Several natural disasters strike the United States every year, from hurricanes along the Gulf Coast to tornados in the Midwest. Most recently, Hurricane Sandy reminded us that disaster, and even the mere threat of a disaster, can have a profound impact on the meetings and convention industry, ranging from the cancellation of flights to the postponement of meetings.
Convention planners, facility managers, and destination representatives say many in the meetings industry could significantly improve their disaster and emergency plans. Effective preparedness and planning often start with identifying threats and preparing for worst-case scenarios. While organizations can’t prepare for everything, experts say they can try to prepare for what could happen and use those plans to respond to other crises. Most importantly, those plans should be flexible and continuously tested and improved.
Plan for People
One of the significant challenges in dealing with a disaster or emergency during a meeting or convention is often a large number of people. John Copenhaver, founder and CEO of the Contingency Management Group was head of FEMA for the Southeastern United States between 1997 and 2001, where he dealt with emergency management preparations for conventions. Copenhaver says plans can vary dramatically depending on the size of the meeting, what kinds of attendees will be there and where it is located. By their nature, large gatherings can require more complex emergency plans and considerations because of the number of people involved.
“You’re typically going to have a lot of people in a small area, and you have to be aware of all potential problems. That could be everything from an active shooter to a power outage or natural weather event,” he says.
Most plans are designed to maintain order and prevent panic when responding during an emergency or after one has already happened. Copenhaver says effective communication and instructions are the keys to protecting people and property. Meeting planners must have multiple lines of communication open to reach attendees and deliver updated information. He recommends using any means of communication, including social media, text messaging, direct phone calls, and announcements at facilities. “You should figure out your response in different situations. The worst thing you can have is something happen at a convention to which you have no script or rehearsed response,” says Copenhaver.
It’s not a far-fetched scenario that attendees could be asked to shelter in place during a weather event. While that might only be a few hours in most cases, it can extend much longer. Although conventioneers had been cleared from the facility before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, more than 30,000 residents sought refuge at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Convention center President and General Manager Bob Johnson spoke at the International Disaster Conference and Expo in New Orleans in early 2012, where he made the point that facility managers and meeting planners should be in lock step in how these facilities would be used in a disaster. That could range from hosting conventioneers for an extended crisis to serving as a shelter for the local population. In any case, Johnson said meeting planners must know security and disaster plans for their meeting facilities.
“We have to protect not just people but property as well. During a disaster, we could have hundreds of millions of dollars worth of exhibitory, and we have to secure it,” Johnson says.
Plan for What Could Happen
Emergencies aren’t always full-blown catastrophic natural disasters; small-scale disturbances can still cause the evacuation of thousands of guests from a facility. Facility managers usually have solid evacuation plans, but meeting planners should be prepared and have strategies for dealing with such disturbances. In October 2011, hundreds of people had to be evacuated from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., during the Greater Washington National College Fair when a small group of students got into a fight. More than 1,000 people were evacuated from the Los Angeles Convention Center during the 2011 Anime Expo due to a report of a suspicious package.
“Sometimes it’s the little things you have to plan for. There are so many things that could call for an evacuation,” says Joan Eisenstodt, meeting planner, trainer, and founder of Eisenstodt Associates. She says disaster planning often starts when selecting a destination. While hurricane season runs in the late summer along the Gulf Coast, tornado season is usually during the spring in the central part of the country. She says while all emergency and disaster plans should have some essential elements, they should also be tailored to meet the specific threats of each location.
“You must look at the likelihood of what could happen and plan more extensively for that. You need to prepare for how you will handle it if [something] happens before or during a meeting,” Eisenstodt says.
Sometimes an emergency plan needs to have provisions for helping conventioneers react to the situation. While most people instinctually understand the need to hunker down or run for cover during a hurricane or tornado, it can be the opposite during an earthquake. During an earthquake, it’s essential to use a doorway for shelter or drop to the ground and take cover when inside. But when outside, it’s usually best to move to a clear opening away from buildings, streetlights, and utility wires.
Carol Martinez, vice president of communications for the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, says L.A.’s main natural threat is earthquakes. While they represent a serious threat, they are also relatively uncommon. More of a concern to conventions would be stormy weather or unnatural disasters. In July 2011, for example, the 405 Freeway in L.A. was shut down for construction and was expected to create one of the world’s most extensive traffic jams (some called it “Carmageddon”). It had the potential to become an unnatural disaster.
“There wasn’t a crisis, but we ensured we kept people informed,” says Martinez. “We have a lot of cooperation from the public sector here in L.A., so we all work to help [meeting planners] prepare for problems.”
Learn from Experience
Mary Ghikas is no stranger to dealing with disaster. Ghikas, the assistant executive director for the American Library Association, is part of the planning team for the association’s annual conference, which was the first conference to take place in Toronto after the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the first show back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Over the years, Ghikas has developed a set of rules and best practices to help prepare and plan for the worst.
