It was Shaping up to be Securian's “greatest convention ever,” says Koleen Roach, director, recognition and conference planning, Securian Financial Group, St. Paul, Minn.
The bi-annual National Sales Convention, held May 4 to 7 at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort in Palm Desert, Calif., for more than 1,000 attendees, began “flawlessly,” Roach recalls.
But, in what was to become a national news event, things went awry on Saturday, May 6, when two attendees who participated in an aerial tram tour of the San Jacinto Mountains failed to return with the rest of the tour group.
Roach used an outside tour company, West Coast Transportation and Events, which she subcontracted through her destination management company to provide all ground transportation for the meeting as well as group activities for that Saturday afternoon. West Coast registered the 43 attendees who elected to go on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Accordingly, Roach did not receive the final attendee list for the excursion — and she was not informed that Dallas-based financial advisor Brandon Day, 28, and his guest Gina Allen, 24, did not come back with the rest of the group.
The aerial tram climbs to an elevation of more than 8,500 feet, where at Mountain Station passengers can visit Mount San Jacinto State Park Visitor Center, a restaurant, gift shop, and snack bar while enjoying spectacular views of the desert below. Visitors can also access nearby hiking trails.
“It turns out they wandered off the trail,” Roach says. “And within 45 minutes they knew they were lost. Brandon and Gina continued wandering down the mountain hoping they would eventually find their way back to the trail, but that turned out to be the wrong move.”
Through a variety of circumstances, Roach didn't learn about the missing attendees until two days later. The tour guide had figured Day and Allen were simply running late, and would catch other transportation back. The 41 other attendees were eager to hustle to the hotel to get ready for the final night's dinner, and didn't want to wait for the two wayward hikers. The tour guide did note that Day and Allen hadn't returned with the group, but left that message with her supervisor who didn't see it until the following Monday morning. And none of the other attendees let on to Roach that they had returned from the tour without Day and Allen.
“It gets even more bizarre,” says Roach. Because the final dinner didn't have assigned seating, no one noticed Day and Allen were missing. And the next morning — the end of the meeting and occasion for a mass check-out — hotel staff inexplicably recorded that Day and Allen had checked out, even though their belongings were still in their room.
It wasn't until Monday morning, when Allen's sister Beth, who works in the same office with her, became concerned that she hadn't shown up for work, that a missing-person's report was filed. A full search and rescue operation was up and running that afternoon.
The story does have a happy ending. Day and Allen wandered into Tahquitz Canyon, from which it's almost impossible to hike out. But, in another bizarre twist, they happened upon the abandoned camp of John Donovan, a hiker who had disappeared in the mountains a year previously. Using matches from Donovan's backpack, Day eventually built a fire big enough to draw the attention of rescuers. They were pulled out of the mountains on Tuesday morning, May 9, three days after they first went missing.
There was also one other unexpected outcome to their ordeal. On June 4, searchers, acting on the fact that Day and Allen had come across John Donovan's camp, found his remains in the Tahquitz Canyon area.
The lessons for Roach? Standard operating procedures have changed. “It's a wake-up call,” she says. “You can't always trust that the people you hire and work with are going to do their jobs.” She says that a Securian home office executive, equipped with a walkie-talkie or cellphone, will participate in every excursion, making sure attendees are accounted for throughout the activity.
Roach's advice to fellow planners: “Even though you have safeguards in place and do the best of planning, things happen,” she stresses. “Question everything, even if you think you don't have a question to ask.”