A hurricane is forecast to hit the location of your annual convention right around the time it's supposed to begin. What would you do in that situation? Meetings Today reached out to Kayla Williams, director of the VA’s Center for Women Veterans about its decision to end the 2017 National Women Veterans Summit in Houston early.
The 2017 National Women Veterans Summit was schedule for Aug. 25-26, 2017. The annual event ended after lunch on Aug. 25. Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25 stalled over South Texas on Aug. 26.
Could you tell us a little bit about your current job and what it entails?
I’m Director of the Center for Women Veterans, where I serve as primary advisor to the Secretary on Department policies, programs and legislation that affect women Veterans. In addition, I oversee the Center’s activities, which include monitoring and coordinating VA’s administration of health care, benefits services and programs for women Veterans. We also serve as an advocate for cultural transformation (both within VA and in the general public) in recognizing the service and contributions of women Veterans and Servicemembers; and raising awareness of the responsibility to treat women Veterans with dignity and respect.
[Beyond those responsibilities that come with the Director role], I'm also the Designated Federal Official for the VA Advisory Committee on Women Veterans, manage the VA’s Women Veterans Program and serve as an ex officio member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.
Did you help plan the 2017 National Women Veterans Summit? If so, is planning the event part of your normal job description? If not, who is in charge of planning the event?
I was the Senior Executive in charge of the Summit. Summits take place roughly every four years, and the Center Director runs them. Jeanette Mendy from the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs was also detailed to our office; she had lead on working with the contractor [NCI] and managing the detailed planning.
Is the National Women Veterans Summit typically held in Houston or was this a first? Could you tell me a little bit more about the event itself and what typically occurs at an event like this?
This is the first time the Summit was scheduled to be held outside D.C. The event was designed to include both plenary and breakout sessions on a variety of topics of interest to women Veterans and their supporters.
How many people were in attendance at/expected to attend the 2017 National Women Veterans Summit? Did you get any cancellations before the event due to the uncertain nature of the weather?
Over 800 were registered; we did begin to get cancellations on Thursday as the forecast began to worsen.
I imagine the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was watching the weather closely, with Hurricane Harvey fast-approaching. When was the decision made to end the Summit early?
Those of us on the ground at the Summit stayed in close contact with VA’s Integrated Operations Center and the Emergency Management team at the Houston VA Medical Center.
On their advice, we decided to cancel both Friday evening and all Saturday activities on Thursday afternoon; as the forecast continued to worsen, we chose Friday morning to halt at lunch on Friday.
How did the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs get the message out informing everyone that the event was ending early? Did you have to work to arrange transportation out of Houston for everyone?
We put information on the event website, sent email updates to all registered attendees and made announcements at the event itself. Since we had not arranged transportation to the event, we were not involved in arranging transportation from Houston.
I also noticed Houston Hyatt Regency was the host hotel for the 2017 Summit. Was the Houston Hyatt Regency greatly impacted by the storm or did it avoid damage?
As of the last update I got from the Houston Hyatt, they were able to stay operational during the storm.
Was there anyone at the Houston Hyatt Regency that helped out with the event? Did anyone at the hotel work with organizers when the decision was made to cancel the event?
We worked closely with management at the Houston Hyatt to monitor the situation and respond. They advised us on their expectations for how the storm could affect the hotel itself and the surrounding streets.
I was very impressed at the customer service they exhibited throughout; their commitment to ensuring guest safety was impressive. They were very flexible and accommodating of guests who needed to stay longer OR check out earlier than expected.
Were those in attendance at the 2017 National Women Veterans Summit paying for their own travel?
Attendees (outside of VA personnel) paid their own travel expenses.
Another Meetings Today editor mentioned she saw two women on the news who said they were in Houston for the 2017 Women Veterans Summit and they decided to stick around and help with flood relief. Do you know who these women were? Do you know of other attendees that decided to stick around?
Attendees were advised to make the decision on whether to evacuate or shelter in place based on their understanding of their own situation. VA assisted some attendees who could not safely evacuate.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Overall, I was very impressed with our contractor NCI and the Hyatt for staying calm and flexible during a challenging and rapidly-changing situation. I commend their commitment to putting safety first and adjusting to an unprecedented weather situation.