Association management and services company SmithBucklin had a number of meetings in the affected areas, and because of the experience of its planners and executive team, along with the buying power the firm represents, its associates successfully navigated the calamities.
Sara Haukap, director, event services, for SmithBucklin, had three events in Florida in the weeks following Hurricane Irma, including one in West Palm Beach Sept. 21 and two Orlando events in mid-October and November.
The meeting happening closest to Irma, in West Palm Beach, went on as scheduled, with only the pre-meeting golf event needing to be canceled. It was replaced with a CSR activity where volunteers assembled toiletry kits for residents affected by the hurricane.
The decision to move on with the meeting was based on the outreach Haukap had with her trusted suppliers in West Palm Beach, including the Discover The Palm Beaches FL tourism bureau and the meeting venues.
“We wanted to get statements to share with the clients, so they knew we were having the necessary conversations with people on the ground,” she said. “The bureau gave us updates on the airport and the streets, for moving people around, and a statement that moving forward with the event would not interfere with [relief] efforts.”
The West Palm Beach meeting was expected to draw up to 1,400 people, and at press time had not suffered adversely from cancellations, according to Haukap. Her other two Florida events have also not been hit by weak-kneed attendees.
Like everyone else interviewed for this story, Haukap stressed the need to have adequate cancellation insurance.
“You need outreach to your insurance provider so you can make sure you know the trigger points before anything happens,” she said, “and work with your people on the ground, as on-site inspections may not be feasible.”
Anita O’Boyle, director, event services for SmithBucklin, planned the Society of Incentive Travel Executives’ SITE Classic 2017 Sept. 13-16 in Los Cabos, Mexico, which had a number of people traveling from the incentive house hub of Florida (and two from Hurricane Harvey-hit Houston), and actually had three major storms impact the meeting: Lidia (which made landfall Sept. 1 about 225 miles north of Los Cabos), Norma (which approached approximately 185 miles south of Los Cabos during the meeting) and Irma.
“I’ve been in the business for 30 years and I’ve never had the weather impact me like this time,” O’Boyle said. “It was certainly one for the books!”
The fact that the meeting was being attended by hospitality industry professionals who were adept at rebooking flights —along with representatives from United, American and Delta airlines!—meant that cancellations were held to a minimum.
“These guys rallied,” O’Boyle said. “We had about 10 people from Florida that rebooked once the hurricane passed as soon as the airport opened, so they were on the first flights out to go to the meeting.”
O’Boyle’s strategies included working closely with the hotel—with which they had a force majeure clause—to provide real-time data in the rooms every day, and constantly updating the event’s mobile app, along with giving her cell number out to people so they didn’t randomly contact the hotels.
The only events that were affected were some fishing and snorkeling excursions, which local DMCs reinvented on the fly. According to O’Boyle, having senior staff “own” the situation was crucial.
“We had to acknowledge that this was not an optional discussion,” she said. “It really needs to be owned by a senior person on the staff to engage leadership when needed, to make the call and negotiate with the hotel.”
Carol McGury, vice president, event and education services for SmithBucklin, echoed that cancellation insurance is critical, as well as having a senior staff that can handle themselves calmly in an emergency.
“For each of our clients, we strongly recommend cancellation insurance—especially in hurricane season,” McGury said. “It’s something that’s always a client’s decision, but we make them put it in writing if they decline. It’s important that they understand the magnitude of the potential.”
Other top-level tips include to school the meeting team as to what happens if an incident does occur, and to get everything in writing as to why someone cancels.
“We have a full understanding of who does what,” she said, “and if there’s an ‘Act of God’ situation or security issue we bring a lot of third parties to help manage.”
SmithBucklin also utilizes a forecasting tool so its clients know the financial ramifications for various scenarios surrounding the cancellation or postponement of an event.
“You need the best information you can have because sometimes clients will react emotionally,” McGury said. “A thing like this can make or break an organization, so you want to make sure you have all of the information available.”