Lessons From Superstorm SandyDecember 1, 2013

Be Prepared With a Solid Communications Strategy By
December 1, 2013

Lessons From Superstorm Sandy

Be Prepared With a Solid Communications Strategy
An iconic image — The Casino Pier Star Jet roller coaster was submerged just off the Seaside Heights, NJ, boardwalk after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 and demolished in May 2013. Credit: Glynnis Jones/Shutterstock.com

An iconic image — The Casino Pier Star Jet roller coaster was submerged just off the Seaside Heights, NJ, boardwalk after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 and demolished in May 2013. Credit: Glynnis Jones/Shutterstock.com

Hurricane Sandy, which severely battered the East Coast in October 2012, was a hurricane of historic proportions. Sometimes called Superstorm Sandy, it was the first storm in recorded history to take a sharp left-hand turn into New Jersey as it traveled northward, and it was the first time historical maximum water levels were recorded in several places in NJ and NY.

Today, the fallout from the storm lingers as associations were forced to cancel or postpone conferences that were scheduled in destinations in the storm’s path. Moreover, some associations learned that their severe weather emergency plans were neither strong nor broad enough to cover such a weather event. These groups learned valuable lessons and tweaked their crisis plans accordingly. Most of all, organizations learned that a strong and comprehensive communications strategy is a crucial element of a weather crisis plan.

“Communication is the No. 1 thing. We communicate internally and externally and designate people to contact attendees, the media and offsite staff. We have contact lists for local police, fire and emergency management officials.”

Will Engle, CMP, Director of Conferences and Events, AMR Management Services, Lexington, KY

In addition, some associations continue to recover financially after losing much-needed revenue from canceled conferences. Recovering from Sandy has become a recurring theme for many associations, which are meeting again in 2013 after missing out because of Sandy.

One such association is the New Jersey State League of Municipalities (NJSLOM). The group, which canceled its annual conference scheduled for Atlantic City, NJ, 10 days before Sandy hit, met late in 2013 with about 18,000 attendees. Severe weather planning and recovery were a big part of the agenda, much of which was a carryover from last year’s canceled conference. “We had a terrific conference lined up before the storm struck and didn’t want to throw all that work out the window,” says Michael Darcy, assistant executive director of NJSLOM. “So we kept it and added seminar tracks about emergency response programs, lessons learned, and state and federal recovery programs.”

The NJSLOM conference’s theme “Navigating Recovery and Renewal” was developed as a direct result of the storm. “The theme came out of damage done by the storm because our members are the local government officials actually engaged in trying to get the state restored,” says Darcy. “We took a cue from some of the themes that were prominent around the state such as “Restore the Shore” and “Stronger than the Storm.”

The conference also included several sessions on ways to beef up emergency response programs. “We have done emergency response education programs for years,” says Darcy. “In fact, the year before Sandy, we did a very intense program on how to deal with storm emergencies. But Sandy gave us a real-life drill, so we’re talking about what we learned.”

Seminars covered several aspects of weather crisis management such as “Emergency Management Leadership for Local Elected Officials,” “Chronic Major Flooding in New Jersey,” “Implementing Effective Risk Management,” “Sandy One Year Later,” and “Challenges of Disruptions of Utility Services.” During the seminars, attendees shared lessons learned from their emergency response programs.

Crisis Communications

Some seminars emphasized that a crisis communication plan is crucial to keeping attendees and others updated on managing canceled and postponed meetings. The NJSLOM recognized that its crisis communication plan worked well. “The more I hear about the disasters that other (groups) have experienced, the more I realize that our emergency communication plan was the backbone of our response and helped us avoid what could have been a catastrophe by collapsing under the weight of confusion,” says Darcy. “We really haven’t changed it since Sandy.”

The NJSLOM’s emergency communications plan was launched immediately after it canceled its conference on November 2, which was three days after Sandy struck on October 29, and 10 days before the meeting’s scheduled start on November 12.

