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Meeting Pros Share Insight on Texas Community Response to Harvey Impact


Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Gulf coast late on the night of Aug. 25, 2017, as a Category 4. As the eye of the storm made landfall near Rockport, Texas, with 130 mile-per-hour winds, the system also spawned numerous tornadoes. After it weakened into a tropical storm, Harvey’s movement stalled and some parts of Texas sustained torrential downpours over days—with some areas receiving more than 50 inches of rain. Rising floodwaters, swollen rivers and storm surges added up to epic devastation in the region.

Many people lost their homes, their cars or possibly everything they owned. Some lives were lost, including those of emergency responders. Businesses shuttered and problems with power and clean water also impacted recovering communities.

Harvey also significantly affected the meeting and event industry. Some areas saw convention centers and hotels flooded and/or damaged by winds and meetings were quickly canceled, relocated or rescheduled.

Meeting Industry Response

In these moments, the meeting and event industry in Texas rapidly and amazingly gelled into a community in the truest sense, which in itself was inextricably linked to members’ larger communities. Ordinary people in extraordinary times rose to the challenge to help strangers, neighbors, colleagues and friends—or, as Texans say, they “cowboyed up.”

“If there’s anything you know about a Texan it’s that they’re never a victim and they’ll come out of things faster and stronger than many can expect,” says Mike Waterman, executive vice president of Houston First Corp. and president of Visit Houston (the city’s CVB).

The day Hurricane Harvey hit, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner—subsequently hailed and assailed for not issuing a mandatory evacuation for Houston residents—informed the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRBCC) that it would need to serve as a shelter for evacuees.

“I think the mayor did the right thing—you can’t evacuate the fourth-largest city in the U.S. on a whim,” says Gabe Garza, president of the MPI Houston Area Chapter and complex account director, group sales for The Westin Galleria Houston and The Westin Oaks Houston. “Texans were like, ‘We’re taking care of this—we’re not waiting for anybody.’”

Accordingly, Waterman and the GRBCC staff swung into action. COO Luther Villagomez and Edward De La Garza, executive chef and director of food and beverage, ordered food, water and sleeping supplies suitable for 4,000 people for five days.

A drive for volunteers and emergency supplies received a tremendous response, with thousands of people signing up and so many goods that additional space was needed to warehouse the materials (BBVA Compass Stadium offered its space for this purpose). Other responses, while intangible in material, brought the magic of smiles and just maybe the hope to go on another day to the temporary residents at the GRBCC.

Dan O’Brien (MPI Houston Area Chapter) and his partner Jon Halbur, owners of J&D Entertainment, did what they do best: entertain.

“We all basically have the tools that we have when crises come,” O’Brien says. “So we rallied the troops, called as many people as we could, posted something on Facebook and sent out a mass text.”

The response was incredible. O’Brien and Halbur coordinated and costumed 20-some accomplished performance artists—stilt walkers, princesses, superheroes, jugglers, dancers, even a ventriloquist—and brought this miracle of spectacle and fun to the children (and adults) at the GRBCC for several hours a day, over a five-day period.

“We went over there with our little dog-and-pony show and entertained the hell out of everybody and brought tons of smiles to faces,” Halbur says. “It was just amazing.”

Dean Conwell, an MPI member for more than 20 years and executive director of the Beaumont CVB, describes an outpouring of concern and help from the meeting and event community.

“The Texas Hotel & Lodging Association, Texas Travel Industry Association and Texas Association of CVBs have been quite helpful,” he says. “And so many CVBs and DMOs from across the country have reached out, asking, ‘Can we do anything?’ ‘Have any of your employees lost their homes?’ ‘Can we sponsor one of your employees?’”

Adam Saunders, director of the flooded Robert A. “Bob” Bowers Civic Center in Port Arthur, changed hats post-Harvey and became the coordinator of donations and volunteers for emergency management. His staff also transitioned to the emergency role.

“Now the civic center is closed, I’m able to utilize my entire staff to help the city get back on its feet,” Saunders says.

Perception vs. Reality

The national and local media have shaped a narrative that all Texas cities along the coast are severely damaged. There are certainly still pockets that will require rebuilding efforts well into next year, but many places are either back to normal or will be soon.

“We are open for business and the mood is extremely positive,” Waterman says. “Don Welsh, president and CEO of Destinations International, came in and spent about 18 hours with me and [we] toured through the GRBCC, the hotels, downtown and he was like, ‘I’m blown away, Mike. I’m flying in looking for water, can’t see any, land, drive all the way downtown and see no standing water. And when I drive into downtown, it looks like when I was here a couple months ago.’”

Garza offers additional reasons for planners to not worry about Houston events and to bring more business.

“What you have seen on TV—the heart, the passion, the compassion of our citizens—that is why people should bring their business to Houston,” he says. “Because that is what it’s like every day here; everyone’s friendly, everyone’s helpful. We need you, we want you to come, our employees need to work and we need to get back to normal.”

Disruption and Bonus Business

As has been noticed during other natural disasters, convention centers and meeting venues are often transformed into temporary housing for those displaced. With Hurricane Harvey, the GRBCC was the logical first step—ultimately hosting more than 10,000 people. Yet throughout Texas, venues took in large numbers.

Although Austin and San Antonio were both under tropical storm and flash flood warnings related to the storm, they welcomed 700 and 1,000 evacuees, respectively. Initially, those transported to Austin were going to be set up at the Austin Convention Center, but concern that thousands of people would require temporary housing necessitated the capital city’s evacuee shelter be moved to an industrial park in southeast Austin.

In Dallas, the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center housed 3,650 evacuees. Spectacularly, John Johnson, assistant director of the convention center, notes that no events there were cancelled, postponed or relocated.

