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Meeting Pros Discuss Lessons Learned After Harvey and Irma Impacted Their Events

Hurricane Harvey & Irma

Fifteen hundred evacuees fleeing Hurricane Harvey were expected. Instead, 10,000 huddled inside the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, Texas, after 51 inches of rain flooded vast swaths of the city. Orlando, Fla., area theme parks braced for Hurricane Irma. They closed for two full days, twice as long as ever before. Category 5 Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico, decimating hotels, residences, roads and the territory’s power systems in its wake.

For experienced governments, planners and venues, being prepared in hurricane-prone areas from June 1 to November 30 mandates more than stocking extra supplies of food, water or batteries, or being sure generators are mechanically sound. Orderly procedures, trained staff and the ability to quickly reschedule events may alleviate chaos and possibly save lives.

Experience also dictates how to apply lessons learned from each crisis to mitigate damages from future occurrences.

Direct Communication with Clients, Vendors and Staff is Crucial

“One of biggest lessons we learned was the power of social media,” says Mike Waterman, president of the Greater Houston CVB and executive vice president of Houston First Corp., which manages the George R. Brown Convention Center. An emergency command center was established in the convention center with Waterman’s public relations, marketing and social media team working alongside the mayor’s office, U.S. Coast Guard and Houston Police Department so they could quickly disseminate info about those needing rescue.

Waterman says Houston was fortunate, enduring an unprecedented rain event that caused flooding in an unpredictable path, but not hurricane force winds that might have taken down the convention center’s power grid. The 1987-built convention center never lost power or water.

“We transitioned all of our websites and social media channels for the George R. Brown, Houston First Corporation and Visit Houston so we could communicate shelter needs for volunteers, donations and evacuees,” he says. “We wanted to connect the thousands of requests for help that came in with the needed resources. In the future, we will have a more structured plan on how to execute that social media vehicle.”

Less than three weeks after Harvey, the Texas Society of Association Executives (TSAE) held its scheduled conference in Houston. TSAE Executive Director Steven Stout, CAE, says a critical lesson he learned is the role the CVB and venue play.

“Visit Houston and the Marriott Marquis Houston were incredibly diligent in keeping us informed leading up to the storm, during the storm and the weeks following the event,” he says. “They shared photos, videos and, most importantly, Facebook Live videos with us of our contracted space, as well as areas around the hotel.”

One video sent to TSAE featured a complete drive from the nearest airport right up to the front door of the hotel, because there was speculation about the state of the venue, but also the roads leading to the venue.

“We were watching the same news as the rest of the nation,” Stout says. “Those Facebook Live videos were the best thing they could have sent to ease our concerns, namely because you can't edit or alter those Facebook Live videos—it is what it is.”

Work Closely with the CVB and Local Governments

“We followed local Orange County government guidelines, shutting down Saturday by 4 p.m. as requested,” says John Stine (MPI Greater Orlando Area Chapter), director of sales and marketing for I-Drive 360, which operates five attractions including the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye, 12 full-service restaurants and several walk-up food service venues in the tourist corridor of Orlando. The complex did lose four to five smaller groups, plus two large trade show groups that first cancelled at the nearby Orange County Convention Center (OCCC).

“We actually took the initiative to shut the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye down earlier to secure it from expected high winds, even before asked by Orange County.” The government’s curfew lifted at 6 p.m. on Monday. I-Drive 360 staff cleaned up debris, verified no damage was spotted earlier by the ride-out team that stayed on site throughout Hurricane Irma and reopened on Tuesday morning. “My best advice? Follow the government’s rules and make sure you have a strong emergency plan.”

“Use your CVB,” Stout advises. This was the first time one of TSAE’s events had been impacted by a natural disaster of this magnitude. Although he estimates the financial impact was about $250,000, it might have been worse if the CVB and Houston First hadn’t been so forthcoming with information. “Ask for detailed photos or even videos featuring your contracted space, common spaces, etc. Understand the city may need a day or two to get their staff back in the office. There was nothing we requested that the CVB or venue ever said they couldn’t show us. Transparency for both parties is best.” With his concerns addressed, he felt comfortable bringing TSAE in shortly thereafter.

