What to Do When Disaster Strikes Before Your Meeting

Meg Prosky

Meg Proskey, vice president of air, registration, and technology for Maritz Travel, is no stranger to emergency situations. Over the course of her 19 years at Maritz Travel, she’s seen a number of disasters and emergencies — from September 11th to the wildfires that consumed Colorado last summer. The key, she says, to weathering the storm is to always have a master plan in place, and to modify it accordingly to each client.

“We have a disaster emergency preparedness plan that we have, and then we also put together an individual one for each program,” Proskey explains. “My advice for any meeting planner or organizer is this: always makes sure that there is a plan, and make sure there’s awareness of it.” She says that while emergencies are rare, that doesn’t mean they cannot happen. “It’s important for everyone to think about emergency preparedness; it doesn’t happen often, but it is so incredibly valuable.”

Jacqueline Fisher, national account manager for Experient concurs. “You can’t do anything about a natural disaster but what counts is being there to jump in when a problem arises.” 

During Hurricane Sandy last October, Fisher’s client, Feld Entertainment, was unable to stay at the Long Island Marriott as planned because of the hurricane. “We kept trying to confirm the 65-room reservation with them in the days leading up to Sandy, because we knew Sandy was coming, but the morning of Sunday, Oct.28, the hotel pulled the clause and we had to find them a home for the whole week since their show was scheduled for the following week at Nassau Stadium. “ The clients-the folks behind “Disney on Ice” were without a place to stay, with a catastrophic storm looming in the distance. With her team, Fisher contacted 135 hotels in the local area and were finally able to split the group into two, eventually booking the entire group at the Marriott Marquis in New York and later, a hotel in Connecticut. One week later, the show did go on, with success. “I think this showed the value of the relationships that we have. We still managed to make our client’s event possible and they didn’t have to change their operations. In short, they saw us as part of their team.”

Proskey’s advice to other meeting organizers facing similar situations? “Ask yourself who the stakeholders are and who’s involved in the decision making? Identify your partners, from the hotels and the DMCs to partners like Maritz. The last thing you want is for anything to become a panic situation,” Proskey says.

A few years ago, in Mexico, Proskey had a group of approximately 300 attendees who were right in the eye of a wrathful hurricane. Getting her attendees to safety was of the utmost priority. “The hurricane was about to hit, and we had to work with the hotel and ground suppliers to book rooms for them at a more inland property, and arrange the transportation for them, too,” she says. The incident, she says, sheds light on the fact that meeting organizers must always pay attention to weather patterns and monitor any situation — whether a major threat or not —very carefully. 

Major natural disasters like a hurricane also have a ripple effect when it comes to disruptions. “Air travel was also disrupted, so we resorted to having charter flights to get everyone out; otherwise, they would have been stranded for two to three days like everyone else.”

Communication throughout is also key. “Whether you’re dealing with a hurricane or a wildfire, you always need to have a way to stay connected with the staff who are on site and to be able to use resources from your home office to take care of everything else,” Proskey says. “The on-site team can work with the clients to keep everyone informed, and the external staff can reach out, helping to field phone calls from loved ones back home, letting them know that everyone is safe.”

Communicating with individual attendees is extremely important, she adds. When one of her Hawaii-based incentive programs was affected by the giant tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011, Proskey said that she and her team contacted each and every single attendee to let them know about the change in location, since the hotel they had originally contracted with had to close suddenly for structural reasons. “We worked with the DMC there and engaged our travel buyer here and secured rooms with another property and put together an agenda so that by the time the clients landed and did a quick site inspection, we were good to go,” she says. “We really wanted to make sure that the attendee experience would be the same and that showed in the positive rave reviews we got at the end of the incentive program.”