The timing of Hurricane Harvey fell between Galveston’s leisure-based summer and the beginning of event season. Ironically, the only meeting that was cancelled because of the storm was a post-Harvey meeting of first responders as they were needed for relief efforts.

“Other than that, all of our meetings will continue as scheduled,” says Leah Cast, director of communications for the Galveston Island CVB. “We fared well, we’re up and running, we’re open for business, we’ve made a full return. All attractions and hotels are open and operating—no one received significant damage.”

At one point, three feet of water flowed through downtown Galveston, but this quickly receded by the next day. One week later, 98 percent of downtown businesses were open.

Although occupancy numbers weren’t quite normal, Galveston’s hotels were a main hub for emergency responders, government aid workers, charities and FEMA voucher holders. And the city will now actually host a mental health conference that was originally scheduled to be held in a Houston hotel that was damaged by Harvey.

Corpus Christi, southwest of where Harvey made landfall, also did not incur much damage and found a similar unexpected bonus for business as relief workers filled area hotels to capacity. Teresa Rodriguez Bartlett, chief public affairs and business development officer for the Corpus Christi CVB, says several events were disrupted but those involved were very understanding about the situation.

The Beaumont CVB’s Conwell has also seen this effect.

“All our hotels are open and they are full and they will be full for probably another month, with all of the FEMA workers and some of the insurance companies in town,” he says.

At The Westin Galleria Houston and The Westin Oaks Houston, Garza says they’ve lost some group business but that’s just been replaced by other business, citing the booking of a large umbrella group with the U.S. Department of Justice, a building materials supplier and medical groups that have secured rooms.

The same was true in the area around the GRBCC, according to Waterman.

“The majority of hotels, the Marriot Marquis, the Hilton Americas and many of the hotels near the GRBCC ultimately ended up housing a lot of those first responders,” he says. “We had a lot of Houston police and fire in our buildings, more as an emergency precaution—it was thousands of room nights, FEMA, Red Cross International, etc., so downtown has been over 90 percent occupancy.”

Although numbers are not yet available, Johnson of Dallas’ Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center says that “volunteers responding from disaster assistance organizations which are not based in Dallas have utilized local area hotels for their employees/volunteers.”

In some cases, clients themselves have turned a negative situation into something extraordinary.

New York Life, the largest U.S. mutual life insurance company, had to cancel its large conference in Austin due to Harvey. In addition to a US$500,000 donation to relief organizations and a company match of up to $200,000 for contributions from its employees and agents, the company also donated meeting space and food and beverage at the Austin Convention Center and 100 guest rooms at the Hilton Downtown Austin for volunteers and evacuees.

Christy Spisak, MPI Houston Area Chapter president-elect and director of sales and operations with Cosmo Cool Concepts, a DMC Network Company, is seeing this remarkable response with her events.

“We have a client who has a really large program in October that has decided instead of cancelling, they are adding a charitable element to give back to Houston,” she says.

Areas Most Affected

Port Aransas and Mustang Island were among the places hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey with the infrastructure and tourism businesses severely impacted. The damage incurred by the Port Royal Ocean Resort and Conference Center on Mustang Island has closed the resort until repairs are made. A statement on the property’s website ends with, “We are optimistic in our recovery efforts and will be back better and stronger because we are #PortRoyalStrong!”

And don’t count out Port Aransas—this much-loved destination is proud and resilient. They will be back. Although most events have been canceled, a relief benefit is scheduled for October.

The eye of Hurricane Harvey went directly over Rockport-Fulton. Surges of up to 12 feet, wind and tornadoes wreaked havoc on the area. According to Diane Probst, president and CEO of the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce, every structure in the area sustained damage. This means that every single one of the 21 hotels (1,500 rooms) was affected. As of mid-September, a little over 10 percent of businesses were back and power and water were restored. Probst expected 100 or so hotel rooms to be ready to resume operations by the end of September.

Both the Paws and Taws Fulton Convention Center and Saltwater Pavilion are being evaluated as to whether or not it’s feasible to repair them.

“We’re resilient, but we’re going to need your support,” Probst says. “You can support us by holding and attending events and keeping us in mind—don’t forget about us. It’s going to take us a good two years to get up on our feet again—three to five years to rebuild. Don’t forget about us, check back in a few years, keep up with our progress.”

Over a two-day period, 46 inches of rain fell on Beaumont, east of Houston—and it kept raining for the next week.

“Beaumont at its worst became an island because there was no way to get out,” Conwell says. “All the highways and interstate were flooded. You couldn’t get out unless you had a boat or could fly.”

The area was without power for a few days, but the main issue was clean water as the city was without water for a week.

Hotels in Beaumont fared well, but because of the flooding, some events were cancelled and some rescheduled. Conwell predicts that business will be back to normal by mid-October.

Of the 22 hotels in Port Arthur—near Beaumont—three remain closed due to flood damage, three are not damaged and the remainder are partially open. The Robert A. “Bob” Bowers Civic Center, originally designated a shelter and housing for around 600 residents, was itself evacuated due to about three feet of flood water.

Yet Tammy Kotzur, executive director of the Port Arthur CVB, like so many industry professionals who spoke up for this story, is determined and optimistic about Port Arthur’s comeback: “We have to kind of pick up and go on.”


How You Can Help

The MPI Houston Area Chapter Disaster Relief Fund was established in order to help chapter members impacted by Hurricane Harvey (funds were collected through the end of September).

About the Author

Dian Barber - Writer
Dian Barber

Dian Barber is a data wrangler and has been contributing photography, research and writing to MPI’s publications since 2005.