When Disaster Strikes Your Meeting

By: Jeff Waddle

Florida offers eclectic environments and big-city amenities just steps from the beach, but wild weather and other disasters can put a damper on your event. Find out how you can be prepared if you encounter an emergency

The Sunshine State offers great year-round weather in a tropical setting and an amazing choice of resorts, hotels, and attractions. But every summer, the arrival of hurricane season brings the possibility that a storm could disrupt your conference, even though Florida has had little to worry about since four named hurricanes hit the state in 2004. Throw in the potential perils present at any destination such as fire, floods, and other inclement weather events, and it's clear that it pays to be prepared for emergencies when you're planning a meeting. Here's what you need to know to be prepared for your next Florida event.

Getting Started

"I think [emergency planning] is a very positive thing to do because I view every meeting planner's role as, number one, making sure your people are safe and comfortable," says Joan Eisenstodt, a meeting planner, trainer, and founder of Eisenstodt Associates.

An advocate of being prepared, Eisenstodt says she prefers the term contingency planning because "it goes beyond what most people consider the scary stuff." Eisenstodt—who has experienced a death, food poisoning, a political defection, and tornado warnings in unexpected places at her meetings—says that even a cold snap, such as one that hit the Southeast last winter, can become an emergency of sorts if your members don't pack appropriate clothing.

To avoid feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of comprehensive contingency planning, Eisenstodt says to explore what-if scenarios with your staff and consider external plans by sending requests for proposals to meeting sites and vendors. "Ask them a lot of questions about safety and emergency planning. You want to find out what they do and how they do it, things like what they do if somebody gets sick and how do they coordinate an evacuation with the city and state," she says. In addition to thorough RFPs, Eisenstodt recommends holding separate preconference meetings with the various directors of security or loss prevention.

Suzanne Scully, meetings and conventions director for the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, says planners should ask questions early on about contingency plans. "Sometimes people don't want to bring it up because they don't want to be negative, but it's not a negative issue," she says. "There are a million things that can happen—the power can go out or there might be a flood—but most agencies have a plan, and meeting planners shouldn't hesitate to ask questions," she says. "As consumers, we would ask questions if we were going on vacation somewhere."

Scully says that since her convention bureau is a county agency, it is part of the county's emergency management system, so some of its employees work in the county's communication center during hurricanes and other major events. "Those of us who aren't at the center are continuously calling area hotels to determine room availability and rates in case groups staying on the beach want or need to move inland," she says. "We constantly communicate updated information. There's always a chance [of an emergency], but we want planners to know we're prepared and proactive."

Gary Sain, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, says planners should find out how deeply the convention bureau is involved in emergency response as they consider a Florida meeting. "All [Florida CVBs] are highly educated in this and very sensitive to the topic and very much want to educate and address questions that may come to them from a meeting planner or association. The state of Florida is in very good shape with this," he says.

Sain says Visit Orlando serves as a collection point on the availability of accommodations and transportation for a three-county region during emergencies, such as last year when many visitors from Europe couldn't travel home during the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano. He says Visit Orlando found value-oriented accommodations for those visitors, whose funds may have been drained from the unexpected extended stay.

"In 2004 as Hurricane Frances approached Florida on the second day of our annual conference, it was the literal ‘Houston, we have a problem' scenario, so we pulled out the flip chart paper and recorded every step we took because we knew we wanted the next time to be easier," says Eleanor Warmack, CPRP, CAE, executive director of the Florida Recreation and Park Association, Inc. (FRPA). The event led her organization to create its formal Emergency Response Plan. (See sidebar for an excerpt of the plan.)

The result of FRPA's experience, which included hefty penalties paid to the resort for participants leaving early, is a comprehensive plan divided into three parts: closure of the executive office, disruption of the annual meeting, and loss of a key leader. It spells out how staff and volunteer leaders should respond to ensure quick and full recovery.

"We now write into our hotel contracts an addendum that includes our emergency manual so that the facility is fully aware of what steps we will take in the case of an emergency onsite," says Warmack. "The one thing that members need to see is that the staff and leadership have a plan, are following a plan, and most importantly, are remaining calm. The attendees will take their cue from the staff and leadership," she says.

Another planner whose emergency experience resulted in a comprehensive plan is Kay Granath, CMP, CAE, account executive and director of meetings and conventions for Association Management Center. Granath, who directs a staff of six meeting planners, has had association events affected or even cancelled by air-travel disruption in the wake of 9/11 as well as by Florida and Gulf Coast hurricanes and the 2010 Nashville flood.