He encourages planners to utilize the CVB and venue in drafting talking points for their staff. “Chances are they have already had the question from someone else and can get you an official response fairly quickly.”

“We were lucky,” says Fred Shea (MPI At Large), senior vice president of convention sales and services for Visit Orlando. A few conventions that cancelled at OCCC were quickly rescheduled for November and December. “Microsoft had 30,000 people setting up for Tuesday, the morning we reopened. The convention went off without a hitch.” He says Orlando International Airport (OIA) is the trigger to cease services. “They tell us when the airport is closing, then we tell guests. OCCC decides whether to close or adjust hours.”

Shea explained that because people evacuate to Orlando, the destination was sold out during the hurricane. “Our job is primarily to be a communicator, publicizing the information from hotels, county government and the airport on our website for our leisure guests, or to be proactive reaching out to affected groups and providing them updated information.” He says Visit Orlando received great feedback on their direct communication with groups. “Every June, we refresh our process with our teams. We want groups to know we are prepared with the resources, manpower and infrastructure.”

OCCC is used as a staging area for first responders, helicopters and trucks for natural disasters affecting the southern United States. Years ago, billboards had 800 numbers for evacuees to call for available hotel room listings. Although Visit Orlando still works with hotels, cell phones make it easier for people to do their own searches. With hurricanes, there’s usually a week’s notice of the path.

What Shea learned from Hurricane Irma is “to reach out immediately to groups who might be affected and give them localized weather information or [let them know] when the airport may close. Also to remind people that Orlando is centrally located in Florida, not on the coast. Responders are based here, so we have crews who can quickly repair and clean up so they can hold their meetings soon after the storm ends.”

Ensure your client’s venue is meeting-ready post-crisis. Several planners stressed doing due diligence post-natural disaster to be sure the venue is completely recovered, open for business and able to deliver the experience, service levels and amenities of the property as promised before the event.

“Visit Houston offered to bring me in to assess the area myself,” Stout says. “With those videos and the information coming in daily from our contacts, it made the decision to move forward easier for the TSAE Board.”

Beth Witzak’s client’s annual meeting was scheduled for Nov. 4 in Puerto Rico. The global account executive for ConferenceDirect says she and her client felt they dodged a bullet when Hurricane Irma skipped by, but then realized Hurricane Maria would be a direct hit. There wasn’t enough time before the Category 5 storm landed to reschedule the 60-person meeting, but afterwards, they made fruitless attempts to reach the hotel staff to hear how the property had fared. The hotel’s server was down. Phone calls were interrupted. Days later, Witzak and her client reached the property through staff personal email accounts.

“The contract was cancelled under force majeure, but it took four or five days to receive the hotel’s approval that my client’s deposits would be returned.” That began an intensive search for another location. They settled on Santa Fe, N.M. Her client did an immediate site tour through Visit Santa Fe and their hotel and DMC partners. “My client’s meetings have always been at a beach property every November. Santa Fe was able to provide a full meeting redo with her in a short amount of time.”

Be Sure Force Majeure Clauses Cover your Client’s Needs…and Yours

Lisa Jennings (MPI Greater Orlando Area Chapter), chief experience officer and part-owner of Wildly Different, a company that produces interactive play-based activities from team building to charitable CSR programs, changed her contracts after several clients cancelled scheduled events during previous natural hurricanes and force majeure clauses were cited.

Jennings reasoned that, “If force majeure occurs, it’s not their fault, nor ours; therefore, we shouldn’t be penalized for costs incurred to prepare for their event.” She says her contracts are now worded to be upfront with clients who want a force majeure clause. “Instead of saying they can cancel without cost to them, we provide the option to reschedule within a year with no additional costs, or they must pay for any out-of-pocket costs we incurred up to the point the event was cancelled. It’s why you need event insurance, which would cover any costs lost.”

Wildly Different collects 60 percent up front and 40 percent on the day of the event. If the client completely cancels, the 60 percent would usually cover incurred costs for equipment and staffing. Of the four events cancelled by Hurricane Irma, one has already rescheduled and three others pledged to do so.

