ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga.
Meetings industry attorney Tyra Hilliard is advising meeting planners who may have events affected by Hurricane Harvey to reach out to the facilities they’ve contracted with to gauge whether their meeting can still be held, and what liability they may or may not face in the case of cancellation.
“In my mind, I mentally draw concentric circles around Houston,” Hilliard said. “You know Houston is paralyzed and hundreds of miles around that are paralyzed—it’s beyond that you get into legal gray areas.”
Hilliard said she’s heard that as many as 5,000 flights have been canceled, which will cause a large degree of disruption throughout the U.S. flight grid.
“When any flights are canceled, especially that many, it’s going to cause disruptions all across the U.S.,” she said, adding that while areas within a couple of hundred miles of Houston are “no-brainer” force majeure situations, areas such as San Antonio and Dallas, Shreveport, La., and even New Orleans may become relevant in a force majeure aspect.
Another sticky legal situation may be created by the use of convention centers in Houston and Dallas as emergency relief areas.
“When we use clauses in contracts like conflicting groups, you want to be sympathetic, but that’s a whole lot of strangers there when you’re bringing in your C-level attendees,” she said, adding that many attendees may choose not to travel, even by car, to areas they think have been affected.
“First contact the venue or whoever you’re contracting with to see where they stand,” Hilliard advised. “In cases like this, venues are usually pretty generous about letting people get out of contracts for force majeure, and then depending on what happens there, planners should then contact their lawyer. And their insurance provider is just as important to get in contact with as their lawyer, because they may have to use their event cancellation insurance.”
Besides the potential for legal issues surrounding the cancellation of meetings, Hilliard stressed that the meetings and conventions industry is pretty resilient when it comes to recovering after natural disasters.
“People are much more resilient with natural disasters than they are with terrorism events,” she pointed out. “It’s a hard time, but it will turn around. Soon it will be ‘Let’s take our meetings to Houston’ [to help with the city’s recovery effort].”