On May 31, event specialists at CFA Institute, a global association of investment professionals with headquarters in New York City and Charlottesville, Va., were keeping a close eye on political demonstrations taking place in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. In less than 24 hours, several hundred people would be gathering nearby to sit for the CFA exam — a rigorous test that awards candidates the prestigious Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation — and CFA staff were concerned about how the protests might affect the safety of their registrants.
In many ways, this scenario is familiar to experienced meeting professionals. Whether it’s political unrest, a weather event, or labor issues, there are numerous emergency situations that can disrupt an event at the last minute. And having a crisis-management plan allows you to react decisively to even the most unpredictable situations.
But what made the situation in Istanbul truly noteworthy was the fact that, as tense and serious as it was, it was just one part of a much larger operation. While most contingency plans address how an event team can respond to an isolated weather disaster or political turmoil, few delve into how it might manage both at the same time. At CFA, however, wide-scale doomsday planning is the norm, as event specialists routinely prepare for the possibility of simultaneous natural disasters, war, political demonstrations, and more. Such is the complexity of its CFA exam — which is administered to tens of thousands of participants on the same day, at hundreds of sites around the world. “Whatever you see on the news,” said William Guilford, CMP, CFA’s director of exam administration and business solutions, “chances are we’re dealing with it.”
CFA offers the exam two times a year: the first Saturday in December and the first Saturday in June. While a weather event or violent protest might disrupt the test in one city, the show must go on everywhere else. Convene spoke with members of the CFA test center planning team before and after this year’s June test, to learn more about how the organization plans for the worst and hopes for the best on such a large scale. “Every exam, there are things happening that are completely beyond our control,” said Caroline Winters, director of test-center planning. “What we’ve learned is that we must do a really good job of controlling what we can control, and that puts us in a position to better deal with the unexpected.”
FROM AMMAN TO ZURICH
CFA is the world’s largest association of financial professionals, but it is probably best known for its CFA Program, a graduate-level, professional credential. The program includes a series of three exams that must be passed in sequential order to earn a CFA charter — a highly respected badge of honor that’s considered to give professional creditability to those who earn it. Twice each year, upwards of 100,000 candidates sit for the CFA exams. The Level I exam is offered at all sites in both December and June; Level II and Level III are also offered at all sites, but only in June. The average candidate spends five to six months preparing, yet only about 40 percent of test-takers pass on any given exam day. Upon failing, most begin the process again and register for the next year’s exam.
The intimidating fail rate and intense preparation don’t prevent an ever-increasing number of candidates from seeking the CFA charter. More than 146,000 candidates registered for this year’s June 1 exam, which was conducted at more than 250 test centers in 180 cities — from Amman to Zurich, and nearly every major destination in between. Not surprisingly, the largest test sites are located near financial centers, including New York, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing. These larger sites can have as many as 9,000 candidates sitting for the exam; the smallest test center might have just one candidate.
The planning and logistics of exam day are overseen by Winters, with the help of a 10-person team. Additionally, about 20 more staff from CFA’s exam administration and business solutions unit provide support with personnel training and security. CFA contracts with test organizations to hire an exam supervisor for each test center; that supervisor then hires and trains local testing personnel, using CFA-provided training materials. At the largest test sites, 600 proctors may be administering the test and patrolling the aisles. All told, according to Guilford, it takes nearly 10,000 contracted personnel to conduct the June exam.
The seven event specialists on CFA’s test-center planning team manage 25 to 30 test centers each, overseeing all contracting, vendor relationships, and trouble-shooting for those sites. To accommodate the growing number of Asian candidates, CFA recently added two Hong Kong-based event specialists. “There are a number of time-zone challenges when coordinating with Asia,” Winters said, “and there are also cultural nuances and differences that we wanted to get a handle on and hopefully prepare better for all our exams.”
On test day, CFA operates a command center at its Charlottesville headquarters, with specially trained staff available to answer last-minute questions from candidates and problem-solve issues for test personnel. With exam sites in almost every time zone on the planet, the command center is staffed around-the-clock for nearly 24 hours.
