From hurricanes and floods to earthquakes, an unprecedented onslaught of natural disasters in August and September dealt devastating blows to destinations in Florida, the Caribbean, Texas and Mexico. Disruptions like these can put the resourcefulness of meeting planners to the test, as they must anticipate and adapt to rapidly changing conditions and circumstances to salvage current and future programs.
According to the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) 2016 Event Disruption Study, planners estimated they now spend up to 25 percent of their time planning for potential disruptions, and nearly 40 percent expect that their time and effort will increase in the next two years. In addition, 68 percent of planners said that they had changed venues at least once within the last two years because of disruption.
Kip Lambert, chief culture officer for Destinations Inc., relates a curious superstition in Mexico: If weather reports indicate rain, many Mexican planners take kitchen knives and stab them into the ground near the event space. “They swear by it,” Lambert says. “And I can only think of one time it hasn’t worked — that’s about an 80 percent accuracy rate!”
That’s impressive. But just in case that other 20 percent comes into play, it’s probably best to be prepared in more substantial ways. Weather can be disastrous and deadly on rare occasions, and it’s frequently more than a mere inconvenience.
Jill Anonson, events solution manager for ITA Group, relates her experiences dealing with the impacts of hurricanes Irma and Harvey this year.
“From a big-picture perspective, we maintained communication with a variety of customers regarding their upcoming site inspections and program operations, looking ahead for the next two years. We remained in constant contact with hoteliers and DMCs throughout the impacted areas.”
On Hurricane Irma: “We had multiple programs scheduled to operate during/immediately following the expected arrival of Irma to Florida. Our team coordinated with local and national resources to obtain the latest information on the storm tracker, airline impacts, etc. ITA Group recommended postponing those programs for the safety of all attendees. All ended up being force majeure situations. Two were immediately re-sourced in other locations; one for the same dates and one for a week later.
“We had an additional program impacted by the aftermath of Irma, making the contracted hotel unable to honor its contract due to damage. The program was re-sourced, for the original September dates, and contracted elsewhere. The entire program was reworked, with team members departing for the new location four days later.”
On Hurricane Harvey: “A client contacted us about supporting their disaster recovery efforts in Houston,” Anonson continues. “We began sourcing hotels, planning meals, transportation, communication protocols. Within 36 hours we had travel directors in Houston supporting the rooming and meals for 1,200 attendees, based in eight hotels, arriving to support their fellow employees, businesses and the community of Houston. Internally, the team managed weekly rooming lists and multiple hotels, as well as the continually changing scope of the recovery efforts. Daily executive summaries were provided to client leadership. This initiative operated for four weeks.”
Angela Baer, CMP, corporate meeting planner with Caterpillar Inc., had to work around flooding in India during Digging Deep 2015. She remembers, “We had an event that was supposed to have our group of 50 in New Delhi the first part of the week and in Chennai the second part. I had arranged everything in both locations including flights between the two cities to optimize our timeline, which was jam-packed.”
Logistics were complex. The group was visiting dealerships, doing community work, and guest speakers were scheduled in and out at both locations. “We were to finish the first part of our event Wednesday afternoon, fly from New Delhi to Chennai and start again at 8 a.m. Thursday. We heard on Monday that flooding had become serious, including in Chennai, but information wasn’t cohesive. The hotel said that it was not affected. The dealership said it was bad. Our corporate security said to ‘hold tight.’ ”
Baer immediately started working with the New Delhi hotel to get addition guest rooms and meeting space if necessary. “On Tuesday, corporate security said we could not fly to Chennai, so I had to officially get everyone a place to sleep, and meet and change everyone’s flights home within less than 24 hours. Ultimately we were able to accommodate almost everyone thanks to the hotel working hard to rearrange things. We also were able to get meeting space for the rest of the week and did our best to change it up from the start of the week by having meals outside on the lawn.”
There wasn’t really a plan B, but Baer says when she looks back, she doesn’t think that would have been viable. “For a plan B to actually work, I’d have had to book rooms and meeting space ‘just in case,’ ” she says. “That’s a double charge that wasn’t in the budget, and isn’t in most budgets. We don’t always get the luxury of a plan B.”
