Q&A: Bob Johnson
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, causing devastating flooding in the days following the storm. An estimated 25,000 displaced people sought refuge in the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Bob Johnson, president of the convention center, was the man at the helm. Today, the convention center is restored and operating more efficiently. Tourism has rebounded and the city is hosting more conventions and meetings than ever. Johnson spoke with Connect about lessons learned during the crisis and the future of New Orleans as a meetings destination.
No one could have anticipated the extent of what happened during Hurricane Katrina. What were some of the major lessons you learned?
First and foremost, poor planning makes for poor performance. What we learned from Katrina is that you must plan for what might happen, not for what you can handle. There really are different scenarios and criteria and considerations to be made for a facility if you plan on being an evacuation shelter. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. What we learned from Katrina is to get the hell out of town. The best way to serve our citizens and guests is to get them out of harm’s way because you never know what is going to happen. We had talked about the levees being breached, but no one really wanted to think about it because it just wasn’t something we were prepared to handle. When we had Hurricane Gustav [in 2008], the plans went into effect. There was a scenario 48 hours out where it was going to be worse than Katrina in terms of the strength and size. There was virtually 100 percent evacuation of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes.
How can facility managers and meeting planners better prepare for disasters?
It’s all about planning and communication. You need to have a strong chain of command and know how you’re going to communicate and get messages out. The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau came up with the New Orleans Tourism Crisis Communication Plan. It deals with what to do if we have a major convention in town and a storm pops up in the Gulf. It lays out how we communicate with the meeting planners, their attendees and guests. We can keep them up to date on whether there’s going to be an evacuation or whether the storm is just going to be a glancing blow and they should shelter in place. The plan was devised with the entire tourism community including the hotels, media, transportation companies and airport. Every meeting planner has access to it and they all need to develop their own crisis communication plan that meshes with their site.
How do you deal with turning a convention center into a shelter if you have meetings going on?
It’s tricky. As the storm approaches, you have a five-day time period to decide what you’re going to do and a three-day period to actually pull the trigger and get it ready. Fortunately, it’s a big facility, but you could have an electronics show here with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of exhibits. You have to see how you’re going to protect that and how much space is available for sheltering responders.
The convention center recovered from the disaster rather quickly. How did you pull that off?
The convention center had to be renovated and it had to be resupplied because virtually everything that was in the building—chairs, tables, carpet, all the office supplies—had to be discarded. We had to decontaminate everything, re-supply it with all the furniture, fixtures and equipment. But six months after Katrina, we hosted the American Library Association. We kept them updated with what was happening in terms of the recovery. They stuck with us, monitored us and they were able to bring a major convention back to New Orleans.
I imagine you had a little public relations battle to face after Katrina.
Yes, it took some convincing. Two or three years after Katrina, the media kept showing footage of the disaster. There were people around the country that still thought we had water in the streets. It took a lot of money and effort to counter that kind of exposure. It happened again with the five-year anniversary. It is very hard for people to try to forget it, especially when they are trying to decide whether to come to New Orleans or not in the late summer or early fall.
Do meeting planners tend to avoid booking during hurricane season?
There are some groups that will not meet anywhere in the hurricane belt during hurricane season and that includes Miami, Orlando, Tampa and New Orleans. As a matter of policy, they may have decided that it is not worth the disruption. It’s a shame because it takes a lot of nice sites for their meeting out of play unnecessarily. Except for the scare with Gustav in 2008, that’s all we’ve had in six years. Over the last 18 to 24 months, virtually every show and meeting that has come to New Orleans has had an increase or record for exhibit participation and attendance.
Morial Convention Center is one of the largest facilities of its kind in the world and it keeps growing and improving. How?
It really starts with a philosophy and the board making some very important decisions. There was a four-phase expansion underway when Katrina hit. It was postponed. The building had been in expansion mode since the World’s Fair [in 1984]. What we did was make a five-year plan to recapitalize the facility and make it the best facility it could be by upgrading the technology and replacing all those things that had been on the back burner.
What are some of the physical disaster and emergency assets you have at the convention center?
None. We are on one of the highest parts of the city and just by that we are protected by anything except for a Noah’s Ark kind of flood. We are doing some things with the glass that we have and the roof, trying to make them less susceptible to wind damage, but we are really in a good position to withstand the brunt of a major storm. We have two remote locations—one east and one west of here. We can pick up our entire administrative function and sales force and move and continue to communicate with our employees and meeting planners so that they know minute to minute what is going on. If one has a show planned a month after the incident, he or she will want to know if we are going to recover and be able to host that meeting. We have not only a disaster preparedness plan but a pretty exhaustive disaster recovery plan in place.