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Preparedness and Flexibility were Key for Event Planners to Reschedule Events During Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma

With the exception of the hard-hit Florida Keys and Southwest Florida, many of the Sunshine State’s meeting destinations came through September’s horrific hurricane onslaught relatively unscathed. Within a week or so after Hurricane Irma made landfall in the state on Sept. 10, many Florida cities were back to business as usual, a marked contrast to the many Caribbean destinations reeling from not only Irma, but the subsequent Hurricane Maria.

That being said, Irma did put the resourcefulness of Florida-based meeting and event planners to the test and brought home the need for preparedness in a time when record-breaking natural disasters seem to be the norm.

Among them were Renee Radabaugh, CMP (MPI Virginia Chapter), and her team at Paragon Events, which is based in Delray Beach in Palm Beach County. When news of the impending hurricane broke during the week before landfall, planners were preparing to head to 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 hours of straight 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. The company’s hurricane contingency plan saved the day—not only for the Hawaii meeting but other events 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,” Radabaugh 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 came as she was making final arrangements for a corporate leadership meeting scheduled at a Tampa hotel Sept. 11-14. With 400 people flying in from around the country as well as numerous vendors, she and her client knew cancellation was inevitable.

“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. A few days before, we knew it would have to be rescheduled, so we looked at alternate dates through December.”

Similarly, Maria Maggio (MPI Tampa Bay Area Chapter), director of education and events for LeadingAge Florida, an association of nursing home administrators, was faced with the postponement of several meetings scheduled to take place during the projected time of Irma.  

“The key for us was to communicate with the attendees to make sure they were aware of the postponement,” she says. “Fortunately, most are local and they don’t fly in.”

Orlando-based Karen Kuzsel (MPI Greater Orlando Area Chapter), a psychic entertainer, was scheduled to perform at Tataris’ cancelled meeting. She observed that Irma’s impact on meetings-related 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.

At the same time, Irma was unlike anything the longtime Orlando resident had ever seen before.

“I’ve gone through any number of hurricanes, including Charlie in 2004, but this was by far the worst,” Kuzsel says. “Our airport was closed for days, there were curfews and tornado warnings all night long. My husband and I were hunkered down in the pantry for a while. Fortunately, all we lost was an olive tree.”

While she’s anticipating a normal fall season for her business, Tataris expresses concern that media coverage of more heavily impacted regions such as the Keys may have given a false impression that all of Florida was in the same predicament.

“We’ve been getting the word out that Tampa is perfect for events now, with sunny weather and all of our venues back up and running,” she says. “It was an unusual occurrence for us. We really hope that people are not classifying us with the hardest hit areas.”

Much like Tampa, destinations such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando suffered little damage to their meetings and tourism infrastructure. Airports, most hotels and major venues such as Disney World, Universal Studios and Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center were back in operation within days of Irma.

Some large conventions and shows scheduled for the Orange County Convention Center in September were affected, however. Several events scheduled the week prior to Irma, including the Imprinted Sportswear Show and the Surf Expo, shortened their programs in advance of the hurricane. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Show, originally scheduled for Sept. 10-13, rescheduled for mid-October, while the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering moved its 8,000-delegate convention from September to mid-December.

The Miami Beach Convention Center, which is currently undergoing a major renovation and expansion set for completion in fall 2018, was unscathed, but its construction timeline was affected, as time was lost to securing the site and many workers evacuated from the city, according to project director Maria Hernandez.

“Irma herself did not cause wind damage to the building, but what it did do was kill our momentum,” she says. “We’re trying to see how we can make up the time.”

While Jacksonville sustained flooding in its riverfront areas, Paul Astleford, president and CEO of Visit Jacksonville, announced in late September that “our beaches, hotels, park system and attractions had very minor issues related to Irma and are back to normal.”