But that doesn’t mean not being prepared. “I always make a binder of safety information, which includes evacuation plans, take-cover plans and crisis plans,” Baer says. “Additionally, our contracts always include meeting-disruption and force majeure clauses. I also have information as to which staff members are attending and in what capacity, along with cell numbers. I include maps of the hotel, agendas and attendee information — including emergency contact info — so I can track down anyone attending anything at any time in the hotel and convention spaces.”
For full preparedness, Baer advises the following: “First, at your chosen location, have safety information for all attendees. This could be in the form of a safety briefing each day or info downloaded onto an app or provided manually at registration. Have designated staff to coordinate different aspects of the emergency plan. That might be one person to be in communication with the venue; one to be responsible for attendee communication and instructions via text, app alert, email or phone; and one responsible for checking attendee lists to make sure all are present and accounted for.”
Baer says there are many ways to break it down but the goal is to have a team in place so it doesn’t all fall on the shoulders of one meeting planner.
“Finally,” she adds, “breathe and be calm. You can’t control everything and people will be looking to you for reassurance. Just remember that your best friend is your contact at your venue. He or she will be able to best assist in an emergency.”
That definitely held true in New Delhi. “The hotel staff worked with us to make sure we had rooms and meeting space. They offered to do outside events even though that took more work, without any increase in charges, so our attendees would have a change of pace. It’s so important to work with professional places and people so this type of thing, when it happens, can have a happy ending.”
Joost de Meyer, CIS, CITE, CMM, ACC, MCC, chairman and CEO of First Incentive Travel, says living in Orlando for 19 years has made him well aware of the June-to-November hurricane season, prime time for many group programs.
“Fortunately,” he says, “with forecasts improving every year, we have the necessary information to make plans. When we organize an event in Florida at that time of year, we have a weather backup. We discuss the weather with our CSM or other contact in the hotel or venue, and they make the final call if we have to move the event inside.”
He says clients often wonder why an event has to be moved when the sky is blue and hardly any clouds are to be seen. “In Florida with the sea breezes from the west coast and east coast colliding, storms with heavy rain and thunder can develop quickly. At that time, the client is happy the event has moved.”
In 2004, planners in Florida were definitely put to the test. “We had three major hurricanes coming to Orlando,” de Meyer says, “so we had to pay attention to the weather.”
That meant following the local news and watching what local businesses were doing, especially the attraction parks. “When they announce that they’re closing the parks, it’s really bad,” he says.
“We always discuss with our clients what we will do in such an event to ensure everyone’s safety. If, for example, the program is almost finished and guests are flying home the next day, we discuss if it is better to fly the guests out earlier. Airports often close during hurricanes and it could take days before all participants can get home to their destinations.”
First Incentive Travel also books many cruises in combination with Miami, another city frequently impacted by hurricanes. “Ships may not be able to get into Miami in bad weather and could be diverted to another port, such as Cape Canaveral. In that case, when the city is safe again, we arrange to get guests back to Miami by coach in order to continue the original program.”
Weather-related itinerary changes can happen mid-cruise, too. “I had a site inspection with a client for a cruise in the Mediterranean,” de Meyer recalls. “We left Civitavecchia and the next harbor scheduled was Livorno for excursions to Florence. Because of strong winds, the captain decided to skip Livorno, stay at sea and continue to the next harbor. My client was so upset he asked for a meeting with the captain. He wanted to know why the ship couldn’t wait for better weather so he could go to Livorno the next day and visit Florence.”
Not surprising, the captain explained that safety and security of guests and crew are his first priority and altering the itinerary of the entire rest of the week so the client could go to Florence wasn’t an option.
While hurricanes, floods and other major weather disasters can and do cause disruptions to programs, research shows that major events are not the most frequent culprits.