"We developed our plan from everybody else, and I would suggest that you develop a plan that works for you," says Granath. "As a meeting planner, you don't have to be proficient in every element of the plan, but you have to be aware and know where to go for the information or action that needs to be taken because you're the point person."

Other Insurance Concerns

Granath says carrying convention cancellation and interruption insurance is important. Policies, which vary by the size and nature of the event and the destination, typically cover loss of revenue, hotel-attrition penalties, and additional operating expenses incurred because of an unexpected disruption due to natural disasters, labor strikes, and even terrorism.

"Anything can happen, and I have personal knowledge of some disasters where we were very lucky we had this insurance," says Granath. "Our legal counsels also have advised us to get that insurance as soon as we sign the contract, because that's when your liability begins. And, the premium is very negligible compared to what my receipts are," she says.

In response to the 2004 hurricanes in Florida and the concerns that season caused in the minds of some groups, Visit Florida created a free supplemental-insurance program for groups meeting during hurricane season called Cover Your Event. "CYE is basically supplemental hurricane insurance for groups coming to Florida during August, September, and October of each year that we relate to the contracted room nights," says Steven Bonda, CMP, manager of meetings and conventions for Visit Florida.

Bonda says that the CYE premium is paid by Visit Florida for qualifying groups. It covers the room-rate differential and any extra expenses related to rescheduling a conference up to $200,000 depending on the number of contracted room nights. But it will not cover loss of profits. The policy is designed for named hurricanes only, and conferences must be rescheduled at the same or nearest available venue within 12 months. A group cannot be insured for disruption caused by a named hurricane already in existence at the time of application for coverage.

Communication Is Key

As in most aspects of effective event planning, communication is the most important aspect of contingency planning. An example of how effective communication can make a dramatic difference in minimizing the impact of an emergency is from ASAE's 2007 Great Ideas Conference at the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, where an electrical fire prompted an evacuation and loss of power overnight to the guest rooms.

"Part of the key to success of this was that we communicated at least every 10 minutes with updates, telling everyone what was going on, what information we knew at that time and what we anticipated," says Bob Pfeffer, the resort's director of sales and marketing.

Pfeffer says that frequent communication and a well-coordinated plan resulted in three quarters of attendees staying overnight at the darkened hotel, despite offers to place them elsewhere. "Every associate who works at the resort is trained in emergency procedures, and our leadership team has gone through large crowd-control training with the Marco Fire Department," he says.

"Observing how the hotel handled this very real crisis was like reading a best-practice test case in the Harvard Business Journal," says Judy Gray, president and CEO of Florida Society of Association Executives, who attended the conference. "The attendees were all in good spirits despite the inconvenience, because the staff gave us regular updates about what was going on."

"The repercussion of communication and the lack thereof are huge, because people are used to having that communication," says Eisenstodt. "You even need to consider how you're going to communicate, because you might not even have access to your cell phone." She says that planners should also consider who will be the official spokesperson during incidents both onsite and at headquarters, which could receive a crush of calls or website visits for updated information by concerned members and family of attendees.

"Communication, alignment, and collaboration are so important because no one entity can do it on their own, and just like last year with the Gulf oil spill and other examples, I can guarantee you that this year there also will be several issues around the country that will impact DMOs, meeting planners, and their attendees," says Sain.

Sidebar: FRPA's Emergency Recovery Plan

The Florida Recreation and Park Association developed its Emergency Recovery Plan as a result of incidents it has faced over the years. Below is an excerpt from the plan as it relates to FRPA's annual conference.

Cancellation Once the Event Has Commenced

An emergency kit should be taken to the event and should include the following:

  • Insurance policy with contact name and phone number;
  • Association letterhead for making official notifications;
  • Webmaster contact name, phone numbers (including after-hours contact number);
  • Emergency contact name and numbers for staff members (who to contact on their behalf);
  • Cell phone and other contact information for speakers;
  • All contact numbers for drayage company;
  • Supplies to include: flashlights, battery-operated radios, water, and so forth;
  • Charged backup batteries for computers.

Care should be taken to arrange for the following to be available onsite:

  • Internet access to weather and news;
  • Cell numbers and emergency contact numbers for senior management resort personnel;
  • Cell numbers and emergency contact numbers for drayage company;
  • Cell numbers and emergency contact numbers for transportation companies being used for the event;
  • Copies of insurance policies and an up-to-date copy of the host facility contract, with the most updated room block numbers [what the insurance carrier will reimburse when dealing with attrition] in the form of an addendum to the contract.

Jeff Waddle is a freelance writer and editor of ASAE's Meetings & Expositions newsletter. Email: [email protected]