Southeast's Record Storm Season

Parts of Florida and the Caribbean are still recovering from this year's vicious hurricane season, which was far worse than usual. At presstime, two named storms, Charley and Frances, had already slammed the Sunshine State, with damages from the latter estimated at $2 to $4 billion, and a third, Ivan, poised to strike. Nearly three million Floridians were ordered to leave their homes in the state's largest evacuation ever, and power outages affected up to six million.

But good luck and good planning prevented the storms from devastating local meetings. In Orlando, all major venues except the Kennedy Space Center were unharmed, and tourism officials from Jacksonville to Naples reported that damage was less than expected. Many planners in Hurricane Charley's path reported full cooperation from suppliers, whether they decided to postpone, relocate, or go forward with events.

Hurricane Charley blew in on Friday, August 13th, but organizers of gatherings from large to small said they enjoyed good luck despite the superstitious date. Promise Keepers, the Denver-based Christian men's association, had 11,000 registered for its August 13-14 conference at Orlando's T.D. Waterhouse Arena; forced to cancel at the last minute, spokesman Steve Chavis said that thanks to the arena's outstanding efforts, he managed to rebook the meeting for November.

In Naples, independent planner Jeannie Strampel convinced her client, Chicago-based ABN AMRO Bank, to transfer its four-day sales conference from LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort so that it could house some of the 6,000 arriving relief workers. On 24 hours' notice, Strampel moved the meeting to the Boca Raton Resort & Club. "We worked 40 hours straight, but in the end all the functions were flawless and every attendee showed up," she says.

In Orlando, Cisco Systems planner Scott Tipple found himself caught by Charley with 45 attendees yet to arrive for his three-day, 75-person gathering at Disney's Contemporary Resort in Walt Disney World. Luckily, all arrived safely; with the help of Disney's staff, Tipple's meeting went forward with only minor disruptions. "My group commented that this was the first meeting we've had in four years that didn't have any problems," he remarks.

Other spots were not so lucky. Although most of the 700-island nation of the Bahamas sustained minimal damage in the storms, Grand Bahama Island was seriously affected by hurricane Frances, forcing the temporary closure of its airport and several properties, including the Westin at Our Lucaya, which is scheduled to re-open on November 1.

And the aftermath of the mean weather continued long after wind and rain dissipated. Now, meetings suppliers say they have to convince planners that affected areas are safe places to meet, even during hurricane season. "We're going to have to salvage the meetings industry in Florida," Nicki Grossman, of the Greater Fort Lauderdale CVB, told state tourism leaders in a conference call, according to The Miami Herald.

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