SEPTEMBER 11, NEW YORK CITY. “WHEN THE first planes hit and we heard about the Pentagon, the feeling of not being in control was overwhelming,” says Lynne Tiras, CMP, president of Houston-based International Meeting Managers Inc., echoing what so many Americans felt on September 11. The difference is that she was managing the 14th International Symposium on Drugs Affecting Lipid Metabolism at the New York Hilton and Towers, just 20 scant blocks from Ground Zero.

“We honestly thought all of Manhattan would be going next. Not being able to leave the city made us feel like hostages ourselves — and we were the lucky ones. It was frightening because we didn't know what would happen next.”

But that didn't stop Tiras, her staff, the hotel, or the meeting's attendees from doing whatever they could, whether it was giving blood, setting up Internet terminals, volunteering to help out at the site, or even keeping the meeting going under unimaginable circumstances.

First Priority: Phone Home

Shortly after the attacks, cell phones all over the city were jammed, lines for the payphones serpentined down the hallways, and both the hotel and Tiras' staff realized that her 1,600 mostly international attendees needed to have an alternate way to get in touch with loved ones and colleagues. The Hilton set up a bank of computers with Internet access, and installed a television near the registration area. “At any one time, there were at least 50 people standing in front of the television, just viewing in silence. Security people at the registration area said that went on all night, as people alternated e-mailing and standing by the TVs.

“We also opened up our [staff] phones for use by any physician or staff member who needed them,” says Tiras. “We just got the bill,” she adds. “Looks like a lot of people took us up on the offer.” Her staff also posted phone numbers and Internet addresses for all the airlines, so attendees could check at any time for flight availability to their home countries.

Pulling Together

The hotel closed all but one entrance for security reasons, and posted security officers throughout. An ambulance was stationed in front of the Hilton for the duration of the meeting. The hotel also quickly announced that it would continue conference rates for international attendees who were unable to leave, and for local physician attendees who didn't want to leave the city because they wouldn't be allowed to re-enter. Hotel staff also worked with organizers and the destination management company to dismantle a major reception for 1,000 attendees that was to have been held Tuesday evening.

The convention and visitors bureau tracked Tiras down in her hotel room to make sure her group was safe, and to ask if there was anything they could do to help. The DMC in charge of the hastily canceled banquet that evening also called to ask if they could help in any way.

Docs Rush to the Rescue

Approximately 50 physician attendees couldn't stand to stay in the hotel when they could be out doing what they do best, so they headed off to the site to try to help. “One physician was very frustrated when he came back,” says Tiras, “because there was so little he could do to help; no survivors were brought in while he was there.”

Another physician found himself helping people with respiratory problems caused by all the smoke and ash following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. “This physician, who was from Europe, told us that in times of catastrophe like that, you can practice no matter where you're from. We found it heartening that so many went to either give blood or assist. They just wanted to be able to do something.”

Through to the Finish

“The client decided to keep the meeting going through Wednesday, which was when it was scheduled to end,” says Tiras. “The meeting went on; I can't say that everyone stayed in the meeting, though. We were just trying to look calm and be calm for everyone else.”

She says they didn't have to adjust the program too much, and they didn't lose too many attendees since most were international and couldn't get home anyway, though some local physicians did hire drivers to take them home. Also, a few of the faculty scheduled to speak on Wednesday were't able to make it, due to the air traffic halt.

“Financially, the meeting will need to recoup the [lost] monies from the canceled evening event, which were very significant,” she says. “We also have to consider the cost of housing faculty who had to stay longer. As far as any losses go, we don't know yet.”

Sounds of Silence

Some of the meeting staff rented a car and left for home Wednesday afternoon when the meeting ended, but Tiras and four of her colleagues toughed it out until Friday. They didn't venture out until Thursday, however, when cabin fever got the best of them. They wandered through a changed New York City, devoid of the usual honking, shouting, and general commotion that typifies that city's streets. They got as far as Times Square. “You could see the smoke rising,” Tiras says, “and people were just starting to post pictures of their missing loved ones. Flags were flying, and people were out, but no one spoke: All you heard was sirens.”

When they returned to the Hilton, a man from the building next door told them there had been a bomb scare at his building and they had all been evacuated. “At that point, we started thinking that maybe it was time to head home,” she says.

