MeetingNews Cover Story: Eye of the Storm

New York—The tornado that struck Atlanta on March 14 had it in for the city's group business. It landed right in the convention corridor, shattering significant portions of the glass exteriors of the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) and two key convention hotels, the Omni at CNN Center and the Westin at Peachtree Plaza. There were no fatal accidents, and 12 people sustained only minor injuries (none were conventioneers), but groups that were in town felt the collateral damage.

"People were scared, they were terrified," said Sylvia Ratchford, executive director of the Hinman Dental Society of Atlanta, which was finishing day two of a three-day meeting when the tornado hit. Ratchford received reports of attendees witnessing glass flying about.

In addition to safety, planners safeguarded property. Exhibitors at shows that were under way—including Hinman and the Atlanta Home Show, which started one day before the tornado—left their possessions at the GWCC, expecting to return to the show floor on Saturday. Instead, they were not allowed to enter the building for several days.

"There were laptops, televisions, and computers everywhere," said Michael Schoppenhorst, show director of the home show, who is Atlanta-based but slept in an RV at the center. "You have to do everything you can to protect exhibitors' assets."

As cleanup got under way and repairs were just being scheduled, group customers booked for the duration of March—and possibly beyond—found themselves dramatically altering their plans, or mulling some tough decisions.

"There's been a lot of last-minute scrambling; we pretty much had to start from scratch," said Jennifer Tomb, director of conventions and meetings at the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA), in Washington, DC, which was scheduled to meet at the GWCC March 29-31.

The meeting instead took place in a smaller exhibition hall, and move-in changed from an all-day affair into a rushed overnight job. Also, due to the last-minute move-in, the show floor was closed during NPGA's opening night gala. In 2007, attendees were entertained in the exhibition hall while taking a sneak peak at booths. "It's a shame because people had a good time last year," said Tomb.

Though NPGA and other shows went forward—allowing GWCC officials to declare the building "open for business"—the building, as well as the impacted hotels, were far from normal at press time. Eight of GWCC's 12 exhibition halls—or two of the facility's three buildings—were closed because of the twister's impact, and one show scheduled for March 29 to April 1 was told to stay home because its hall suffered "significant damage," said a GWCC spokesperson.

Besides strewn glass, the building experienced water and roof damage. Still, on March 24, repairs were under way, and the spokesperson was "very confident" that the facility would be fully open within a few weeks. Omni at CNN Center officials are taking a more cautious approach. They have informed 71 groups scheduled to meet between March 14 and the end of April that at least part, if not all, of the property's room block may be out of commission, according to marketing director Mike Sullivan. That's because the hotel's 467-room South Tower is shut down while approximately 200 of the accommodations are being fitted with new windows.

The hotel's roof and prefunction space also need mending. The hotel, which has another 600 rooms in its North Tower, is helping planner customers move displaced attendees into other properties. Sullivan estimated that the Omni will lose approximately $1.5 million in group business due to the storm.

Meanwhile, the Westin at Peachtree Plaza was unable to cite a repair timeline.

"Over 200 rooms need new glass," said Ed Walls, general manager, "and that's a moving target."

Damages were still being assessed, he explained, and many nicks and cracks were found in the hotel's glass after the initial inspection. Walls declined to cite monetary losses from moving or canceling groups, and he claimed not to know how many groups will be displaced in the coming weeks or even months. "We're taking it day by day," he offered.

Industry attorney John Foster, who is based in Atlanta, described a downtown area with many closed-off streets and glass shards everywhere. He advised planners to think long and hard before coming into downtown Atlanta for programs in the immediate future.

"If I were a planner going in for something smaller than a citywide within the next two months, I'd be looking for another hotel out of the downtown area," he said.

"And if a hotel said it expected the group to show up, I'm not sure how that'd be ruled upon [in court]. Meeting attendees shouldn't have to stay at these hotels if they're uncomfortable."

Groups that had their meetings disrupted will be hit with losses. Hinman is refunding the cost of tickets purchased in advance for events scheduled for March 15, and the Atlanta Home Show is looking to reschedule soon, without collecting profit—the organizers simply want to create another selling opportunity for exhibitors, Schoppenhorst said. Many organizations, including these two, have event cancellation insurance, as do their exhibitors, so they may not feel much of a pinch. Still, there are lessons to be learned from this experience.

"This definitely made me aware of the need for a secondary plan," said Jason White, regional director of Keyence Corp., a Japan-based company that met at the Westin the weekend after the storm. Keyence had minimal disruptions, but hotel employees did have to direct drive-in attendees to the hotel amidst closed-off streets.

White was initially concerned about whether the meeting would go off and where else to go, but if he had to do it all over again, he'd still focus first on taking care of attendees. "Safety is always first," he said. "Meetings can wait.

Contact Rayna Katz at [email protected]

Originally published April 7, 2008