by Leo Jakobson | April 01, 2015

Earlier this year, a blizzard -- pre-emptively nicknamed "Snowpocalypse" -- was headed for New York City. The National Weather Service had predicted more than two feet of snow overnight; flights were canceled across the board, the mayor ordered all non-emergency vehicles off the road, and the governor even ordered the subway system shut down for the first time in its 110-year history. Yet while Boston and other parts of the Northeast were clobbered, New York City ended up with between four and eight inches of snow, considerably less than dire.   

Nevertheless, the storm was severe enough to create emergency circumstances for a client of Patrick Sullivan, president of AlliedPRANew York, a destination and event management company running a midtown Manhattan meeting for 150 employees of a utility firm.

"Departure day was the day of the storm, and a lot of people did not get out," Sullivan says, recalling that some scheduled meetings had run into the late afternoon, and about half the attendees had to stay for them. The planner decided to add a group dinner but, faced with the expense of another night in the hotel for about 80 attendees, wanted to avoid adding an impromptu banquet room meal to his already swollen budget.

"We decided to go with an off-site restaurant, which would be much more affordable," Sullivan says. "It had to be within walking distance, because there were no vehicles moving on the street." The answer was Carmine's, the famous theater-district Italian restaurant, which had a private dining room capable of accommodating the group easily. "Carmine's is very casual, it's family style. It made it really kind of fun because it was just something they hadn't done before," notes Sullivan.

But even this choice had its challenges. Due to the ban on traffic and public transportation, the remaining attendees had to be escorted on the 20-minute walk through the snow to Carmine's by Sullivan's staff, one carrying a shovel to clear snow off of street corners. Rubber galoshes were purchased for several women without appropriate footwear.

"With emergencies, you have to be on your toes," Sullivan says. "You've got to keep the client informed on a constant basis, whether by text, phone, whatever. We're basically their right hand when they're in our city, so we've got to make it happen."

As a destination experts like Sullivan have proven time and again, the connections that local suppliers bring to the table are invaluable. Indeed, for extreme weather reasons alone they are a resource that meeting groups will be relying on more frequently in the future, according to the Reinsurance Association of America (RAA), a trade association representing reinsurance companies doing business in the United States. "Insurers see climate primarily through the prism of extreme natural events," said RAA President Frank Nutter while testifying before Congress about climate change in 2013, in the wake of huge losses caused by Hurricane Sandy. "In the 1980s, the average number of natural catastrophes globally was 400 events per year," he added. "In recent years, the average is 1,000."

When these events do occur, the best partner a planner has is the team of dedicated suppliers working the event. Here's a look at how hoteliers, Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs), and Destination Management Companies (DMCs) can save the day in an emergency.


The Hotels
In many ways, there is no partner more important than the hotelier when it comes to handling a crisis that interrupts a meeting. For one thing, between the room rates and the food-and-beverage costs, the hotel almost certainly accounts for the biggest part of the meeting's budget. For another, planners rely on their host properties for everything from ensuring the safety of attendees to helping reschedule events on the fly.

 

While New York City shut down in
preparation for a once-in-a-lifetime
"Snowpocalypse" in January,
all it got was a few inches

There are two basic types of emergency situations under which planners most often work with hotels: the need to cancel or reschedule a meeting shortly before it is due to take place, and having to adjust the event in real time when a crisis occurs. Factors that come into play at such times include the force majeure clause, which nullifies a contract when circumstances such as extreme weather or acts of war make the agreement impossible to fulfill, and the desire of hoteliers to make clients happy in order to win future business.

Most often, hotels will do what they can to work with planners, says Ed Netzhammer, senior vice president of operations for Omni Hotels & Resorts. "We don't want to force anyone to hold their meeting if they can't get their attendees to come for some reason," he says. "It's not going to do either of us any good, so we are going to figure out how to mitigate the damages and the pain of both sides."

This attitude was put to the test when news broke last September that a Dallas hospital was treating an Ebola patient, recalls Chad Enloe, director of sales at the Omni Dallas Hotel. With his phone ringing off the hook, he says, "It felt like meeting planners had the impression we were coming to work in hazmat suits."

The news broke on a Tuesday and by Friday, a major national bank cancelled a big meeting scheduled to begin on Monday at the hotel. "We do quite a bit of business with this bank, and the meeting planner is someone whom I've worked with for years," Netzhammer recalls. "She said, 'My people are too nervous, they're not going to show up.' But just on her word, we knew that the next year she would bring us business that would more than make up for what they pulled at the last minute."

In the end, he let six other clients who asked out of meetings cancel without penalty.

"Every single contract had a clause in it that they owed me cancellation penalties for their doing this," Netzhammer notes. "We would have won every single one of them if we went to court. But that short-term win would have been outweighed by the long-term loss."

That's an attitude that benefits planners as well as hoteliers, says Meg Proskey, Maritz Travel's vice president of experience design. "Our first preference is always to try to rebook at the same property," says Proskey, who until recently was the point-person for emergency planning at Maritz. "We look at where we are from an attrition or cancellation standpoint and then really try to negotiate to say if we rebook this, how can we mitigate the damages? Also, we have a lot of clients, so we also might have other options to fill the hole."