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From the Editor

The Return of Meetings to Houston after Harvey


Photo courtesy of Kayla Prasek Photography.

The meeting industry returned to Houston on Sunday with record attendance at the Texas Society of Association Executives (TSAE) New Ideas conference and an opening general session honoring the commitment of Visit Houston (the city’s CVB), Texans impacted by Hurricane Harvey and meeting and event industry service professionals.

“We have so much to be thankful for,” Christopher Williston VI, CAE, chair of the TSAE board of directors and executive vice president of the Independent Banks Association of Texas, said during the opening general session for the three-day conference.

“We are mindful of what Houston has been through and the whole Texas coast,” added Theresa Parsons, CAE, chair-elect and executive director of the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education.

“We acknowledge the way we’ve been inspired by you, by neighbors helping neighbors,” added JJ Colburn, CAE, immediate past chair and president and partner of Strategic Association Management.

Williston, Parsons and Colburn together welcomed approximately 500 conference attendees to the Houston Marriott Marquis, directly across the street from the George R. Brown Convention Center, which sheltered more than 10,000 people following the devastation to the Houston area caused by Hurricane Harvey two weeks ago.

TSAE officials closely monitored the situation in Houston and applauded the work of Mike Waterman, president of Visit Houston, and his team for their communication throughout, and in the end, did not waver on their commitment to bring their conference to the city after officials in Houston assured them they could fulfill their end of the deal.

“You did not call to cancel [attending the conference],” Williston told attendees. “You did not call to cancel your hotel rooms. You did call to ask how you could help. This is an example of an association who stepped up to answer the call. We’re Texans and that’s what we do.”

Waterman, wearing a white Houston Strong t-shirt under his sport coat, welcomed TSAE on behalf of the 4,400 hospitality employees who “are so thrilled to have you here in Houston. What happened here was real. When we were in conversation with your leadership, they told us they would make it to Houston even if they had to come by boat and if they had to roll up their sleeves and help when they got here. Because TSAE had the courage and believed in us, and trusted us, others are coming because TSAE came. We have not had a single [meeting] cancellation.”

Waterman shared how his team and the convention center moved quickly to prepare to house evacuees from the hurricane, including purchasing and storing enough food and water in case supplies could not get in because of the flooding. The advance work proved life-saving as the city provided 100,000 meals over the first three days before any outside supplies were received.

“We learned a lot,” Waterman said. “Adversity draws out character and our hospitality is contagious. Houston is not going to be defined by Harvey. We are a stronger, closer and better city. We are Houston strong.”

Waterman showed attendees an emotional video that captured scenes from the storm and its aftermath. TSAE announced it was making financial donations to the city and to support rebuilding efforts along the Texas coast along with food donations at the conference.

“We are going to honor the strength and resilience of Houston,” Colburn said.

Steven Stout, in his first year as executive director at TSAE, said he was impressed with the level of communication in the aftermath of the storm. Questions around every aspect of the conference were raised: attendee safety, access to the city, gasoline supplies, food and beverage and service industry staff, many of whom were coping with devastation at home.

“We all watched the news and saw the devastation,” he said. “We reached out to the Marriott Marquis and Visit Houston to first make sure they were OK. We checked with our members down here and once we knew that, we started discussions post-storm. Safety was our No. 1 concern and could Houston pull off an event they committed to three years ago.”

The use of Facebook Live interviews, an offer to visit Houston, plus constant communication with not only leaders on the planner and supplier side, but conversations with the teams tasked with the day-to-day work of putting on a conference convinced Stout to move forward. Another factor was TSAE’s recent rebranding with the theme “Better Together.”

“How can we say we’re better together and turn our back on Houston?” he said. “We had to come. We made the decision we were going to come if even attendance dropped off.”

In the end, he said there was not a single attendee cancellation related to the storm and, in fact, registrations spiked in the last two weeks.

Stout and Waterman spoke of the “domino effect” if TSAE had backed out and the message it would have sent. Instead, the commitment from TSAE played a role in keeping two major conferences coming to Houston next, including the first one to go into the convention center, which will the see the last of evacuees leave this week.

“We needed that first domino to fall,” Waterman said. “We’ve moved a few groups around that were going to the convention center in the back half of the year, but we needed TSAE.”

Program chair Trevor Mitchell, CAE, senior director of membership and strategy for American Mensa, said he kept in contact with speakers throughout the storm and once the leadership made the decision to come to Houston, no speakers pulled out. The conference includes a session on “The Disaster Experience” and added a deep dive to give attendees insight into the decision process to stay in Houston.

About the Author

Rich Luna

Rich Luna is director of publishing for MPI and editor in chief of The Meeting Professional.