Witzak’s 17 years working for hotels and CVBs in Colorado and her past five with ConferenceDirect hadn’t explained the differences between force majeure and hurricane clauses. Now she closely examines the property’s particular force majeure clause. “Does it cover everything that would arise from hurricanes or other natural disasters? In this case, the hotel was running at 80 percent capacity from generator power. Air Conditioning and proper lighting in the meeting rooms were a concern. Scheduled offsite and beach events weren’t doable at all.”

Be sure force majeure includes natural disaster repercussions that would affect your meeting, such as travel warnings being activated. “Travel warnings might not be automatically included. Going through Hurricane Maria reinforces for me the level of collaboration necessary with industry partners, from CVBs to DMCs. Santa Fe made the process easy to quickly move my client’s meeting.”

Event Insurance Saves Budgets

After Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, Lauralee Shapiro, CMP, a global account executive with ConferenceDirect, learned a valuable lesson, one she applied to 2017’s hurricane season. “After some of my events were displaced, I remembered the Cover Your Event (CYE) insurance program offered by Visit Florida (,” she says.

Visit Florida’s website states: “With more than 100 meetings per year with an approximate economic impact of over $30 million per year, the free program offers coverage that will reimburse a meeting in the unlikely event of a cancellation due to a named hurricane.” Offered by Marsh Affinity Group Services, a service of Seabury & Smith out of Chicago, Ill., the offer is good only for business meetings.

Shapiro says CYE covers hard costs. “If your client has to cancel due to a named storm, it covers reprinting brochures, signage, marketing items. If you rebook within a year, they’ll cover any room rate deferential because of the date change. For a non-profit or association, those hard dollars can add up into the tens of thousands.”

She says if she books a program anywhere in Florida that operates during hurricane season, she automatically goes to the Visit Florida website. “I do the application on behalf of my clients, submit the application to the program underwriters and tell my clients to watch for a follow-up email from the underwriters. The client must then finalize the insurance policy.” She says most clients are unaware of CYE. “To the best of my knowledge, Florida is only state to offer this free insurance. Once the storm is named, you can’t apply, but you can enroll years out.”

Have an Emergency Preparedness Plan in Place

Turbomachinery was set to bring a large convention to the George R. Brown Convention Center the Tuesday after Labor Day. Then Hurricane Harvey crashed in like an uninvited guest. “We were an evacuation center,” Waterman says. The mayor had told him to prepare meals and water for 4,000 people for a five-day period, but thought the convention center might only end up with 1,500. “We never shut our doors. By Tuesday night, we had 10,000, which receded quickly along with the storm.” By the time the Red Cross took over operations, the George R. Brown staff had served more than 100,000 meals.

Fortunately, Turbo Machinery had an excellent emergency preparedness plan and executed it on their side, Waterman says. “You can always use more staff, but if it was up to me, I suggest meeting planners have an emergency preparedness plan, with critical employees and staff in place.”

Fast responses to client needs = stronger business relationships

It’s not the 15 events cancelled by an impending Hurricane Irma that ultimately matters to Lee Peyton (MPI Greater Orlando Area Chapter), president of Peyton Entertainment Productions in Orlando. What counts are the client relationships strengthened by his willingness to service their needs. While not unusual for conventions to cancel events before attendees arrive, it’s another matter for the hotels for whom he provides daily entertainment in their lobbies and lounges. Peyton says one hotel wanted daylong entertainment for the two days that guests would be confined. Lodging, meals and payment were negotiated quickly.

“I found an entertainer whose wife sings with him,” he says. “They were glad to be in a safe place and making money, even though they worked on and off for 12 hours.” He says there are no guarantees the cancelled events will reschedule anytime soon, if ever. If rescheduled and the requested talent wasn’t available, he’d find a reasonable substitute.

“The main lesson is that you just have to work with your clients,” Peyton says. “Be reasonable about rescheduling. My Intent is to keep that client. If you focus on immediate return and money, you lose in the long run.”

The Best Way to Move Forward ost-natural disaster?

“Bring your business to those cities and states that have been impacted, Waterman says. “We have 140,000 hospitality employees in the Greater Houston area. People are thrilled to get back to work. The confidence groups have that we are ready to host their meetings is valuable to Houston and our community.”

About the Author

Karen Kuzsel

Karen Kuzsel is a career journalist who covers meetings and events, destinations and food and wine. An active MPI Greater Orlando Area Chapter member, she’s also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. Her blog is