Imagine that you’re an event planner for a large nonprofit organization. Your group is all set to meet for its annual conference in one of the most expensive cities in the world, you have your rooms blocked out at an agreeable rate, and then a hotel strike elbows its way into your best-laid plans.

Since many, if not most, of your attendees won’t cross a picket line, you’re faced with a dilemma in that no matter what you do either your reputation or budget will take a hard hit.

This is the situation that faced Sean Gibbons, CEO of The Communications Network, a global community of more than 1,500 foundation and nonprofit communication leaders.

These communication professionals represent high-profile organizations such as the Ford Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and World Wildlife Fund.

The Communication Network’s annual conference, ComNet18, was scheduled for October 10-12, 2018, at San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis and then UNITE HERE’s Marriott strike abruptly entered into the equation. Gibbons had to react fast, and in the end decided to risk the attrition hit by allowing attendees to cancel out their rooms while booking in other venues for meeting space and guest rooms.

“[We lost] at least $300k—more likely something closer to double that amount,” Gibbons said. “We paid for, in effect, two conferences, and at least right now we are liable to the Westin St. Francis/Marriott International for all of our room block rooms that went unused as conference attendees moved elsewhere, minus attrition—we had sold out our block as we do each year.

“Roughly two-thirds of the folks opted for Airbnb, another hotel or other accommodations,” he added.

Think Fast: ComNet18 Had Less Than a Week to Move Venues

ComNet18 was expected to draw approximately 1,000 attendees, so Gibbons and his team had to think quick when the strike at several of San Francisco’s Marriott properties, including The Westin St. Francis, was announced on Thursday, October 4, 2018, just six days before the network’s annual event.

“The strike opened the Thursday prior [to the week of the event],” Gibbons said. “We spent the weekend trying to gauge whether this was a brief interruption or not. When we first alerted folks that the strike was underway, we saw a pretty swift number of people leaving the hotel.”

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The Communications Network decided that the show must go on, this was its annual event after all and many of its members also produce events for a living, so the planning team started examining options.

“The challenge before us was when we knew the strike was underway, so we had to come up with a plan B—anything from moving the conference to a field in Golden Gate Park, and getting a permit to do that, or [moving it] to The Presidio,” Gibbons said.

“A San Francisco native noticed one of the theaters was dark that week and recommended we give them a call, so we ended up landing at the historic Curran theater in downtown San Francisco,” he added. “The Hotel Nikko was not on strike, so they had overnight [guest rooms] and rooms for meetings.

ComNet18 Conversation at Curran Theater in San Francisco

ComNet18 Conference at Curran Theater in San Francisco

Biting the Bullet: Absorbing Attrition for the Greater Good

In the end, attrition penalties were a cost The Communications Network was willing to risk, said Gibbons.

He added the reason they didn’t fight the attrition penalty was that, although under their contract terms they could have (even though they did face some exposure), they didn’t want to subject attendees to last-minute San Francisco hotel rates that were upwards of $700.

Gibbons said that The Communications Network is still in negotiations with The Westin St. Francis at press time (October 30, 2018) about any penalties that may be accessed.

“Attendees would be subject to market rates if we get out of the contract,” Gibbons said. “We couldn’t do that to anybody, not in good conscience. It inconvenienced hundreds of people globally—asking people to hang with us and recalibrate their lodging was a challenge.”

Gibbons said the meeting only lost about 10 percent of its attendees—a big win—and some of its members even got creative and crashed with people they knew in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Planner Takeaway: Know and Respect What Your Organization Stands For

For many nonprofit organizations such as The Communications Network, members hold the labor movement as near and dear to their own efforts and ethos.

“[Our] personal bias is that people want to respect the dignity of workers, and that’s the decision we came to,” Gibbons said. “We made the right decision, but there was plenty of ambiguity in the days prior.”

UNITE HERE Union Members on Strike in San Francisco, Credit: Lori Tenny

UNITE HERE Union Members on Strike in San Francisco, Credit: Lori Tenny

Now that the excitement is over, Gibbons said The Communications Network is reaching out to Marriott International to see if there’s a remedy that is amenable to both parties. The organization is stressing the importance of the social sector, including foundations and nonprofits, that he said contribute about 10 percent of the U.S. GDP—“It’s bigger than Hollywood”—and hosts a lot of meetings and events.

“We’re hopeful that Marriott is going to see the value in coming to some sort of agreement with us that is reasonable,” Gibbons said.

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