They rented a van out of Newark, N.J., for the long drive to Texas. “Talk about your bonding experience,” Tiras laughs. “But it was amazing that, when we drove onto the deserted Alamo lot in Newark, there was one van left, almost like it was waiting for us.”

She won't ever forget the drive home. “We drove through parts of the country I hope I never have to see again — though Virginia was beautiful, and believe me, I think I saw every inch of it,” Tiras says. “It was definitely an experience.”

LESSONS LEARNED:

While Tiras has moved forward with her daily life and her meetings, the shock of what happened is still palpable: “Who would have thought this could happen in the United States? What this did for me was make me realize that it's not enough to collect information on who to contact if someone gets sick, or to bring a briefcase full of supplies for registration. Now we're going to bring another case with transistor radios, flashlights, and other emergency supplies that we hope we'll never have to open.”

She also now will ask hotels during the pre-con meeting for a copy of their emergency plan. “We need to know who's in charge of what, and what their emergency procedures are,” says Tiras, who recently completed her first post-September 11 meeting. “We learned from experience just how important communication is during a time like that. The hotel we used for this meeting in Albuquerque was fairly limited in its Internet access, so we discussed alternate plans,” including, if the need should arise, permission to let attendees sit at hotel employees' desks to use their Internet connections. “For the future, I'm looking for how quickly they can set up Internet access, and how many stations they can provide.”

SEPTEMBER 11, DENVER. “There was nothing else to do but carry on,” says Lauren Kramer-Whelan, director of meetings for American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery Foundation in Alexandria, Va. She and the other organizers of the Annual Meeting and OTO Expo didn't have the option of paralysis when terrorists attacked. They had 8,000 attendees and representatives from more than 300 exhibiting companies in Denver's Colorado Convention Center to worry about.

Kramer-Whelan was in a committee meeting with key staffers and her organization's executive vice president, G. Richard Holt, MD, when they got the news of the tragedies via a phone call from a colleague. They quickly pulled together leaders from AAO-HNSF, the Denver Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the convention center operations team to determine what their message would be and how they'd broadcast it to attendees.

Team Spirit

She says Gail Schuster of the Denver CVB — “the best convention service manager ever” — Denver CVB's executive vice president Richard Scharf, and John Adams, general manager of the convention center, were the “A Team” who contacted all the hotels and got each to agree to honor the convention rate. “The Denver CVB was key in getting our message out and helping us — we really couldn't have done it without them, [headquarters hotel] Adam's Mark Denver, and the convention center team,” says Kramer-Whelan.

“We put Dr. Holt on the building announcement system at 11 a.m. and again at 1 p.m., and repeated his message in several languages,” she says, noting that 35 percent of attendees were international. He informed attendees that they were not canceling the meeting, that the Denver hotels had agreed to honor the convention rate as long as necessary, and that people should not go to the airport, which was closed. “He was very calm and soothing; it helped everyone to hear his voice.”

The convention center also quickly installed six TV monitors in the registration area and set all the facility's in-house stations to CNN.

“People were craving information — accurate information, not rumors,” says Kramer-Whelan. “We called the Red Cross, who sent over two volunteers to staff a personal crisis counseling center.”

Organizers also put up bulletin boards so people could post messages about early departures, which she says was great for those who wanted to share rides. She and other staffers then set about getting together a document that detailed all of the logistical arrangements to share at a 5 p.m. staff meeting. “That was a huge challenge,” Kramer-Whelan says.

Insensitive Choices?

Most attendees and exhibitors were in favor of the decision to keep the meeting going, though a few felt it was an insensitive choice. “But in light of the transportation situation, we felt there was nothing else we could do,” says Kramer-Whelan.

Despite efforts to counsel speakers and exhibitors about the importance of keeping to the schedule, some faculty did decide to cancel their courses for September 12, the last day of the conference. Though disappointed, organizers understood, particularly in the cases of session leaders from the New York and Washington, D.C., areas who were anxious to get home. While some exhibitors did leave their booths on Tuesday, they wound up coming back the next day.

“Some of our attendees bought cars, and some exhibitors rented buses and RVs and departed, but most of the attendees stayed the course,” says Kramer-Whelan.

