How to Bed Bug Proof Your Next Event

Back in the olden days, people slept on crude beds consisting of a series of criss-crossed ropes strung between the wooden bed frame. As the ropes sagged over time, they had to be tightened, which some believe led to the phrase “sleep tight.” And  hiding in those beds were often pesky bed bugs that would come out at night to suck human blood and leave scores of itchy bite marks on their victims, which led to the phrase “don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

Bed bugs are a hardy pest that can live as long as a year without feeding. They were reported as early as 400 B.C. and continued to be common even in the United States through the end of World War II. By 1950, they were largely eradicated with the use of strong pesticides. However, with the banning of certain pesticides and an increase in international travel over the years, bed bugs have returned with a vengeance.      

Today, some of the finest hotels in the U.S. are suddenly finding that they have bed bug problems. Even office buildings and other facilities have had bed bug infestations, including the Empire State Building in New York and the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC. To make matters worse, some modern-day bed bugs have developed an immunity to common pesticides. They can also spread quickly from room to room and can hide for months in furniture, clothing, and suitcases. Consequently, bed bug infestations can be extremely difficult to combat, and the treatment may require several applications over many weeks.

In light of all this bad news, it is understandable that those who attend meetings and conventions are thinking twice about staying overnight in cities where bed bugs are reported to be a problem. So what if you discover a few weeks before your huge annual conference that the headquarters hotel or convention center you booked is shown in the news as having an infestation of bed bugs, causing your attendees to cancel their reservations in droves? Are you liable for attrition damages? And if you cancel the event entirely, will you have to pay cancellation damages?

Read the Fine Print
The answer to whether a bed bug infestation is a quantifiable emergency event that would allow you to avoid attrition or cancellation damages depends on the wording of your contract. In particular, the answer is likely to be governed by the “force majeure” clause, which lists certain emergency circumstances that allow either party to cancel or otherwise avoid performance damages without liability. 

The typical force majeure clause only covers major things like acts of God, storms, war, or other emergencies that make the event impossible to hold. Under a narrowly drawn force majeure clause, bed bugs probably are not covered, although one could still argue that meeting facilities have an implied obligation to provide a comfortable environment that is free from blood-sucking pests.

Plan Ahead 
For future conferences, planners can  remove any doubt by insisting on a force majeure clause that clearly covers bed bugs. After all, a force majeure event can be defined to include anything that the parties agree to. Savvy planners will want to consider adding bed bugs to the list of contract situations that will allow attrition and/or cancellation damages to be waived, at least under some circumstances. And if the hotel refuses to agree to such a clause, that would suggest the facility is not willing to guarantee the pest-free nature of its bedding and rooms, which may be a good reason to contract with a different facility.  

Ben Tesdahl, Esq. is an attorney concentrating in nonprofit, corporate, tax, and contract law, including meeting and convention law. He is with the law firm of Powers, Pyles, Sutter & Verville, P.C. in Washington, DC. He can be reached at (202) 466-6550 or at [email protected]