On the beach at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows on the Big Island of Hawaii, top salespeople from Physicians Mutual Insurance were enjoying the waning hours of a well-deserved incentive program. After a beachfront buffet including an imu ceremony (pig roast) and a picture-perfect sunset, many in the group were dancing to ukulele renditions of pop songs, enjoying a final mai tai on the beach and stargazing with a local astronomer.

Little did they know that, inside the hotel, one of the conference rooms had taken on the atmosphere of a war room. Kent Cisewski, account executive for Creative Group International, the Appleton, Wis.–based meeting and incentive company running the program, was holed up with his staff and hotel security. A tsunami was headed directly for the Big Island, the result of the magnitude 9 earthquake that had struck Japan hours earlier.

Information from the hotel was that a 10-foot wave, which would have put the first two floors of the hotel under water, was headed for the property. The hotel was putting its civil defense plan into action, arranging to evacuate guests to the golf course clubhouse, a quarter-mile back from the ocean and about 700 feet above sea level.

From Fun to Fear
Cisewski was charged with heading back to the beach to pull the plug on the party. He took the company’s top executives aside and filled them in on the situation. Then, within two minutes of when Hawaiian civil defense alarms were scheduled to start ringing across the island, he made his way to the stage with his trip director, Charlie McCoy, to alert the rest of the group.

“At 10 o’clock, very loud, obnoxious war-like horns were going to go off,” Cisewski recalls, “and I’ve got 145 people on the beach, two-and-a-half hours into a party, having a great time.”

His first challenge? Wresting the stage from the live band. “We couldn’t get the band to stop,” Cisewski recalls. “They thought we were intoxicated and wanted to dance on the stage.”

After cutting the power to the band, Cisewski and one of his trip directors informed the group of the gravity of the situation, and instructed them to head to their rooms to pack one small bag, containing whatever medications, water, and supplies they would need for the next 12 hours, then meet in the lobby. “It went from a group having fun to a serious situation. Some people were crying,” Cisewski recalls.

Rob Reed, executive vice president for Omaha, Neb.–based Physicians Mutual, led the group in a short prayer, then everyone filed out. Reed says there was no question that CGI had the situation in hand. “They had a plan very quickly,” he says. “That gave me and the others on the management team a lot of confidence.”

That first step of the evacuation went smoothly. Attendees quickly returned to the hotel lobby and were then shuttled up to the golf course.

While CGI’s on-site staff was managing phase one, the company president and COO, Brad Langley, was wide awake and in full crisis mode at the home office, where it was 3 a.m. He logged on to a number of government and subscription-based services and local Hawaiian news broadcasts, trying to assess the potential for the wave and identifying if other employees and clients might also be in harm’s way. His information was different from the hotel’s; the reports he saw indicated the potential of a 52-foot wave with an 80-foot crest crashing down on the Big Island.

“We’re Not High Enough”
“Between the live news feed and the e-mail alerts I was getting, it gave a pretty good picture of the entire scenario,” Langley recalls. “I received an e-mail alert saying the wave could be 30 feet or more. I forwarded that, and Kent immediately called me and said, ‘Brad, we’re not high enough.’”

About that time, Langley was also seeing the first footage of the devastation in Japan. “Between those two, we decided it was much better to be on the safer side and move them higher if at all feasible.”
That was easier said than done. Police had started to restrict movement around the island in preparation for the wave, so shuttling back and forth wouldn’t be an option. And the Physicians Mutual group was now mixed in with all the other hotel guests at the clubhouse, making it difficult to move without causing a panic.

“We needed a Plan B, and we needed it as soon as possible,” Cisewski says. “We didn’t have enough buses, we didn’t have a place to go, and we didn’t have enough time.”

What they did have was an incredibly well-connected DMC, Weil and Associates, on the ground. Within 10 minutes, Kanara Woodford, director of sales for Weil, had two more buses for the group and had arranged for Waikoloa Elementary School, three miles inland and 900 feet above sea level, to open its library for the night.

Buses From Thin Air
“I swear she pulled those buses out of the air,” Cisewski says. “There are probably about 30 buses total on that whole island, and we suddenly had three of them.”

Cisewski had the buses pull up to the back of the resort so as not to alarm the other hotel guests, and he asked the Mauna Lani staff to load up the buses with enough food and water for a day and a half.

“We wanted to make sure we weren’t going to do anything to put the hotel in an odd situation, so we walked amongst our people and said we’d acquired another hotel and would be moving our group only for the night,” Cisewski says. Once people were on the bus, they revealed that there was no other hotel.

The group was glad to move further inland. “From the golf course, we could still see the ocean and hear it,” he says. “People were relieved to be farther away.”

Setting up camp on the floor of the elementary school library, many people were glued to a television set, where they were seeing the first photos of the wreckage in Japan. “It was really awkward,” Cisewski recalls. “Watching what happened in Japan really ratcheted up the tension. For the next three or four hours, there was a point where, honestly, we didn’t know if we were going to make it out of there.”

Smart Decisions
Fortunately, the wave that hit the Big Island of Hawaii was fairly small, and the Mauna Lani emerged unscathed except for some damage to its beachside restaurant. (Properties farther down the beach suffered more: The Four Seasons Hualalai is closed through April to repair damage mostly to the grounds and swimming pool, while the Kona Village Resort is closed indefinitely.) After an uncomfortable night, the group was allowed to return to the hotel.

Cisewski and Langley credit risk-preparedness planning that CGI launched after 9/11 with their ability to move quickly and ensure everyone was taken care of—right down to checklists letting them know which attendees had special needs or required daily medication. “Every step of the way, we had everyone on a checklist,” Cisewski says.

Back at the home office in Wisconsin, staff were able to contact people who were traveling to Kona from San Francisco for another program, as well as to quickly and efficiently rebook some Physicians attendees.

“After 9/11, it took us two days to locate and reach everyone,” Langley says. “This time, that process took 30 to 40 minutes.”

Now, the joke around the office is about the Physicians Mutual incentive trip in San Francisco next year. “I told them I hope the ground doesn’t shake,” Reed says.

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