ON SUNDAY, AUGUST 29, Martha C. Craft may have been in church, but her mind — and her prayers — were in New Orleans. She knew that the city, bracing for the then-Category 5 impact of Hurricane Katrina, was in danger, and that, in turn, put Orkin's President's Club incentive trip in jeopardy.

She and her husband went to lunch, ran a few errands, went home, and turned on CNN, bracing for the worst.

While much of the world watched Mother Nature whipsaw New Orleans, Craft, who has meeting-planning responsibilities as part of her position as director of public relations and corporate communications for Atlanta-based Orkin Inc., was growing increasingly tense about her event, just three weeks away.

“My co-workers and I got on the phone late in the afternoon and we all said, ‘What in the world are we gonna do?’” Craft recalls. She called her incentive contact, Bill Callahan, Maritz vice president of sales, in St. Louis. “We were both watching CNN at the same time; we literally saw pieces of the Superdome breaking off and blowing into the Hyatt.”

That's when they realized that not only would they not be staying at the Hyatt, but there also would not be any other hotels that could take them. That Monday morning, while Callahan undertook the frantic process of finding an adequate replacement, Craft was called into a meeting with the presidents of Orkin and its holding company, Rollins. They told her to start looking for another place to go.

“Fortunately,” she says, “I hadn't waited for their permission; I just did it.”

Where to Go?

Orkin's President's Club is a four-day annual incentive trip in its 32nd year. Attendees include the pest control service's salespeople, service technicians, branch and regional management, as well as branch and regional staff and executives. They compete all year and come from all over North America. Each category has different contest criteria, and the competition is fierce throughout the year. About 65 percent of those in attendance are repeat winners.

The group — this year consisting of 330 winners and an almost equal number of guests — visits a different place every year. Past destinations have included Bermuda; Montréal; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

“Some of our winners are seasoned travelers, while others may never have flown before,” Craft says. “It's quite a mix of people, so we have to be sure to have something for everyone. We always plan activities that are native to the area we attend. For New Orleans, we had planned our welcome reception at Mardi Gras World, where all the parade floats are created and stored. Our activities included tours of the Garden District, cooking schools, a city tour that included some of the lovely old cemeteries, swamp tours, plantation tours, and a Mississippi paddleboat cruise.” The off-property evening was sure to be a highlight: a lovely dinner and dancing with a local Zydeco band.

It wouldn't be easy to match that. But over the next three days, Callahan searched through options in Texas, Arizona, Las Vegas, Boston, New York, Orlando, San Diego, Tucson, Atlantic City, Palm Springs, Seattle, Vail, and Colorado Springs. Orkin decided to be flexible about dates, searching for anything from the middle of September through October. “Once we had some properties that could accommodate our group during that time, I presented the options to our company president, and we compared them,” Craft says. “Many were eliminated because of existing travel and other commitments. Others were eliminated because they were in areas prone to additional hurricanes.” Finally, they decided on the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa in Scottsdale.

They stayed as close as possible to the original dates, September 14-18, moving the trip only a few days to September 18-22. “The dates and function space fit our needs best,” Callahan says. “We worked with the sales folks at the hotel in finalizing the space needed and arranged for a site inspection the first weekend of September.”

Orkin prefers boutique-style hotels for its events, but with the size of its groups, that can be difficult. The Biltmore actually fit the bill better than the Hyatt Regency New Orleans had. “The property was beautiful, and the staff bent over backward to help us with every detail,” she says.

Orkin used the resort's fabulous view as a backdrop for its welcome reception and dinner. Pre-selected activities from which attendees could choose included horseback riding, a river float, hiking, desert Jeep tours, trap and skeet shooting, a visit to the Heard Museum, and a Desert Botanical Garden tour. They could also choose a day of leisure.

“These were completely different activities from what we planned in New Orleans,” Craft says. “But they were native to where we were, so we kept with that strategy for choosing activities.”

The New Orleans — themed gifts that Orkin had planned to give attendees in New Orleans were not suitable as donations to hurricane victims, and there was not enough time to create new ones. So the company handed them out to the guests in Scottsdale. They each received a watch, a book of recipes from famous New Orleans restaurants, a CD-ROM of New Orleans jazz, a tote bag, and a disposable camera.