“In a white paper on the Incentive Research Foundation’s 2016 Event Disruption Study,” de Meyer says, “one of the 10 critical findings on the causes and impacts of disruptions was that, according to planners, disruption is not always the result of those major events covered in media. In fact, the research found that the two most frequently occurring disruptions are weather-related events (38 percent) and vendor failures (28 percent). In general, of the business partners, airlines present the most frequent cause of disruptions through cancellations, delays and overbooking (61 percent).”
“My advice,” de Meyer says, “is to always be prepared, have a plan B, follow the news on weather channels and give your client constant updates. Communication with all parties involved is key!”
Heather Brown, DMCP, CMP, and Kellie Walker, DMCP with AlliedPRA Chicago can attest to the fact that even moderate weather changes can impact an event — especially in Chicago in winter.
Brown, the group’s senior national sales manager, and Walker, event producer, worked together on an event for an East Coast pharmaceutical company in January 2016.
“With any January program in Chicago, the weather can be tricky,” Walker says. “In this case, the company wanted its 300 guests to be free to walk or take transfers from their hotel to Soldier Field, about 2.5 miles away. In addition, the planner wanted the guests to take a group photo at Solider Field.”
Brown notes that communication related to routing and weather began at the start of the sales process. “Then we carefully watched the weather as it got close to time, and we had a plan in place. We arranged for extra staffing in the venue if it snowed. It did, and we utilized that extra staff to clear the seating and field for the photo.”
Walker says they also arranged extra motor coaches for transport from the hotel to the field. “That helped ease the stress of people walking two-plus miles in the snow (we had always planned on transporting guests, not having them walk),” she says. “And the additional staff at Soldier Field was also prepared to gather guests at a different location within the venue for the group photo if necessary.”
In addition to specific plans desired by a client for an event, Walker and Brown say they always have an evacuation and crisis-communication plan. “Our team and our venue supplier partners meet about this prior to each program operating,” Brown says.
Contracts also include force majeure and disruption-protection clauses, and there’s always an emergency-preparedness document that the entire team uses. “We have a yearly field-staff training that includes the critical touch points,” Walker notes.
When it comes to working effectively during a crisis, including changes in weather, Walker and Brown say it’s all about planning, preparation and safety. “Early on, discuss alternative options for weather,” they say. “Get your DMC or supplier contact’s emergency preparedness plans. In the weeks and days leading up to an event, keep an eye on the weather and know your contract’s terms and the dates when you need to pull the lever and make decisions. Finally, communication is key when onsite and guest safety is always the first priority.”
Brian D. Avery, managing member of Florida-based Event Safety Services, is an events, tourism and attractions operational safety expert witness, public speaker, trainer and consultant. He also notes the importance of good planning, monitoring and communication.
“Weather can have an adverse impact on outdoor and indoor events,” he says. “Event planners and attraction/venue operators have an obligation to monitor the weather and manage the event, attraction or venue based on what is known and reasonably foreseeable. When planning an event, the process of monitoring and alerting of weather-related conditions needs to be proactive and continuous.”
A good example is a well-publicized Virgin Galactic event in Mojave that required the use of temporary structures. “I was not involved with it,” Avery notes, “however it covers numerous elements of planning correctly and provides insight into what could have been a catastrophic and deadly matter. They started monitoring for weather about 10 days out and appropriately planned for a possible evacuation. Considering the remoteness of the event, that required some creative thinking. They opted to have buses available to evacuate guests. It was an expensive solution, but considering the alternative it was a brilliant solution.”
On the day of the event, wind exceeded the recommended rating of the tent, and an evacuation to the buses was ordered. “The tent collapsed but the people were safe,” Avery says.
The event continued after the weather calmed down. “This is an example of understanding the environment, the capabilities of the equipment and structures, planning for what is possible — sometimes probable —and valuing and having the resources to protect the event-goers,” he says.
Unfortunately, Avery often sees the disastrous results of improper planning. “I have over 25 years of experience in the events, tourism and attractions industry,” he says. “My background is comprised of three areas of expertise: risk and safety management, event design/execution and education. I develop policies and procedures and provide training on numerous risk-management-related considerations, including weather matters.