Now that she has the benefit of hindsight, Kramer-Whelan wishes she had done one more thing: set up an information booth in the convention center that would have stayed up after show organizers left for home, so those attendees who were still at the meeting site would have continued to get information and assistance.

A Bus Called Freedom

With air travel still frozen on Thursday, there remained the task of getting more than 80 AAO-HNSF staff and leaders back to their home base in Alexandria, Va.: a 30-hour, two-day trip. Kramer-Whelan and her staff immediately enlisted the help of an on-site vendor, San Diego-based SEAT Planners, which secured two coaches to get staff and organization leadership home. Staffers made sure that each bus had physicians aboard, and told members to buy pillows, blankets, and whatever else they'd need to be comfortable on the long trek home.

“Our scientific chair, who we dropped off in Columbia, Miss., celebrated his 60th birthday on the bus,” says Kramer-Whelan. “We got him a birthday tiara and cards, and we all sang to him.”

The convention center's food service packed breakfast and lunch coolers for the first day of their trip, and staffers got snacks for each bus. The Adam's Mark Denver also packed “awesome” coolers with beverage and snacks, she says, and the hotel's management arranged sleeping rooms for everyone Thursday night at the Adam's Mark St. Louis. One hotel staff member also gave videotaped movies from her personal collection to each bus.

“The St. Louis hotel had all the rooms preassigned and keyed, so all I had to do was go to the front desk, pick up the packets, and distribute them,” says Kramer-Whelan. “On Friday morning, they set up a full cooked-to-order breakfast — it was so great! — and they filled Styrofoam coolers with water, tissues, paper towels and trash bags (which we needed desperately) for each bus.”

Bus Number 1, which riders dubbed “Freedom,” arrived at the organization's offices at 11:15 p.m. on Friday. Bus Number 2, “Liberty,” got in by midnight. Kramer-Whelan, who was team leader for Freedom, called in advance and had cabs waiting to take everyone home.

Financial Fallout

Did the repercussions of September 11 have a financial impact on the meeting? “Yes, yes, and yes,” says Kramer-Whelan. “The canceled courses could cause us considerable strain, but we're asking for (and receiving) great support from our members, who have the option to donate the course fees to the foundation's educational efforts.” The $20,000 bus trip, of course, had not been in the budget.

There also was a falloff at the evening events on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Adam's Mark Denver took a hit on food and beverage. “But we experienced virtually no ‘wash’ with any of our hotels on the last two nights of the meetings,” says Kramer-Whelan. “In fact, it's looking like our blocks held at about 90 to 93 percent, so what they lost in F&B revenue, they may well have made up in unanticipated room revenue.” Attendance prior to the attacks was already down a bit, which Kramer-Whelan chalks up to the slowing economy and to the facts that this was their first meeting in Denver and that the meeting dates were earlier than usual.

LESSONS LEARNED:

Kramer-Whelan says they are proceeding with caution with future meetings, but are considering reducing their room blocks at least for the next year.

“Plus, we're considering a plan for how we'll deal with meetings” in a wartime situation, she says. “Do we cancel them? Reduce projections? Carry on?” Her organization also is carefully reviewing contract language and convention cancellation insurance wording to ensure that it is covered for future events.

“I do not anticipate that [the September event] will be one of our more successful meetings in terms of profit,” Kramer-Whelan says, “but many lessons were learned. In the end, we'll all benefit from that.”

SEPTEMBER 21, ALEXANDRIA, VA. “At that point we didn't know — and we still don't know — if there will be any more occurrences of terrorist attacks. But we needed to decide what would be best for our attendees, and what message we would be sending by either canceling or going on with the meeting,” says Aimee Hickox, director of meetings for the Alexandria, Va.-based Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy.

Just 10 days after the September 11 attacks, Hickox took the microphone and explained to approximately 2,000 people listening to the American Society of Association Executives' Crisis Meeting Management audioconference how her organization decided not to cancel its upcoming meeting.

Anemic Attendance?

AMCP's 2001 educational conference, the smaller of its two national meetings, was expected to draw approximately 2,000 attendees to Dallas October 17 to 20. Since the revenues budgeted for the meeting represented about 25 percent of the association's overall revenue for this fiscal year, it was not a decision to be made lightly.

