How do you move a 5,000-attendee meeting across the country in six weeks? Ask Angela Orlando, CMP, director of conference and travel at the Healthcare Financial Management Association, Westchester, Ill. After the May 3, 2010 flood in Nashville that severely damaged and shuttered the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, she and her staff had to think quick and act fast to save their meeting.
“I experienced something I never thought I’d ever have to experience—moving a meeting in just over six weeks,” said Orlando, speaking at an October 27, 2010 webinar hosted by MeetingsNet.
When she heard the news about the flooding in Nashville, Orlando was concerned, but not alarmed. The news reports said that it was a downtown hotel that had to be evacuated, and because the Gaylord is outside of downtown, she assumed the meeting would be OK. But as the news of the flooding at the Gaylord filtered through, Orlando soon realized that her annual meeting, scheduled for June 20–23, was in jeopardy. The Gaylord suffered major damage and announced it would be closed for more than six months. (It reopens November 15.)
This was a clear case of, a legal term—literally, “superior force”—that provides a reason for terminating an agreement without liability, said panelist James M. Goldberg, principal, Goldberg & Associates PLLC, Washington, D.C. The typical hotel meeting language in force majeure clauses says the group is not liable if it is “illegal” or “impossible” to hold the event.
But the association, which did not want to outright cancel its main meeting of the year, needed an immediate plan of action, according to Orlando. First, she looked for a checklist on what to do in emergency situations. “What do you do when you have to relocate your meeting in a short time? We came up with nothing, so we decided to document our process.” Here are the key steps.
1. Use your existing relationships. Even before the association got final confirmation that the Gaylord would not be available, Orlando and her staff started looking at alternative sites. Within an hour, they had put together an RFP and began to call on existing contacts at hotels and convention and visitors bureaus to check availability. By calling people they knew, including hotels with which they had Sands Expo Center and Venetian/Palazzo Resort in Las Vegas. They had considered moving to another Gaylord property, but none was available over the days they needed, and management had determined it was critical to keep those same dates.for future meetings, they had three strong possibilities for relocating the meeting by the end of the first day. The next day staff made the decision to move forward with a new location: the
2. Make it worthwhile for your attendees. Next, HFMA staff focused on retention—making sure that the attendees would follow the meeting out to Las Vegas. “We had to find ways to recoup attendees’ investment with incentives.” When the flood hit, the association had already filled its room block at Gaylord Opryland, so that meant that it had to draw close to 5,000 people and 400 exhibitors to the new venue. To incentivize attendees, HFMA negotiated a rate that was $40 lower than the Gaylord’s. It also gave everyone who had registered a $100 hotel gift card. Both of these measures were put in place to offset the additional airline change fees for attendees. Within 48 hours of the flood, registration was open in Las Vegas and the shift west began.
3. Check your insurance and document spending. The first thing Orlando did was review the event cancellation insurance. “Everyone buys this but no one thinks they are going to use it. We actually did.” Upon review, they learned that the insurance would cover a percentage of lost revenue, but only on items that were a result of the relocation, such as staff airline change fees, the hotel gift cards, etc. The accounting department set up an entirely different account for these unique items and expenditures to know exactly what could be submitted in the claim.
4. Line up your team immediately. Right away, the staff created an internal contingency task force made up of various department heads, which convened on a regular basis to make key decisions. Orlando also requested that the Sands appoint a dedicated convention services team to work on its meeting, as she felt their full attention would be necessary to pull off this event. Also, she assembled her team of vendors—decorator, exhibit services manager, etc.—and got them all to fly to Vegas to do a site visit just three days after the flood.
5. Stay calm. While you may be going crazy behind the scenes, the appearance of calm eases everyone else’s fears. “Pretend you are a duck,” is what HFMA’s CEO told the staff—calmly swimming along on the surface while you’re legs move like crazy under water.
6. Don’t forget about your original location. “We tried to look for ways to spotlight our original location to pay homage,” she said. HFMA brought a majority of the Tennessee chapter volunteers to Las Vegas to serve as course coordinators. The opening night reception was Nashville-themed with Nashville music, food, and décor. Also, the Nashville chapter made a presentation at the opening general session to update everyone on the situation back home.
7. Communicate. Make sure the lines of communication are open and that everyone is fully updated on what’s going on. That will make it easier for staff to handle the inevitable barrage of phone calls from attendees, exhibitors, and suppliers.
8. Don’t second-guess yourself. Go with your gut when making decisions—you don’t have the luxury of time. “Chances are, your instincts will be pretty good,” said Orlando. Also, planners should know that attendees are going to be more forgiving than normal, so don’t worry too much if everything is not perfect. “Something that may be scrutinized under normal circumstances may be overlooked under these circumstances,” she said.
9. You don’t have to start from scratch. Before the flood, the menus were set and the agenda was nearly finalized. When the meeting moved to Las Vegas, Orlando kept the menus and education mostly intact. “You’d be surprised how many things can be retained even in a move like this.” Only one keynote speaker and one session speaker couldn’t make the trip, and both were replaced.
10. Forget about sleeping. You won’t have time to sleep, so don’t worry about it. “The day I got back from the annual meeting, my couch and I were best friends for 48 hours.”
In the end, the meeting was a success. It surpassed budgeted attendance projections by 1,000 people. Further, 80 percent of the pre-flood exhibitors came to Las Vegas and new exhibitors or those on the waiting list filled the rest. Consequently, HFMA exceeded exhibition revenues, as well as budgeted sponsorship revenues.
It was a good news, bad news situation, according to Orlando. The good news is, they pulled off a successful meeting and exceeded revenue projections. The bad news is that they didn’t have much of an insurance claim, considering the policy would only cover lost revenues as a result of the relocation.