Late August and September 2017 will go down in infamy as months full of disasters that wreaked havoc on North America, from wildfires ravaging the western U.S. and massive earthquakes that rocked Mexico to two Category 5 hurricanes plowing into the Gulf Coast, with more seemingly on the way at press time.

While no one can plan for all of the contingencies that may impact meetings that have been planned months and sometimes years in advance, planners can arm themselves with concrete tactics to help ward off a truly catastrophic result, before, during and after disaster comes calling.

Planner Disaster Stories
In early September, Hurricane Irma was set to cut a path of destruction not only through the Caribbean, where many islands were catastrophically affected, but also the annual meeting of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors (NAIFA), set to be executed in Orlando Sept. 8-10, with some pre-events Sept. 6 and 7, by Diane Ramos, the association’s director–meetings, professional development and education.

NAIFA expected some 1,300 attendees from throughout the U.S. at its annual, which is an essential part of the 128-year-old organization because its bylaws demand a two-thirds vote for required official business to be enacted. Ramos was on the ground in Orlando when Irma came calling.

“Our CEO is from Orlando, so on his phone he had alerts,” Ramos said. “So the Thursday prior to Labor Day he sends a message, ‘Hey, there’s a hurricane that’s kind of brewing.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me—I’ve got 1,001 things to do!’

“Do we have our paperwork in order—of course we do,” Ramos added. “I have a copy of our contract, our insurance and our vendors’ information.”

At this point, the hotel was not ready to address the situation because the hurricane was still many days from landfall in Florida.

“I landed in Orlando on the afternoon of Monday the fourth,” Ramos said. “When we arrived it was steamy hot and we were looking at [the hurricane forecasts]. It was far off, and it looked like it was going to bounce off. Meanwhile, they were doing some construction on the facility, so I took a photo of it and kept asking if the bar was going to be open [for the meeting]. If we’re going to be on lockdown we’re going to need that bar open. I sent a photo to my boss and said I don’t remember when the construction of a bar was not the least of our worries!”

Then the alerts started coming in on her phone, with Florida Gov. Rick Scott announcing a state of emergency in 67 counties.

“My boss asked me if I could unofficially ask the hotel if there were other dates that would work if we had to move the meeting,” Ramos said. “After the alert came out, my boss said, ‘Now we can officially ask them.’”

Meeting volunteers and staff started arriving on Tuesday, Sept. 6, along with the association’s general council, vice president of communications and Ramos’ CEO. Ramos then sent an email to another facility asking if they had space for a meeting in November near the association’s D.C. area headquarters, in case they had to gather for the required voting.

“Everybody was working on an alternate plan for what we were going to do,” she said. “By the time everybody landed we didn’t have time to say hello to anybody. My CEO said we’re going to meet at 1 p.m., so I set up a ‘war room’ with tables, beverages and snacks. We had wired Internet in there and we made sure the outlets worked, because people needed to charge their phones and plug in laptops to get the Internet to receive information.”

Next, the association set up a meeting with representatives of the hotel in the war room, who were reluctant to agree that there were sufficient reasons to cancel the meeting.

“I’m pulling up my laptop to get any info I can, and CNN had a story that said it was the biggest storm ever tracked, with a cone of 400 square miles, and they had no idea of where it was going to hit and what was going to happen,” Ramos said. “I motioned for one of my executives to see, and took screen shots to show what I was finding at that very moment.

“The hotel said they could hold the meeting,” Ramos continued. “Members were canceling, speakers were canceling. We said we cannot have this meeting, and at that point the general council was talking to the person with the hotel, and said that in the contract this is inadvisable according to force majeure. The hotel person said there is no hurricane [yet], so there is not force majeure. We said we were canceling and we’re out of here.”