During a meeting just four days before the audioconference, Hickox met with AMCP's other staff to assess two scenarios: canceling the meeting, or continuing the meeting. “Do we want to proceed as normally as possible, or cancel in deference to the tragedy and the nation's state of mind?”

They also had to take into account the viability of a meeting that could be compromised by circumstances. “Would we have anemic attendance? Would exhibitors back out? Would speakers cancel?” she says.

She also reviewed hotel contracts for performance obligations and force majeure provisions. “I was pleased to find that our provisions were tailored to apply to the [September 11] events. And the hotels were amenable to working with us; I think they too were trying to learn how to deal with this from a human perspective.”

Sharing the Risks

AMCP renegotiated its attrition obligation with its headquarters hotel, the Hyatt Regency Dallas, and its three overflow hotels. “One of the reasons we felt comfortable going forward was knowing that the risk would be shared between the Academy and the hotels. It was a very positive thing to know that we were all in this together,” says Hickox.

She also assessed statements on cancellation policies from major hotel chains, and reviewed AMCP's event cancellation insurance policy to determine if the exclusion for war and terrorism would prevail, and what recourse would be available if the meeting were to be held with decreased attendance.

Then she polled peers inside the industry and externally to see how they were addressing the issue, and ascertained how her organization could attempt to recoup lost revenues through legal recourse and insurance. And, of course, she contacted all her major suppliers, from AV to decoration and shuttle service, to find out what AMCP's obligations would be if the meeting were canceled.

The end result: AMCP decided to go ahead and hold its meeting — with a few modifications.

Prudence, Not Paranoia

“We wanted to strike a balance between being prudent, especially from a safety and security aspect, without emphasizing the need for security,” she says. AMCP usually hires external security to supplement hotel security, but for this meeting they enhanced the hours of security coverage and the number of guards. “We didn't want them posted everywhere at all times — that might make our attendees worry. But we did want to be prepared in the event we needed assistance with any security concerns.”

AMCP also made other modifications and adjustments to the program, including eliminating a $150 registration cancellation fee. “We didn't want anyone to be penalized for their company's travel restrictions, or for their level of comfort getting on a plane, so we made it a blanket policy,” she says. The hotel also agreed to waive its registration cancellation cutoff date to further entice people to come to the meeting.

AMCP sent an e-mail blast to attendees to let them know the conference was still on, provided an alternative mode of transportation for staff who didn't want to fly, modified room sets, and increased cybercafé hours so attendees could travel without laptops and still keep in touch with the office. They also developed an on-site management plan that includes dissemination of information during an emergency situation and emergency evacuation procedures. Just in case.

Avoiding Overkill

“We originally wanted to do some things to express our appreciation for their attendance,” Hickox says, including giving attendees a letter at check-in thanking them for coming in spite of the circumstances. “We had second thoughts about that as the meeting dates grew closer and people's feelings evolved.” Hickox says she thought people had OD'd on the subject, and she wanted to make the conference seem as normal as possible, with all due respect to the victims.

AMCP did express its sentiments in other ways, including a video tribute montage at the opening general session, a very upbeat message accompanied by equally upbeat patriotic tunes sung by live entertainers. The association's president also wove in remarks about the events in her presentation, which went over well with attendees.

All in the Numbers

So, how'd it turn out? “We only had one exhibitor pull out, and all our sponsors stayed with us,” says Hickox. One speaker did cancel — “But I've yet to have a meeting where a speaker didn't cancel, though this one did cite [September 11] as the reason for the cancellation. We were crossing our fingers and hoping for the best, but we found this to be encouraging.”

More important, though, were the 1,787 attendees who showed up. While the meeting drew just over 2,000 attendees last year in San Diego, “this was actually a few more than we had in 1999 at our meeting in Atlanta,” she says. “I haven't gotten my final numbers from the hotels, but I know our host hotel was very pleased with the meeting. We didn't have as much wash as we had anticipated.

“The prefunction area, the general sessions, the concurrent sessions — it all felt like a normal AMCP meeting. No one can completely shake the feeling of what has transpired, but there was no wet blanket over this meeting.” She says the opening-night reception, a country and western-themed event that had board members donning cowboy hats, was “packed to the gills.”