The NJSLOM’s crisis communication strategy consists of several key components including lists of people to call, office and cell phone numbers, and who is responsible for making calls. “There is a lot of communication that has to happen in a short time,” says Darcy. “We have to call hundreds of people — 18,000 attendees, over 1,000 exhibitors and vendors, our board of directors and staff. We are ready to do broad-based communications through many modes of technology and do it quickly. We have to be ready to do constant conference and individual calls, and we have all the numbers we need to do that.”

The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), based in Trenton, launched crisis communications after canceling its annual conference about four days before Sandy arrived, which was also about 24 hours before starting early setup for the convention, says Michael Cohan, director, professional development and instructional issues and head of conference planning. “We have 260 people on our association staff and a whole section devoted to communications including media relations and social media. We communicated our decision very quickly to all audiences. What I learned from Sandy is how skilled our staff is under pressure,” says Cohan.

Associations can learn from the experiences of groups that Sandy impacted. The main lesson: Even the best crisis management plans are ineffective without a solid communications strategy, says Will Engle, CMP, director of conferences and events for AMR Management Services, an association management company in Lexington, KY. Engle has a crisis communication plan that it tailors for each client, some of which lack their own crisis management plans.

The plan covers everything from poor weather conditions and natural disasters to medical emergencies, accidents and terrorist attacks. However, “communication is the No. 1 thing,” says Engle. “We communicate internally and externally and designate people to contact attendees, the media and offsite staff. We have contact lists for local police, fire and emergency management officials, and the Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded terrorism threat advisory scale. We give a copy of the plan to any staff we send to conferences.”

Details Matter

Associations affected by Sandy also learned that a catastrophe can test the limits of the act of God clause and vendor relationships. Some of NJEA’s vendors could have legally disputed the clause in contracts with the association, but didn’t. “We understood how strong our business relationships were in that they understood our problems,” says Cohan. “They granted us relief for some things they had not yet completed but might have been able to assert a contractual right to. We knew we were obligated to pay for certain goods and services already rendered. For instance, our exhibit service company’s warehouse had a bunch of our materials shipped to it already. We weren’t going to ask any partner to take a loss.”

The NJSLOM reviewed its contracts and agreements with suppliers and others, and reassessed other aspects of its severe weather preparedness. “We asked ourselves questions internally and operationally,” says Darcy. “One of the first questions was ‘Are our contracts and business relationships in order?’ We never had a clause with exhibitors that covered what we would do for them if we canceled a convention so we added one saying we would offer refunds based on a scale. We didn’t invent the wheel on this, but we had to make sure everything was up to standards.”

Another question the NJSLOM asked: “What if we have high-level speakers at a luncheon but, due to an emergency, changed the speaker but still had the luncheon?” says Darcy. “We modified our lunch ticket order form to say that if we decided to modify the event, there wouldn’t be a refund. Little things like that are important.”

The NJSLOM also re-examined the ability of its headquarters building to withstand a severe weather event. “There are things we would like to do to make our building stronger. We have done initial planning and cost-outs, but we can’t afford it now,” says Darcy.

Not holding an annual conference in 2012 dealt the NJSLOM a financial loss. “It’s difficult to estimate how much we lost but it is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Darcy. “We don’t have an exact number because of the way we gave people credits for last year’s registration fees so they wouldn’t lose money. But we didn’t collect much additional money in 2013. But the good news is that our number of exhibitors bounced back to pre-recession levels.”

The loss occurred in spite of event cancellation coverage due to severe weather. The NJSLOM reviewed its coverage but decided not to change it due to cost considerations.

Expert Advice

Associations also are reviewing their insurance policies as a result of Sandy. “Some of our clients are asking questions about their policies,” says Larry Huttinger, CMP, director of D. Lawrence Planners, a full-service meeting and convention management company based in Atlantic City, NJ. “A number of groups are concerned about vulnerability although another Sandy may not happen again for a long time, if ever. Some groups that were not impacted are being proactive.”

