If there was ever a month planners had to expect the unexpected, September was it. Hurricane Katrina dealt a crushing blow to the Gulf Coast, closing down New Orleans at the beginning of its high season, blasting nearby Louisiana towns, leveling Mississippi’s casino hotels and smashing cities in Alabama. Then, as things were settling down, Hurricane Rita headed towards Houston, flooding New Orleans for a second time and forcing evacuation from Texas’ Gulf Coast cities. Planners found themselves facing their worst-case scenarios and discovering creative ways to keep events on track.
When the Houston mayor announced some convention facilities would become shelters for Katrina evacuees, the Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) was left scrambling to find a new venue for the annual La Cumbre conference of Latin travel agents and writers — as attendees were boarding aircraft in South and Latin America.
“There was talk of canceling, and then we went to the Astros organization and asked, ‘Can we use the baseball park? The Astros are out of town …’” says Jordy Tollett, president and CEO of the Greater Houston CVB. Tollett says it turned out to be one of La Cumbre’s most memorable meetings. “They had never held it in a baseball park and it was a new atmosphere — one they had never had before.” A dinner with the mayor on the baseball field and exhibitors’ booths on grass instead of convention center carpet created an informal and unexpected tableau that attendees responded to enthusiastically.
Atlanta planner Kimberly Truesdale had less than a week to move a meeting originally slated for New Orleans to a comparable facility in Chicago after Katrina. “The meeting was supposed to take place Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,” Truesdale says. “And we found out the previous Thursday.”
The New Orleans hotel made all the arrangements and made sure all terms agreed on would apply at the new venue. “[They] were taking a proactive approach to cancel the upcoming meetings, and to avoid losing the business. They were reaching out to other cities,” Truesdale says.
With less than a week to inform 300 attendees of the venue change, Truesdale turned to her company’s IT staff. Emails were sent, followed by phone calls to administrative and executive assistants, but to make sure everyone would get the message, the IT department created a database of registered attendees’ computer ISP addresses. When attendees in the database turned computers on, a ticker tape with meeting information spooled across the computer screen; it had to be clicked on before they could log in.
Truesdale says that many Gulf Coast hotels have agreements with similar properties in other markets that can host meetings for them in case of a natural disaster. “But that doesn’t work well with the airlines. They still penalize you – you still pay a change fee.”
To avoid getting hit with steep change fees, Truesdale recommends centralizing travel planning so fully refundable tickets can be bought at a group rate.
Land-based meetings weren’t the only ones affected. With cruise ships being diverted to provide housing for evacuees or unable to dock at home ports, weddings, meetings at sea and other ship-bound events had to be rearranged. Planner Renae Kitt was in line to board a cruise with 34 clients when the announcement came over the loudspeakers that the itinerary had changed to avoid Hurricane Rita’s path.
“All the guests looked at me with disgust,” Kitt says. “I was not sure what to do. I had no notification at all, and this was 30 minutes before the cruise boarded. This is the same group I took out last year to the very same places.”
Thinking quickly and determined to make the best of a bad situation, Kitt bought everyone drinks and told them that it would cost more to change their flights than take the cruise. “ This cost me most of my commission, but the clients felt that I was doing everything I could to make it right. I also offered a discount to go on another cruise to Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and St. Maarten. I do think [the cruise line] should help me with the discounts and drinks, but they probably won’t.” The guests had a great time, eventually, but it was Kitt’s quick action that turned the tide.
Tollett says in case of emergencies, “Communication is the key. There seems to always be a way to make it work. You’ve just got to think it through enough.
“You’ve got two sides: the business and the humanitarian. The planner’s got business; they’re trying to finish something they’ve been working on for a year. And then you have the humanitarian side of it … and they may conflict. But you need to find a way that the needs of both can be accomplished.”
On September 11, six high-level executives and two interns from Truesdale’s company were killed on hijacked planes. In response, management decided to cancel the annual Christmas party. “The management thought that it might be inappropriate to mourn the people we lost up to that week and then hold the celebration.”
The venue was unwilling to let Truesdale out of the contract, but it was a large annual event and the company was in its last contractual year. “We were able to renegotiate to be there for the next five years,” Truesdale says. “All I had to do was postpone that year, pay for what the event would have cost, and they applied that money to the next year’s cost. Then, they extended the contract so that it was actually six years instead of five.”
After September 11, all nonessential meetings at Truesdale’s company were cancelled across the board. The exception was a meeting scheduled for September 12. “It was a client meeting. We couldn’t cancel it,” Truesdale says. “Part of the team was already in Puerto Rico, so we decided to videoconference.” The decision was a tough one to make because the company was still grieving over people lost the day before, but ultimately they decided not to cancel.
Tollett understands how difficult the decision to cancel or continue can be. “You’ve got to make sure you’ve got enough people [at the destination] who can be making decisions. You have to ask yourself ‘Are they going to be too distracted with the situation before I get there?’
“You want to say ‘Go.’ But you don’t want to get them into a situation where you can’t provide them with the resources they need. That would be tragic.”