In the hard-hit Florida Keys, the extent of damage from Irma varied widely throughout the 125-mile-long region, with Key Largo and Key West having the least impact, according to Florida Keys & Key West Tourism. At press time, Key West was expected to be reopen for tourism in time for Fantasy Fest, the annual costume and masking festival scheduled for Oct. 20.

SIDEBAR

Being Prepared

This season’s unprecedented onslaught of back-to-back weather-related disasters underscores the need to take basic steps to minimize potential impact on meetings and events. Among the essentials are a hurricane contingency plan and a well-crafted force majeure clause in meeting contracts.

Contingency Plan

Among planners who know the value of having a hurricane contingency plan in place at all times is Renee Radabaugh (MPI Virginia Chapter), president of Paragon Events. Her company devised a plan last year, putting it to the test when Hurricane Mathew slammed into Jacksonville in October 2016 and forced the cancellation of a client’s meeting for 500 attendees. When Irma struck in September, the Paragon team was once again ready to leap into action to keep business running as smoothly as possible.

Here are the five main components of Paragon’s hurricane plan.

1.  Make Sure you Have Insurance

Radabaugh advises enrolling in an event insurance plan, which offers coverage that will reimburse a meeting or event in case of a cancellation due to a named hurricane. Coverage should include rate differentials and any extra expense of rescheduling the meeting or event.

2.  When a Storm is predicted, Back up Computers and The Company Server

“Though we do backups on a regular basis, it is especially important to [do this] before a storm to prevent data loss or software damage,” Radabaugh says.

3.  Protect Essential Business Records and Confidential Documents

Paragon’s entire office worked together to ensure all important documents and records were locked up in a secure area that would protect against any possible flooding or loss of power. In addition, top-level employees were responsible for taking home crucial files such as password lists and accounting information.

4.  Establish a Communications Policy Between Yourself and Employees

Prior to closing the office, we set a plan in place of when we would expect to reopen and, if there was significant damage, to arrange to work remotely,” Radabaugh says. “In addition, our office maintained a company-wide group chat that included consistent updates and reassurance of everyone’s safety.

5.  Assign Key Employees to Contact Clients, Suppliers and/or Creditors Before and After Your Recovery

Before closing the office, Paragon crafted and set automatic email messages to alert clients in other areas of the country of the situation and assure them of status updates. The company phone number was linked to employees’ mobile phones to further maintain communication. Finally, those working on projects affected by the hurricane were responsible for contacting venues and vendors for property credit and transfer of materials.

FORCE MAJEURE CLAUSES

Meetings industry attorney John Foster, Esq., CHME (MPI Georgia Chapter), senior partner at Foster, Jensen & Gulley, emphasizes the importance of a well-crafted force majeure clause designed to free parties from contractual obligations in the event of natural disasters, disease epidemics, terrorist incidents and other uncontrollable factors. While a necessity for any meeting, the clause is especially crucial for those in hurricane-prone areas.

“Look at the location of the event and consider the risks,” Foster says. “For example, I updated my force majeure clause for some cities after Hurricane Katrina.”

When it comes to crafting a force majeure, he emphasizes that it must be written in such a way to cover known as well as unknown hazards that could materially affect the performance of either party.

Because disease epidemics, terrorism, labor disputes and hazardous weather are now foreseeable, these and other similar events must be mentioned in the contact,” Foster says. “Some courts have held that failure to list a foreseeable event in the contract means that the parties accepted the risk from such an event and waived the right to use the occurrence of that event to terminate the contract without liability.”

Also important is to provide for credible threats of a force majeure act or occurrence and not just the actual occurrence.

“Vendor contracts should be clear that meeting sponsors and/or vendors have the right to terminate the contract if credible evidence exists today that a specific force majeure event will or potentially could have a material impact on the success of a meeting,” Foster says. “For example, if the National Weather Service predicts that a hurricane is expected to hit a certain coastal city in four days where a meeting is to be held, the sponsors of that meeting should be able to cancel that meeting and reschedule it in the same city or move it to a different city on the same date, without liability for the contract.”

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About the Author

maria-lenhart-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.