“However, I am typically involved with the negative and costly impact of a failure to plan. Many planners and venues fail to address these concerns discussed, often believing incorrectly that someone else in the process has addressed them. As a result, I am engaged as an expert witness assisting in both plaintiff and defense matters regarding a failure to plan or adhere to readily available standards and practices.”
Avery cautions that contingency planning is a vital part of event success and should always be a priority. “Established policies and procedures need to be in place to address the monitoring of weather, announcements, movement of people (shelters or closure), cessation of activities/attractions, removal of equipment and more. You need an organized and managed system to effectively address emergencies and minimize disruptions. Planners and venue operators should use readily available policies and procedures to address situations that are likely to impact an event. Additionally, they need to obtain site-specific information in order to address concerns that are relevant to that location. It’s very important to familiarize staff, vendors and attendees of concerns, especially if they are not familiar with them or the location.”
Avery provides a free 219-page emergency disaster guidebook that addresses many of the major considerations an event planner or venue operator will encounter. You can get it by going to eventsafetyservices.com/emergency-planning-guide.
While most planners do coordinate with venues and use venues’ emergency plans, Avery says that’s not enough. “Planners must ensure that these plans address the necessary fundamentals established by planners themselves, a checklist of sorts such as tornados in the Midwest and South, earthquakes in the West, wind and lightning, temporary structures everywhere, hurricanes from June to November near coastal cities, etc.”
Communication is critical. “Event planners and/or venue operators need to have a clearly defined process on how to alert and inform people,” he says. And although it’s a great idea to have force majeure clauses in contracts, that also isn’t necessarily enough.
“Make sure your contracts are evaluated by qualified people in the field to ensure you are covered for what you think you are covered for.”
The same goes for insurance. “You are buying insurance to cover a potential loss,” Avery says. “The loss needs to outweigh the premium — usually significantly —and you need to understand what you are willing and able to lose. I could insure myself right out of business if I took advantage of every policy on the market for our industry. Much of it is expensive and unnecessary. We must take a calculated look at what the costs are to insure something and what the potential losses might be. In some instances, it’s smarter to self-insure, in others it is a no brainer to buy a policy. It is all about the math and the cost benefit of having or not having a policy.
“Beyond the finances,” he continues, “it’s crucial to know what is covered and what is not. Insurance companies can be artful at crafting complicated documents, including contracts. My advice is to hire an attorney familiar with your business goals to make sure you’re covered for what you need. I’ve seen numerous situations where exemptions excluded aspects that prevented coverage from kicking in and resulted in a loss of premiums and damages.”
Avery says the bottom line is that planners must know what they are buying. “For example, a hurricane policy for the beginning of June in Florida statistically is a not a good purchase. Even though hurricane season starts in June, I recall only one named storm in the last 50-plus years hitting the U.S. in June. But September? That’s another story.”
Diane Drey, manager, travel direction, at ITA Group also notes that insurance plans must be carefully evaluated because they don’t all provide enough value to warrant the investment.
As part of its comprehensive incentive and event services, ITA Group provides destination risk assessment and continuous monitoring, evacuation plans for all program operations, contingency and backup plans prior to arrival at the destination, and crisis management procedures and framework.
She recalls a program in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico cancelled due to a hurricane and one in Tokyo for which all stateside flights were cancelled due to weather just hours before departure. In addition to the complex logistics of getting attendees out of a hurricane zone and making alternate travel arrangements in the middle of the night to move Tokyo-bound attendees at 4 a.m. to another airport so they could depart on time, she says mitigating risk comes down to having emergency plans in place and constant communication.
“Always have an evacuation plan to ensure details are in place before a high-stress situation occurs. Always have a crisis communication plan in place and always include force majeure and needed protection clauses in contracts. In addition,” she adds, “there should be an existing Travel Incident Response Team that is not onsite to provide guidance, direction and oversight for all crisis-management situations.”
Having all of this is in place prior to programs, Drey says, “allows teams to focus on the situation, not overarching procedures.”
In the end, meeting professionals all agree on this point: Successful crisis management is reliant on three critical elements: Planning, planning, planning. C&IT