Although security concerns prevent CFA from naming specific test sites (the fear being that people could somehow infiltrate those sites and figure out a way to cheat — so difficult is the exam and so coveted the charter), Winters will say that venues range from very large exhibition centers to universities, smaller-scale conference centers, hotels, and banquet halls. When scouting venues, CFA’s event specialists evaluate a site’s ability to meet the organization’s very particular yet very bare-bones needs. “We are very nuts-and-bolts,” Winters said. “We need tables and chairs set up in a very specific configuration, we need easels to guide candidates to how much time is remaining, we need water stations, and we have to have heating, air conditioning, and lighting that is suitable.”
Because of the wide diversity of venues, test-day needs run from traditional audiovisual support to more unique services. “We might need a tent outside of a venue to provide an area for candidates to wait out of the elements before they are admitted to the testing hall,” Winters said. “Additionally, we have had to rent generators for venues in areas prone to blackouts.”
THE NO-GO DECISION
Throughout the exam-day planning and negotiating, CFA’s event specialists take their cues from an Event Specification Guide (ESG). There is a separate ESG for each test center, and each one includes contact details for the exam supervisor and the venue event manager; information about how each room will be set up; scope-of-work and contact information for vendors providing tables, chairs, audiovisual, communication equipment, and security; a copy of the final floor plan; and any special considerations, such as hiring a parking attendant or opening a specific lunch kiosk within the convention center.
The ESG is the staff’s bible, critical to a glitch-free exam day, but it’s a fluid document, requiring ongoing review and updating. “We have to always be looking ahead,” Guilford said. “We are always contingency-planning for the what-ifs.”
That nimble mindset helped CFA event specialists respond to the rapidly evolving situation in Istanbul back in May. The staff first tuned in to the possibility of a problem on May 26, when a small group of protesters gathered in Taksim Square to voice their opposition to the government’s plan to develop the area around the square. Over the next few days, as police tried to empty the park, tensions escalated and the protest grew. By May 31, CFA staff were wary but still hopeful. At 2:45 p.m. EST that day, @CFAInstitute tweeted: “Istanbul CFA candidates: your June exam will be held as scheduled.”
By day’s end, however, the situation had deteriorated. Turkish police had fired tear gas and water cannons at demonstrators, dozens of people were injured, and anti-government protests had erupted across the country. CFA Institute’s test- center planning team made a no-go decision, and at 6:20 p.m. EST, just a few hours before the test was scheduled to begin in Istanbul, a follow-up tweet went out: “Update: We can no longer administer CFA exam in Istanbul on 1 June.”
“As things developed in Istanbul, we created contingency plans so that we could act quickly if need be,” Winters said. “We made candidate and testing-personnel safety a priority, and determined that we could not test. At that point, we put our contingency plans into action. This happened quite quickly, because the events in Istanbul escalated in a very short amount of time just before the exam.”
While the ESG for Istanbul didn’t specifically spell out how to deal with violent clashes in a nearby park, experience and overall preparedness helped the staff adjust to the situation. “There is no set guide that we follow [in the event of political instability], because each situation is unique,” Winters said. “We closely monitor world events leading into exam day, and especially the few weeks prior. In any event that we are monitoring, we also remain in close contact with our on-ground team in order to understand the local perspective.”
CFA faced a similar situation in Cairo in December 2011 when violent clashes between protesters and Egyptian security forces led the organization to relocate the exam just five days before the test. “We began looking for alternative venue space at this point,” Winters said, “and our event specialists were having to re-do everything they did over the past six to eight months in just a few days.”
While the accelerated pace of the Cairo reschedule and the intensity of the last-minute postponement in Istanbul (registrants were given the option to test on June 15) were unique, the tasks involved with those decisions were not, Guilford said. CFA approaches its 250-site, multiple-time-zone event just as any other meeting professional would. “This is a large global event, and anyone who is a global event planner knows you have to get it right and you have to meet deadlines,” Guilford said. “In many ways, it’s no different from any large meeting — you’re dealing with real people and with real deadlines, and it has to get done and it has to get done properly.”