First, Ghikas says meeting planners have to assume that something will happen. From adverse public policy decisions to hotel strikes or natural disasters, she anticipates that something, on some level, will affect every ALA conference. Next, she says the organization carefully goes over its insurance coverage and contracts, checking deductibles, cancellation policies, and what needs to be documented and proven in the event of a disaster.
It’s also essential to understand the risk tolerance of the organization and the board in postponing, relocating, or canceling a convention. When a disaster happens beforehand or if a hurricane is bearing down on a location days before a conference, it can be a risky call to cancel a convention for 20,000 people. Making the wrong decision could have disastrous consequences and cause massive public relations blow to the organization. Ghikas says there needs to be a clear line of communication and scenarios to help create a decision-making model during a crisis. “You do have to think about how it will position you with members,” she says. “How much reassurance do you have to build for them? Will they feel you are willfully putting them at risk for something they see as a business venture?”
It’s not just meeting planners and organizations but also city officials and emergency personnel who don’t take canceling a convention lightly. When some disasters strike, the ultimate decision on cancellations may come to the hands of authorities. Copenhaver said when he was with FEMA in 2008, a severe wildfire outbreak hit northeastern Florida. His department had to make the tough call to evacuate parts of a county heavily dependent on tourism and meetings. “The No. 1 factor has to be the safety of the people, and that is the primary guiding factor you have to use,” he says.
Knowing who to call in an emergency is also critical, says Ghikas. From insurance agents and legal counsel to the convention and visitors bureau in the affiliated city, one has to keep the information flowing. The same model for communication can work when a disaster strikes during a convention or something happens immediately before one. Ghikas says you need to build your response structure, examine your metrics, list people, and breathe. “Keep pushing out the information. Whatever you do, don’t remain silent because members will interpret silence as if you are hiding something,” she advises.
Test and Improve Plans
Sometimes, the best way to test and improve disaster preparedness plans is to go through a disaster (though it’s never the preferred route). During the Tennessee floods of 2010, the Cumberland River pushed more than 10 feet of water into some parts of Nashville. Major venues such as the Grand Ole Opry House and the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center took on water, suffered significant damage, and were shut down for months. Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville CVB, says Opryland was able to evacuate all the guests from the 3,000-room hotel and shelter them at a local high school. The CVB helped visiting meetings get their members out of town or cancel conferences. This included the Healthcare Financial Management Association, which had to relocate its 5,000-attendee conference to Las Vegas. “I am not sure we had a good enough plan beforehand. We did have a good enough staff that we responded instantly. I think our flexibility got us through it,” says Spyridon.
Spyridon says the CVB and the city’s other tourism venues were not prepared to go without power. The CVB office never took on water, but it still lost phone service and passion for three days—when it needed it the most. Spyridon says his staff “went into makeshift mode” to get the job done, but the CVB has since set up satellite locations that can be used in a disaster. “We have all that now,” he says. “You can be prepared, but you can’t know everything to prepare for until you go through something like this.
Donna Karl, CMP, vice president of client relations for the New Orleans CVB, says the organization revised and rebuilt its emergency plan after Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, the city worked with FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security to create and put in place a specific plan for visitors, which includes convention attendees. It covers everything from communications to sheltering and evacuations. Karl said the program has been updated yearly and tested during Hurricane Gustav in 2008.
“Gustav didn’t do any damage, but it allowed us to test the plan and tweak it even further fully,” said Karl. “One new addition is that every Monday, the CVB sends out a request to all of the hotels in the area to find out how many guests will be in their hotels during the next two weeks. That list is then shared with 40 different individuals in government agencies so they can know how many people are in each part of the city at any given time,” she adds.
Karl estimates that only 20 percent of organizations she deals with have their emergency and disaster plans. The New Orleans CVB shares the city’s disaster plan with visiting organizations and encourages meeting planners to use it as a framework and customize it for their use. Karl also helps organizations understand and plan around hurricanes because a lot can change between when a cyclone develops in the Atlantic Ocean and when it makes landfall. In some cases, that can be as long as two weeks. The CVB monitors the cone of probability and keeps meeting planners and guests updated. While the city might be identified as the primary target, that could all change within a week. “A lot of people and planners may have never dealt with hurricanes. We educate them so they’re not panicking ten days out. A lot can change in that time,” says Karl.
Sue Gourley is vice president of conventions for the National Association of Realtors. NAR’s annual conference attracts more than 20,000 delegates and has recently been held in San Diego, Orlando, and Las Vegas. In 2006, it was the first major convention in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Gourley says NAR has a solid emergency plan and puts together a booklet for each conference with critical contact numbers, maps of emergency exits, and basic first aid and response information. All key staff members carry these booklets so they know how to respond and who to call in an emergency. Gourley also taps into a destination’s emergency plans to rely on that expertise in dealing with local issues.
“We have meetings with security, police, and emergency officials in the city and the hotels. We do a pre-conference so that everyone knows where they are, what to do, and who to contact in the event of an emergency,” Gourley says.
There isn’t much meeting planners can do to prevent natural disasters or emergencies, but they can control how they respond and react to them. In a crisis, careful planning, preparation and contingencies can make the difference between success and failure.