SAE Goes on With the Show "You could see the flames for miles," says Gretchen Stokes, division manager, SAE Expositions, Society of Automotive Engineers, Warrendale, Penn. It was after midnight when Stokes got the call: Cobo Conference & Exhibition Center, site of the SAE show in March, was on fire. It was the night before the final day of the show--a convention that attracts 46,000 people. Arriving on the scene, she determined that her goal was to open the next day, business as usual. Firefighters extinguished the flames by 3 a.m. (The cause of the fire was still being investigated at press time.) But then it took all night, and superb teamwork, for Stokes to accomplish her mission. Here's how she did it:

* She set up a command post in Cobo's lower level, where it was safe, so her team had access to phone, fax, and computer. Communication was key, Stokes says.

* One person was designated as the media contact. "We didn't want thousands of people talking to the media," Stokes says. "We wanted to give clear, consistent communications."

* CVB staffers called hotels, instructing their personnel to slip notes under attendees' doors, advising them to sit tight and listen for radio and TV updates on the situation.

* The hotel across the street from Cobo came to the rescue, opening its ballroom as a shelter for people who arrived not knowing about the fire.

* At 11:15 a.m., the fire department gave the OK to enter the exhibition hall. Union workers, who Stokes had kept on site even though there was nothing for them to do for hours, had just one hour to clean up the smoke and ash.

The show doors opened at 1 p.m. And attendees came--lots of them. "It was amazing, says Stokes. "You just did not know if people had bagged it and gone home." They were also very understanding, she adds. She had lost about four hours of the day--a small loss considering what could have happened. She credits everyone involved for the feat: the unions, Cobo Hall, the general contractor, Hoffend Xposition, Inc., the CVB, hotels, and her staff.

"SAE means something [to Detroit and to Cobo Hall], and this city really proved that, by partnering with us," she remarks."

Not only did Cobo Hall manage to open the next day, but even with the gas in the building shut off, the food service company in the building found a way to cook about 5,000 meals for the group's final night banquet.