“The hotel was fantastic,” she says. “Everyone was so attentive to our needs — it was like the hotel just came alive by the time our meeting started. I think it gave them a boost, too.”

For as many apprehensions as she had beforehand, Hickox says she can't believe how well the meeting went.

“It was tremendously successful — and not just in spite of [September 11]. Even if [the attacks] had never occurred, our meeting would have been considered a success. It wasn't a case of ‘Phew! We made it through it.’ It was more a case of, ‘That was a really great meeting.’”

Next Stop, Salt Lake

Her next meeting is in Salt Lake City, Utah, the first week of April 2002, just six weeks after the Olympics. “We're going to take what we learned and apply it to that meeting,” she says. “I've learned to expect the unexpected.” And to always have a fallback contingency plan. AMCP is now working on creating a permanent crisis management plan. “Because now we all have learned that truly anything's possible,” she says.

MID-SEPTEMBER, WASHINGTON, D.C. “We felt there was too much science to cancel,” explains Sherri Sujai, assistant director for industry relations, The American Society for Microbiology. The Washington, D.C.-based ASM hosts the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, which generally draws about 16,000 attendees. Initially, the society opted to hold the conference as had been scheduled: September 22 to 25 in Chicago. But when it looked like regular airline service might not be restored in time for the meeting, ASM reversed that position.

But the society wanted to keep the event in Chicago and, if possible, to hold it in 2001. Working with McCormick Place, ASM was able to reslot its program in December. Aside from some new bioterrorism sessions, the schedule is identical.

Sujai calls McCormick management “fantastic — they were our partners in this.” She notes that the city's convention housing bureau was equally cooperative in canceling reservations and setting aside a room block for the new dates.

“All the hotels have been very reasonable,” she says. “I think everybody understands that these are not normal circumstances.” As a result, ASM's biggest expense has been reprinting the program.

The society continually updated its Web site, and also sent out individual letters and faxes as the plan to rebook the meeting developed.

“We didn't wait until we had all the pieces,” Sujai says. “As we had new pieces, we posted them and told people to keep checking at for the latest information.” Despite those efforts, a few stray attendees showed up for ICAAC on the original dates.

Disruptions as Usual

Sujai says that events like ICAAC — which draws researchers and companies involved in infectious disease efforts — are always prepared for potential trouble.

“At one time, there were a lot of demonstrations at shows where companies produced drugs for HIV and AIDS,” she explains. “People were chaining themselves to booths and throwing blood at booth representatives.” Nothing like that has happened at ICAAC, in part because of heightened awareness.

Sujai says she makes a habit of anticipating disruptions and planning accordingly. That includes conferring with the exhibition's security personnel to find out if there are hints of demonstrations, reviewing the program for sessions that might draw unwanted attention, and “keeping my ear to the ground for anything that might affect our shows.”

In December, she adds, extra forces will be in place during the added sessions on bioterrorism.

OCTOBER 21, ATLANTA. No badge, no entry. That's what about 100 delegates planning to catch the opening session at the American Public Health Association annual meeting in October were told when they were barred from entering the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. They grew a little testy.

“I personally turned away about 75 people,” says Edward Shipley, meeting coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based association. “They were rude, they were mean — I couldn't believe the way they reacted because we insisted on badges.”

Shipley says the typical reaction struck him as “very funny, considering all the e-mails and calls we had from people concerned about security.”

APHA opted to handle questions about security on an individual basis. “We explained that we were taking steps, but we weren't at liberty to discuss them,” says Shipley. As it happened, having Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, Surgeon General David Satcher, and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter at the opening session attracted swarms of Secret Service and FBI agents.

Throughout the conference, attendees without badges, for example, might as well have been naked. “We very much enforced the fact that you had to have your badge on at all times,” Shipley says. Besides disappointing those attendees who missed the keynote speakers, enforcement of that rule also put off a number of exhibitors trying to set up booths. “People were very upset with me — but they got over it,” he says.

Security personnel also prevented audience members from bringing large parcels into the opening session, and they searched suitcases brought into the exhibit hall. In all, Shipley says APHA increased its private security force by about 50 percent, and he estimates the Georgia World Congress Center doubled its security presence.