Act of God

There were no penalties assessed to Orkin under the “Act of God” clause in its hotel contract. “I don't anticipate penalties from the other New Orleans suppliers,” Callahan says, “but we will pay for out-of-pocket expenses the DMC incurred for the site inspection.”

As for airfare, Maritz immediately canceled confirmed itineraries and tickets. “Once we were able to confirm the new location, the participant records were ready to rebook,” Callahan says. “Most airlines were good about eliminating or reducing penalties. In turn, we tried to book the same percentage of the group on the original airlines. The penalties were for change fees and new classes of service, but again the airlines worked with us to minimize additional costs. Overall, it was a very smooth process.”

That is, except for the hundreds of confused winners, who started calling headquarters as soon as the storm hit.

“We immediately changed our voice-mail greetings to say that we were not going to New Orleans, but that no decision had been made regarding rescheduling,” Craft says. “We promised we would contact them as soon as something was decided. This was very helpful because we could concentrate on changing the destination instead of answering the phone — and it kept our participants informed.”

Once the destination and dates were decided, Craft sent an e-mail to everyone and put the information on Orkin's intranet. And, just to be sure, staff at the company's regional offices personally phoned each of the winners in their area to be sure they were aware of the change.

Almost as soon as they had announced the location, there was a new wrinkle: a mistake made in the dates the Biltmore gave Orkin. “The hotel said, ‘No, we can't do that date,’ and we had to move it. It was just too many people moving too fast,” Craft says.

However, the Biltmore acknowledged its error and granted the company some concessions to make up for it. “But it was just one more thing,” Craft says.

Orkin's Own Victims

Eight Orkin offices were directly affected by the storm. Four were back in business within two weeks, and the other four suffered only minor damage. The company's buildings in New Orleans were on higher ground; some employees and their families temporarily lived at the offices because they had lost their homes.

One of the company's incentive winners from New Orleans and his wife were displaced and moved in with relatives in Ohio. They evacuated with only the clothes on their backs and some shorts and T-shirts purchased from Kmart with Red Cross money. Although their home was still standing, it had been looted.

“He's a termite technician. He still wanted to attend the event, just to get away,” Craft says.

Orkin offered to purchase clothes for them to wear on the trip, including a suit for the winner and cocktail attire for his wife. “He was grateful for the offer, but didn't want any special treatment, stating that others were in a far worse position than they,” she says. To help people like him, the company established a Hurricane Relief Fund, which it heavily promoted in Scottsdale.

As of press time, Craft had still not heard from her New Orleans DMC or even her Hyatt Regency New Orleans hotel contact. (Maritz handled the details through Hyatt's corporate headquarters.) A local photographer Orkin had hired turned up in Dallas with her equipment intact and was delighted to be invited to the relocated event.

A few of the winners were concerned about celebrating when fellow employees were enduring such a tragedy. However, once the company's Hurricane Relief Fund efforts were publicized and they had a way to help their co-workers, they made plans to attend.

And of course, everyone was impressed by Craft's team and how they pulled together to make the incentive event happen.

“Maybe we were a little bit inconvenienced,” she says. “That doesn't begin to compare to people who lost their homes and businesses. We had to pull a couple of all-nighters. In the grand scheme of things, that wasn't much at all.”

What If?

Reshuffling the details and location of Orkin's President's Club worked out relatively smoothly on three weeks' notice when it was clear the hotel — and the city of New Orleans itself — would not even be accessible. But what if the program had been scheduled for New Orleans next summer or fall?

“We probably would have moved it just to be safe,” says Martha Craft, director of public relations and corporate communications for Atlanta-based Orkin Inc. “We likely would have had to make some decision early on (before this year's trip) because we produce a site announcement video for the next year's destination that we show to the winners on-site. The secret of the next year's destination is a huge one, and no one knows until we announce it to the winners.”

Where do you draw the line as far as waiting to take action and move a program?

“I think that's going to be different with each circumstance,” Craft says. “But the key thing is to communicate with participants about what's going on. Even when we didn't know what we were going to do, we told them that. We also told them when to expect an answer and how they would be told what that answer was.”

Will she rebook in New Orleans?

“Our trips change destinations every year, and we have already selected sites for 2006 and 2007,” she says. “Should New Orleans rebuild its tourism industry — as we sincerely hope it will — we will consider going back again in the future. I think our participants, who are a very supportive and thoughtful group of people, would appreciate the opportunity to help New Orleans get back on her feet.”