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#HoustonStrong: Hosting Successful Conferences Shortly after Harvey

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Julie McGrath was just two months into her role planning the annual conference for the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) when Hurricane Harvey struck Houston.

McGrath, the director of global event operations for SEG, expected upwards of 8,000 attendees Sept. 24-29 at the George R. Brown Convention Center and five surrounding hotels in Houston, a stronghold for attendees due to the area’s oil and gas business.

But in the wake of Harvey’s devastating flooding, residents were displaced, hotels became command centers for relief workers and police and the convention center would end up housing up to 10,000 evacuees.

McGrath and the leadership team at SEG watched as the city battled the floodwaters, wondering if the conference could go on as scheduled.

“One of the biggest challenges we had as a group is we wanted to help the city of Houston,” she says. “We have strong membership in Houston; one of our largest domestic memberships is in Houston. Oil and gas is big in Houston.

“But we had major companies that we do business with underwater. We had to weigh both sides and we did a lot of outreach to members. We did not, as a group, want to displace their guests (as the evacuees were called). We wanted to make sure their guests were adequately and properly cared for. The financial risk, yes, was always a part of it along with would people be able to get there, would airports still be closed and so on. We had to go on a leap of faith.”

And a lot of due diligence. With a room block of 1,500 on peak night and needing up to two-thirds of the massive convention center, McGrath took two trips to Houston from Tulsa, Okla., to do site inspections at the GRB and the contracted hotels in addition to staying in constant contact with members who live in Houston. Attendees were kept informed on various platforms as Houston officials nervously monitored the SEG website, which for days had a simple note saying no decision had been made.

Houston Events
Another conference, the Texas Society of Association Executives (TSAE), was scheduled to be in Houston days before SEG. The Texas group did the same due diligence and decided to move forward with going to Houston.

“That was important for us,” McGrath says. “TSAE was huge because they’re a meeting planning association.”

While TSAE drew a record attendance of nearly 550, the meeting was contained to the Houston Marriott Marquis aside from an opening reception on Avenida Houston outside the convention center. But it was a symbolic and critical first move that was needed to boost the confidence of Visit Houston (the city’s CVB).

Steven Stout, in his first year as executive director at TSAE, and Mike Waterman, president of Visit Houston, 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 conferences coming to Houston.

“We needed that first domino to fall,” Waterman says. “We’ve moved a few groups around that were going to the convention center into the back half of the year, but we needed TSAE.” Shortly after TSAE committed, SEG posted a note on its website saying, “Houston is open for business.”

“After much communication with those affected by Hurricane Harvey plus research, discussion and intense deliberation about conditions in Houston, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists’ Board of Directors has decided to hold the SEG International Exposition and 87th Annual Meeting as scheduled, 24-29 September 2017,” the message said. “Houston is dear to our hearts, and SEG wants to do everything it can to support the city while advancing the interests and needs of our members, attendees, sponsors, exhibitors and presenters. Many might have concerns about traveling to Houston this month, but officials with the George R. Brown Convention Center and the City of Houston have assured SEG that the city is ready to accommodate Annual Meeting participants. SEG staff members and volunteer leaders have inspected the Conference Center, supporting hotels and venues, and agree that Houston is open for business.”

McGrath says overall attendance will be down for SEG—registrations did spike by 1,500 after the announcement—but the fortitude and commitment from Houston was too much to pass up.

“I have to give credit and kudos to the city of Houston,” McGrath says. “They did a phenomenal job. Some people are still not happy we’re going, but at the end of the day Houston is important to SEG and we felt it was the right thing to do. We wanted to be part of Houston Strong.”

TSAE and SEG were two of 11 major groups Visit Houston convinced to keep their meetings in Houston. The result is about US$50 million in hotel, food and beverage and transportation revenue, Waterman says.

TSAE was the first meeting to return and attendees were greeted by Houstonians who clapped and cheered in appreciation as the group walked through the convention center, downstairs and to dinner outside the building.

Stout 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 says. “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 says. “We had to come. We made the decision we were going to come if even attendance dropped off.”

In the end, he says there was not a single attendee cancellation related to the storm and, in fact, registrations, just as with SEG, spiked in the weeks leading up to the conference.

“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.

“You did not call to cancel [attending the conference]. 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, said Houston’s hospitality employees “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.”


About the Author

Rich
Rich Luna

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