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What Hurricane-Impacted Planners Need to Do NOW

After Hurricane Ian made its way to Florida's Gulf coast earlier this year, meeting organizers may be in the throes of determining the next course of action for their planned events as Hurricane Nicole makes landfall in the Sunshine State. Major hurricanes, such as 2018's Hurricane Florence and 2019's Hurricane Dorian, can tear a swath of destruction in the areas they hit, forcing mass evacuations and catastrophic damage to property and often the loss of life. 

Aside from the toll major storms exact on residents of impacted areas, large gatherings of people—such as those present during a meeting or convention—are also in peril’s way. Be it canceled flights, closed facilities or just the reasonable fear of attendees to travel, meeting planners and the organizations they plan for need to take specific steps to protect their interests in the event of an event cancellation.

As hurricane season starts again, read through this advice from two meetings industry veterans, attorney and disaster mitigation and facility contract expert Tyra Warner, and Joan Eisenstodt, chief strategist of Eisenstodt Associates, who provide critical, immediate tips for planners and/or their attendees who may be negatively impacted by a major hurricane.

[Related: Meeting Planners Share Hurricane Stories]

Tyra Warner
Tyra Warner

Legal Expert Tyra Warner's Hurricane Tips for Planners

  • Review the force majeure language in your contract carefully. Does it allow you to terminate your contract without liability x days or weeks prior to your meeting if it appears an act of God is going to disrupt transportation or normal operations in the city? Or does it only allow a claim of force majeure if the disruption occurs on the day your meeting is supposed to start?
  • Contact your event cancellation insurance provider (if you have it) and discuss possible scenarios for both completely canceling your meeting and reduced numbers. Even if the weather has passed by the time your meeting is held and the city is ready to host your meeting, prospective attendees may be dealing with fallout where they live, flights may be delayed or canceled, and people may be displaced due to evacuations.
  • If you are able to hold your meeting in the destination safely in spite of the effects of the hurricane (say it has already passed and there is in fact damage but you want to proceed anyway), does your contract language allow for reduced or eliminated attrition if you choose to hold the meeting instead of invoking force majeure?
  • If you opt not to hold the meeting because of the hurricane, be sure both parties agree—is this a force majeure or is it a cancellation with damages? If you can't agree, you still need to make a decision to hold the meeting or not, but ideally, you'll come to a meeting of the minds before you pull the plug so both parties will be clear about the financial expectations. Remember that the impacts of the hurricane have to make it (depending on the language in your contract) "illegal, impossible, or commercially impracticable" to hold or host the meeting" and either party can claim force majeure.

For groups meeting in a destination that has been directly affected by the hurricane:

  • Monitor information from the destination's emergency services agency.
  • Even if you haven't previously been in contact with the destination marketing organization (DMO) for the area, now's the time. They will have a wider-angle view of what is going on, who else is meeting in the area and what solutions may already be in place for any challenges you may face.
  • Check with the facilities you are using to see if they were or are being used as shelters for displaced residents or emergency workers. Get assurances in writing about what this means, if anything, for your meeting space, traffic flow, entrances used, additional security, etc.
  • Consider extra security if you are meeting in a facility that has damage or is being partially used as a shelter where traffic flow from the public may be far more than what your group was expecting.
  • Consider adding a social activity to your program. Coordinate with local emergency services or a local charity to find out what attendees can bring or do while there to help with relief efforts. While the American Red Cross prefers monetary donations, other charities may be collecting goods or have volunteer activities.
  • Be sensitive to the challenges the local community is facing. While you may want to charge in and start demanding discounts and rebates from the facility for reduced services or damages to facilities, this is the time that we need to remember the “hospitality” part of our industry. Don't kick them when they are down. Remember that your event cancellation insurance can help cover expenses other than full cancellation to help the meeting go on as planned. These policies in the past have covered things like tarps to cover a hole in a convention center roof so a tradeshow could go on.
  • Use all your resources and negotiate with empathy.

[Related: Revisiting Risk Management as In-Person Meetings Return]

Meetings Industry Veteran Joan Eisenstodt’s Hurricane Tips for Planners

Joan Eisenstodt Headshot
Joan Eisenstodt
  • Even if your meeting is next week or the week after, ask your hotel what their back-up plans are for their buildings and their personnel.
  • Ask about generators.
  • Follow the emergency information for states and cities.

WHILE you are deciding what to do about upcoming meetings, do this:

  • Ask the hotel what their emergency plans are, including power, water, staffing, etc. 
  • Check your own emergency plan to see how you'd cover this if people are there (when do they begin arriving?) and must be sheltered in place.
  • Determine how to manage and care for those who may have arrived early.
  • Follow various airlines for updates on cancellations and waivers. If you aren't sure where your participants are traveling from, get the best idea.
  • Develop a statement for your website and for those who answer phones and serve as spokespeople to ensure a cohesive and current message is put forth.
  • Put in place policies (for refunds) to use if the meeting is not held.
  • Redo your emergency plan to reflect the current situation and discuss with all parties—internal staff, clients and vendors—to determine chain of command and timing.
  • Re-read your contracts for force majeure and cancellation and dual cancellation clauses to determine what is in effect.

Additional information and storm-tracking models are available via the National Hurricane Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

You can also follow NOAA's National Weather Service on Twitter at @NWS.

This story was originally published in September 2018 and was updated September 2022.

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About the author
Tyler Davidson | Editor, Vice President & Chief Content Director

Tyler Davidson has covered the travel trade for nearly 30 years. In his current role with Meetings Today, Tyler leads the editorial team on its mission to provide the best meetings content in the industry.