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How Hurricane Irma Put Meeting Pro Resourcefulness to the Test


Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando.

While Hurricane Irma did not inflict severe damage on most of Florida’s major meeting destinations, it did put the resourcefulness of local meeting and event planners to the test. Among them were Renee Radabaugh, CMP, and her team at Paragon Events, which is based in Delray Beach in Palm Beach County. When news of the impending hurricane broke last week, the planners were preparing to head for Honolulu to manage the Global Tourism Summit, an international event drawing more than 2,000 delegates to the Hawaii Convention Center Sept. 19-21. With airports closed and mass evacuations taking place, getting there suddenly posed a challenge.

“We downloaded everything to remote servers and six of us piled into a rented minivan and headed to Tampa for the night,” Radabaugh says. “We decided to keep going, so we stocked up on snacks and energy drinks and drove on to Tallahassee only to find all the hotel rooms were booked. After 18 straight hours of driving, we got to New Orleans on Friday morning, where the Omni let us check in early. We all flew out to Hawaii the next day.”

Meanwhile, remaining staffers at the Delray Beach office unplugged servers, shuttered the building, put sandbags out and, once the storm passed, resumed work at their homes or at Radabaugh’s house, which has a generator. According to Radabaugh, the company’s hurricane contingency plan saved the day—not only for the Hawaii meeting but other business as well. “In particular, putting everything on remote servers was a lifesaver—our email never went down and people still had access to what they needed for their particular events,” she says. “It means that you can provide clients with a seamless experience.”

For Irene Tataris, CMP (MPI Tampa Bay Area Chapter), founder of Savvy Events & Entertainment, news of Irma broke as she was making final arrangements for a corporate leadership meeting scheduled at a Tampa hotel Sept. 11-14. With 400 people coming in from around the country as well as numerous vendors, she and her client knew it would need to be cancelled. “I’ve been in the industry here for 20 years and it was the first time we had to use force majeure to cancel an event,” she says. “Our first priority was the safety of our attendees and the vendors. We worked on various game plans based on where the storm was heading. On Thursday of last week we knew it would have to be rescheduled, so now we’re looking at dates in October through December.”

While she’s anticipating a normal fall season for her business, Tataris is concerned that media coverage of devastated regions may be giving a false impression that all of Florida is closed for business. “The reality is that Tampa is just perfect for events right now, with sunny weather and all of our venues back up and running,” she says. “We have a group coming in next week for an event that will include a boat tour.”

Similarly, destinations such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando quickly came back up to speed. Airports, most hotels and major meetings venues such as Disney World, Universal Studios and Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center are operational. By contrast, many resorts throughout the Caribbean sustained heavy damage. Orland-based Karen Kuzsel (MPI Greater Orlando Area Chapter), a psychic entertainer who was scheduled to perform at Tataris’ cancelled meeting, says Irma’s impact on business would have been worse if it had happened later in the season. “September is a relatively dead month for Florida, so I didn’t lose nearly the amount of work that I would have in October,” she says.

About the Author

Maria Lenhart

Maria Lenhart is a former editor of multiple meeting and event industry publications, and has won numerous awards for travel writing, including a prestigious Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers.