New Orleans’ Ernest N. Morial Convention Center was scheduled to host more than 40 conventions this fall, but in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s trail of destruction and mass flooding, the New Orleans CVB announced the suspension of all meeting and convention activity through March 31, 2006.
The hurricane hit just before New Orleans’ peak convention season, leaving several groups scrambling to figure out whether to cancel events, postpone them or try to reschedule in a different city at the last minute. The Specialty Graphics Imaging Association and The National Association of Insurance Commissioners both cancelled national meetings originally slated for the Crescent City. The Consumer Bankers Association rebooked its September Home Equity Lending Conference in Phoenix. The Journal of Commerce’s 2005 Breakbulk Conference, originally scheduled for Sept. 7-9, has been postponed until a new venue is found. The American Society of Anesthesiologists accepted an offer from Atlanta to host its 2005 annual meeting in October.
“We appreciate their willingness to make this work on such short notice,” wrote Dr. Sinclair, the society’s president, on its Web site. “Out of respect for the people still suffering in New Orleans and elsewhere in the hurricane zone, we have decided to focus our meeting on the necessary business of the Society and the educational program … I have also appointed an ad hoc committee to contact the component societies in the states affected by the hurricane to ascertain their needs and potential ways that members in other parts of the country can lend physical, medical or moral support.”
His message reflected that of many groups who have made efforts to assist hurricane victims. Cities are working to reschedule meetings originally slated for New Orleans and other towns devastated by Katrina along the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coast; meetings are rebooking in cities as far away as Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
“We are actively responding to customer requests about availability and have contacted the New Orleans CVB to let our colleagues know that, where we share clients for meetings scheduled now through future years, we will accommodate them by switching our dates with theirs, based on availability, to enable the city to have adequate ramp-up time for their facilities to be fully functional,” said Dallas CVB President/CEO Phillip Jones. “The hospitality industry is close — in good times and bad — and it is our intent to assist in whatever way we can.”
Twenty-three Dallas hotels immediately posted special room rates after Hurricane Katrina for evacuees, as have hotels in cities throughout the Southeast. Hotels in Alabama, Arkansas, East Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia are sheltering a high number of evacuees and relief workers, and are working to find alternative accommodations for guests who had booked rooms while accommodating people whose travel plans were disrupted by the hurricane.
In Houston, evacuees are being housed in the George R. Brown Convention Center and Reliant Park, but all other convention-related facilities are open. This week’s La Cumbre Convention, originally scheduled for the convention center, relocated to Minute Maid Park and is encouraging attendees to get involved with the relief effort.
“We are so impressed with how much Houston is giving. They’ve opened their arms to evacuees, and they’ve also reached out to us to hold our meeting under these circumstances,” says Rick Still, La Cumbre’s managing director. In a joint effort to support those affected by the hurricane, La Cumbre and the Greater Houston CVB have pledged matching funds to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund; La Cumbre also will accept Red Cross donations on the floor of the exhibit.
“With more than 1,000 delegates from throughout the Americas attending La Cumbre, this is an unique opportunity for our tourism partners and individuals to help in whatever way each can,” Still said.
Members of Marriott Rewards’ guest loyalty program wishing to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina can redeem points for Marriott Gift Cheques, which can be used toward hotel rooms or food at Marriott, JW Marriott, Renaissance, Residence Inn, Courtyard, SpringHill Suites, TownePlace Suites, Fairfield Inn hotels and Marriott Vacation Club International properties. After the cheque is sent to the member, he or she can mail it to the American Red Cross, which will distribute the cheques to evacuees needing assistance paying for hotel rooms and food.
Harrah’s Entertainment has set up an Employee Recovery Fund to provide for the 6,000 employees displaced from its New Orleans and Biloxi casino resorts. Help is coming from the personal and private sector, providing jobs to evacuees, opening up personal homes as shelters, and donating money to the Red Cross and Salvation Army.
Affected CVBs are relocating to nearby cities or states to resume operations, and sister organizations are working to reschedule the displaced meetings and events. Planners with cancelled events in New Orleans should contact the following CVB staff members in Washington, D.C., and Chicago: Donna Karl (630-357-3480), Peggy Hagaman (847-236-0200) or JoAnne Hunsicker (703-379-2233). Information from the Gulf Coast CVB (serving Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss.) is currently unavailable, but check its Web site gulfcoast.org for updates. A downloadable venue relocation request form is available on the International Association of Exhibition Management Web site (iaem.org ).
The Travel Industry Association of America, in partnership with the Travel & Tourism Coalition and the Travel Business Roundtable, is setting up an online job bank to help displaced workers in several different industries find new jobs. It goes live on Sept. 15 at katrinajobs.org . A fund has been established to benefit restaurant and hotel workers. Contributions may be sent to: New Orleans Hospitality Workers Disaster Relief Fund, Greater Houston Community Foundation, 4550 Post Oak Place, Suite 100, Houston, Tex., 77027; or call 713-333-2200.
No one was predicting how long the area would take to recover, but the message posted on the New Orleans CVB Web site was optimistic:
“The birthplace of jazz, home of unique French and Spanish architecture, and the originator of the most renowned cuisine on the planet has taken a terrible hit. But, its government, business and tourism industry leaders are pledging that beginning over the next few months, the city will begin its efforts to be reborn better than ever … The spirit of the multicultural people of New Orleans is indefatigable, and though we may be bowed and emotionally stretched, we cannot be defeated and cannot wait to rebuild the world’s most authentic city.”