel partner and event MC Dena Blizzard worked until nearly 4:00 a.m. to craft a new program for the lunch session.

Using the amenities in Las Vegas, the team brought on stage popular hip-hop crew Jabbawockeez, followed by a panel discussion on how decisions were made in the midst of the crisis.

The attendees’ response

People loved the dance performance. But it was the panel that truly turned the unfortunate situation into a one-of-a-kind learning moment for the participants. It was like experiencing a case study of crisis management in real-time.

Not only that; it was also a moment of radical transparency. While a number of the presentations talked about the importance of being authentic with attendees, the panel members led by example and, with no deflection whatsoever, shared the detailed steps they took in order to handle the situation.

The attendees deeply sympathized with the team and praised the honesty with which they came out and addressed the crisis. One of the participants said:

Kudos to you for addressing it in detail with a room full of meeting planners vs. not providing information or deflecting. A perfect solution for this audience.

It was no surprise that the topic resonated with the audience. In the first poll, panel moderator Dena Blizzard discovered that something similar had already happened to over a third of the audience present in the room.

Slido multiple choice poll
So the participants were naturally hungry to learn the lessons from the WEC team. Over the 30-min panel, they submitted over 40 pertinent questions inquiring about how the whole situation was handled and about the alternate solutions.

“Bravo for turning this into a learning opp. Had this not been a room full of planners, how do you think you would change the audience facing communication?” 17 votes

“Plan B” did not suck! Fortunately, the talent pool in Las Vegas is rich! What advice do you have for planners who may not be executing in a market like Vegas?” 16 votes

“Did the thought of moving a Break Out speaker to do the GS keynote ever come up?” 15 votes

The WEC team had strong audience support for how they handled the crisis communication. In the second poll, 84% of the audience supported the decision to announce the cancellation as soon as possible.

Overall, the panel was a great replacement for the canceled keynote. 

Rich Luna’s post-event interview with WEC attendee Unique Carey brimmed with positive feedback:

“For me, it was really great. I got to get the insight on what really happens when things don’t go as planned. You have to have a Plan B and a Plan C, but you really have to work with your partners to make sure you’re getting the right fit for your audience to make sure they’re not losing value at the event.”

The WEC team did a stellar job with handling the crisis situation and fixing the leaking hole. Not only the program didn’t suffer a bit, but also they successfully created the magic that Johnson did not bring by his absence.

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