Huttinger says that insurers typically require groups to have some type of emergency management program. “The problem with cancellation insurance based on weather is that there are a lot of particulars in the fine print,” says Huttinger. “It scrutinizes things such as weather reports, the impact of the weather, was the cancellation necessary, was the damage caused by the weather, the impact on the community, etc. If you aren’t careful, you could end up with a policy that will never pay.”

Huttinger also suggests association planners ask hotels, conference centers and other venues about their emergency response procedures. “Planners must be aware of what goes on in those places in case anything happens,” says Huttinger. “Those are many questions that should be asked. When we go to hotels, we try to get an idea of how emergencies are handled and who is in charge of emergency issues. We also try to get a copy of emergency plans. Hotels will usually cooperate.”

Moreover, he suggests that planners take every weather warning seriously. Also, take safety precautions even when bad weather — but not necessarily catastrophic weather — is forecast. “I have been involved with conferences where bad weather was bearing down on a hotel during a convention, and we ended it early,” says Huttinger. “We went ahead with a planned reception but didn’t serve alcohol in order to make sure that people could travel more safely.”

Engle also experienced a severe weather warning that turned out to be a close call. In 2012, Engle was holding a pre-conference workshop in a hotel in Lexington, KY, the day before the meeting was scheduled to start. During the workshop, local officials indicated that a tornado warning could be issued. “We immediately put all staff on high alert to enact the emergency plan if needed. The warning came through as expected, and we evacuated into the hotel basement. Luckily, it ended up being a 30- to 60-minute scare. The tornado missed us, and there was no damage so we could go on with the conference.” Such close calls happen more often than major catastrophes that result in canceled meetings.

Superstorm Sandy taught planners not to take for granted that potentially destructive weather will end up being a close call. “It was another reminder to make sure we have emergency planning down,” says Engle. “If something like this happens every 10 years you may forget or not think about it because there are so many fires to put out on a daily basis. But we have to make sure this is top of mind even though it hardly ever happens.”

Untold numbers of meetings were canceled during Sandy, and it could happen again should another storm strike. Deciding whether to cancel or postpone a conference can be difficult, and the timetable for making a decision is different for each weather event and for every association. But planners must be prepared to confront such a decision and should heed this advice:

  • Consider purchasing event cancellation insurance. Most groups never get to use such coverage, but it can provide peace of mind and cover a great deal of a potential loss. Cancellation insurance usually covers loss of revenue, hotel attrition fees and other expenses resulting from disasters. The cost of these policies depends on the size and location of the meeting and several other factors. Large events that produce considerable revenue may merit coverage. For smaller events, compare the cost of insurance with the potential financial loss.
  • Determine the weather’s impact. Bad weather can affect a suburb of a city without impacting the downtown area where a convention is meeting. Get accurate information after the weather passes. Don’t depend entirely on the media for information to make a final decision. Verify the impact by talking to local convention officials, emergency management officials and DMCs.
  • Communicate to attendees, exhibitors and vendors redundantly via several platforms. Once there is a decision to cancel, communicate it via phone calls, email and social media as well as print, online and broadcast media outlets.
  • Don’t over-communicate. Avoid sending constant updates via e-mail or other methods to attendees. Sending too many messages is worrisome and distracting.
  • Designate spokespersons. Choose specific people to communicate at headquarters and onsite, and to specific audiences, including attendees. This helps deliver uniform messages to various audiences.
  • Get attendee emergency contact phone numbers. Ask attendees to submit the information as part of their registration process so they can receive calls or text messages in an emergency. Tell attendees why the information is necessary and assure them it will be kept confidential. Also, encourage attendees to keep identification information with them at all times.
  • Consider special needs. When asking venues about their emergency plans, inquire about procedures for attendees with special needs such as the hearing-impaired and physically handicapped.

Associations that are without severe weather management procedures are taking a big gamble by depending on odds that most of their meetings will never face a monster storm. But, as the horrendous devastation and loss of revenue wrought by Sandy continues even today, it would be wise for associations that lack strong crisis management plans to remedy that situation as soon as possible.  AC&F

Back To Top