Several hotels also tightened their security rules during the two Atlanta events, preventing anyone not registered or without a reservation from entering the main floors. Guests checking in were asked to provide two forms of identification.

The convention went off without incident, and with a minimum of cancellations, but the impact of the September 11 terrorist attacks was evident.

Before the meeting, APHA acknowledged the September 11 tragedies in a message to members on its Web site, in which they said that “More than ever, the public health community must unite to gain comfort and inspiration from our colleagues as we develop greater capacity to protect the public's health for the future.”

At the opening session, the crowds observed a moment of silence to acknowledge and show respect for the victims and health care workers involved in the tragedy. “You would be amazed at how quiet 7,000 people can get,” Shipley says.

YOUR EMERGENCY PLAN

  • Before the meeting, assign critical staff functions. Put people in control of communications, accountability, logistics (supplies), operations, finance, and planning. Give people authority to carry out their tasks.
  • Develop a chain of command among your staff and the hotel staff in case of an emergency. Only certain people should have decision-making authority. Command-level people should talk only with decision-makers.
  • Create a disaster supply kit, with a flashlight, extra batteries, AM/FM radio, and basic medical supplies.
  • Establish an emergency cash fund. When computers are down, you can't rely on a credit card to make purchases.
  • Have backup communications. If you use two-way radios, also have cellphones, and make sure there are phones in the meeting rooms.
  • Take care of your staff. People can only handle 8 to 10 hours of high-stress situations at a time. Work in two- or three-hour shifts, and then take breaks.


SOURCE: Kevin Mellot, president, ERASE Enterprises, Dallas

SAFETY STRATEGIES

Since health care meetings are often targeted by demonstrators, medical conference organizers are ahead of the curve as far as developing a safety-first mind-set. Nevertheless, with the added threat of terrorism, meeting planners are rethinking and reinforcing their security efforts.

Rick Werth, president of Event & Meeting Security Services, Franklin, Tenn., recommends that planners conduct a risk assessment before every event and put it in writing. “You have a moral and legal responsibility to identify the risk. You are going to be held responsible if there is a safety or risk issue,” he says. Werth was joined at a seminar about the effects of 9/11 on the meetings industry at the Motivation Show in Chicago on October 10. Panelists advise that you meet with chief security personnel at your venue. Find out about the plans in place for rescue, emergency, and medical teams, and make those local resources, including hospitals, known to every attendee.

“Your research into crisis handling then becomes a contingency plan,” says Carol Krugman, CMP, CMM, president/CEO of Krugman Group International Inc., an independent planning company specializing in international programs. “You must have a leader for the plan, and it must be a team effort. And you can't carry out an effective crisis plan if you haven't practiced it beforehand.”

When hired as a security consultant for an event, Werth completes an 18-page checklist. “It's not a cookie-cutter approach,” he says. “Every client and venue is different.”

PLANES, TRAINS, AUTOMOBILES

Many organizations are stepping up security by issuing identification that can't be easily copied: badges laminated with the group's logo or including a photo ID, for example. Werth says that paying more for security personnel and demanding competency from personnel is a must in this new environment.

Corporate meeting planners are offering employees the option to drive or take a bus or train to meetings. Booking travelers from one organization onto multiple flights is another popular security measure, although it is nothing new. “I have always tried to limit the on-site team from flying together,” says Barbara McManus, vice president of meetings management for Somerville, N.J.-based Embryon Inc. “After September 11, I am adamant.”

SAFE SPACE

The location of meetings has taken on heightened importance. “Convention centers are big targets all over the world because they involve a lot of people, and often they're high-profile groups,” says Charles Slepian, whose Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center advises companies on travel security. “Everyone ought to have alternative destinations identified as part of a contingency process,” adds Werth, who suggests that second- and third-tier cities or resorts might be good options, though access may be more difficult. Finally, security experts advise holding meetings as quietly as possible. Experts suggests avoiding big signs and banners at the airport and hotel, using buses without signage, and discreetly giving attendees directions to meeting venues rather than making a public announcement with directions.

“We are in a totally different world,” Werth says. “If anybody thinks we're going back, they're mistaken.”