One City's Loss is Another's Gain

(Originally published September 26, 2005)

Many meetings were a perfect fit for the historical, culturally vibrant and gaming-rich areas of southeastern Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

But now that upcoming meetings scheduled for those areas must move, where are they going?

In the scramble for space, they are looking far and wide. The initial go-to destinations — Las Vegas, Houston, Dallas —were predictable, but as they fill to capacity, many cities are discovering that the Gulf Coast's bane can be their boon. (It should be noted, though, that most cities are setting aside some portion of the revenue received from these meetings for various hurricane relief efforts.)

Where else are groups moving? Just about everywhere: mega-destinations like Chicago and Orlando; other large cities such as Atlanta; mid-size ones including Memphis, Kansas City and Austin; smaller cities like Shreveport and Myrtle Beach; and gaming locales like Tunica, Atlantic City and Reno. And the list goes on.

"There were a lot of groups that considered us along with New Orleans," said Danna Lilly, corporate sales manager with the Myrtle Beach CVB, so she was not shocked by the flurry of panicked phone calls she received after Katrina.

"It's more the small to mid-size groups, because we can't accommodate the large groups that first-tier cities can," Lilly said. She noted that the immediate focus is on groups that need to re-book for the rest of 2005. "We're getting a lot of phone calls," she said. "Date flexibility and the size of the groups are determining whether we can place them."

Those issues are vexing many groups. When interviewed in mid-September, Anne Coggins, sales manager for meetings and conventions with the CVB in Tunica, Miss. — a competitor of the Mississippi Gulf Coast for groups attracted by gaming — said she had handled nine leads in the past couple of days alone.

Some groups are rebooking in Tunica directly through sister properties of the ones with which they had originally booked on the Gulf Coast.

"It's going to be a zoo here for awhile, and it's still early," Coggins said. "We want to keep as much business in the state as we can." However, there is concern because Tunica is nearly reaching capacity, having had a fairly full calendar prior to Katrina.

Many groups cannot change their dates, so Coggins has found that some are downsizing their meetings in order to find a home, or canceling altogether. She added that she is working with a number of groups looking to relocate from the Gulf Coast for 2006 meetings.

Also, many of the groups Coggins has been working with are regional, and their meetings change states from year to year. Where this was Mississippi's year, planners are trying to remain in-state whenever possible, or at least relocate within the South.

That trend also was noticed by Cynthia Maddox, director of communications with the CVB in Austin, a city reminiscent of New Orleans in some respects with its appreciation for music and the arts.

Maddox said most displaced groups the Austin CVB has spoken with seem to want to remain in the South. How many of them Austin will be able to accommodate is unclear, however, because the city at press time had 4,000 Katrina survivors housed in its convention center.

"We're in a holding pattern," said Maddox. "We honestly do not know when evacuees will leave." To date, she said the city had been successful at moving all affected events at the convention center elsewhere within the city.

Houston is also housing those affected by Katrina — both large numbers of evacuees and a sizable amount of displaced group business.

"We've got the accommodations; it's about adjusting details at this point," said Jordy Tollett, president and CEO of the Greater Houston CVB, although he also commented that "we're not going to be able to take everything" that is interested in moving to Houston.

Observed Robert Russell II, a Detroit-based gaming analyst, "We're hearing a lot about Texas because of its proximity to the hurricane-damaged areas, but there will be other cities that we don't think of as traditional convention cities that will win from this."

He added, "This isn't a normal disruption from a competitive-advantage standpoint. Any city can be put in this position, whether because of a natural disaster or a terrorist event."

Russell sees gaming as a secondary reason to choose a destination for a relocated meeting.

"I don't think gaming is pushing one destination over another. People pick a city first for cost, then second to that are ancillary benefits, including casinos."

It was Las Vegas, however, that received the first and largest wave of inquiries from displaced meetings, a logical choice given the number of rooms and amount of meeting space in the city.

"We've been contacted by about 45 groups thus far," said Erika Yowell, spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, in mid-September. "We're not certain that we will be able to accommodate all of these groups, but we're working with the resort community and scrambling to do what we can."

Florida is so often distressed by hurricanes that its cities know how problematic storms can be for groups. Orlando saw the opportunities created by Katrina and jumped on prospective business, but Bill Peeper, chief executive of the city's CVB, said he took no pleasure in doing so.

New Orleans has been clear that other destinations should feel free to proactively help displaced groups, but Orlando was in talks with groups even before that was communicated.

"We were not working with the New Orleans CVB at all," said Peeper. "By the time we heard from them we were well into discussions with groups."

In one day, he said, "We had three groups call to say their management wanted them to put together a contingency plan. And the right thing to do from a business standpoint is to have a contingency, even though no one wants to.

"Groups have to carry on and do business, but no one is enjoying this. It's hard to do what you need to do as a businessperson, and say that the right thing is to pick up the phone and call clients to see what their plans are in light of this disaster, understanding that I as well as they have friends and colleagues in that city."

The National Business Aviation Association has moved its 30,000-attendee November meeting to Orlando. The CVB also has been in talks with a number of major medical and corporate meetings.

Reports from cities varied on how far out rescheduled groups are interested in booking. Some said primarily through the end of 2005; others said as far out as two years, plus multi-year bookings.

In the end, flexibility is paramount, to whatever extent it is an option for groups. While some find it nearly impossible to adjust dates or needs, planners are doing what they can.

"Once they get over that they have a lot of work to do [to move or reschedule a meeting], they are really into it and you find that they are very flexible," said Tollett.

Cities are following suit — squeezing groups into narrow holes in the calendar and juggling details.

"Because we know what these groups are going through, we're flat-out asking what we can do," said Rob Enriquez, executive director of sales at the Reno-Sparks CVB. "They have meetings and they have spent a lot of money, so if we can help we are looking to do so."