What to Do When Your Event Speaker Cancels

An empty stage is a planner’s worst nightmare. Here’s how to spring into action

It’s the scenario that keeps every meeting planner up at night: You’ve booked a high-profile keynote speaker, promoted this person’s appearance for weeks and built momentum among guests who may have booked their tickets just for this opportunity.

Then, whether due to a travel delay or personal circumstance, the guest of honor bails.

What do you do?

Because a good speaker can boost registrations and add credibility, that person’s absence can affect your event’s reputation and bottom line. That’s why it’s important not only to anticipate the unlikely scenario but also have a swift, strategic response ready at hand.

Consider these tips if you’re faced with this dilemma:

Stay calm. First, take a breath. The show will go on. Huddle with your event team to determine how and when you’ll communicate the news. Give guests time to process the change; don’t wait until they’re entering the room. Most important: Put a positive spin on your Plan B (in person and via social media) to maintain goodwill among attendees. 

Check the fine print. Booking a big guest is an investment. Top speakers, especially those represented by an agency or corporation, don’t take the commitment lightly. Review your contract’s contingency plan, which should include how refunds for the speaker fee—or a rain check—due to unforeseen cancellation will be handled. 

Connect in alternate ways. If your speaker is stranded at the airport or has an extenuating circumstance, consider other ways he or she could effectively connect with audiences: videoconferencing software, for example, or a prerecorded webinar. If the guest isn’t appearing on the last day of the event, see if a different date or time can be secured. 

Seek out someone new. Even though your top billing is now absent, it doesn’t mean others aren’t available. Reach out to speaker bureaus or other industry groups in the region to scout for a possible last-minute replacement. Or, if arrangements permit, find another suitable guest on the existing schedule and promote that person to the main gig. 

Find other options for guests. Larger events might funnel ticketholders into adjacent seminars or related activities on site. Another option: Assemble an impromptu panel of notable guests for a roundtable discussion on an industry topic. If discontent persists, consider offering a discount on future registrations to encourage repeat business.