While human casualties of the massive blackout that hit the Northeastern U.S. and parts of Canada yesterday afternoon so far have been minimal, the toll on meetings in affected areas has yet to be determined. Phones rang unanswered at some of the premier meeting hotels in New York City, Detroit, Cleveland, and Toronto, as well as at the convention and visitors bureaus and convention centers of some of the cities that were still without electricity earlier today.
Electronic hotel key cards stopped functioning when the lights went out, which meant meeting attendees and other guests couldn’t access their hotel rooms in some cases. There have been some reports of guests who spent the night sleeping on the sidewalks outside their hotels. "Fortunately, we don’t have any groups in town," says Michael Schron of the New York City-based Robert P. Schron Associates, a meetings and incentives destination management company. "Most of the hotels lack air conditioning, and the subways are still down" as of this morning, he reports. On the plus side, he says, "Most properties have emergency lighting systems that at least would have allowed people to find their way around last night.
"One of the things that doesn’t occur to you until you go through a blackout is that most of the water in hotels and other high-rise buildings is pumped in using electricity, which means after the first couple of times you use your sink or flush the toilet, there’s no more water," says Schron, who also experienced the NYC blackout of 1977. "A shower or a sink you can live without, but spending $200 a night without a working toilet is not going to make people happy." He adds that it’s up to each property to decide how to make up for any blackout-related hardships endured by meeting and incentive attendees.
While she couldn’t comment on that aspect of the blackout’s repercussions, Marriott spokesperson Dasha Ross did say that cancellation fees would be decided on a case-by-case basis for meetings that were scheduled during the blackout period. She doesn’t yet have any information on groups meeting at her firm’s hotels, but Ross adds that Marriott properties are equipped with kits that include extra blankets, sheets, and food for use in a crisis. "Our Brooklyn Marriott had a full house yesterday, and they still accommodated an extra 300 people," she says, but she was unable to provide any additional details in terms of whether affected Marriott properties are equipped with generators for emergency use.
"We complain about business being slow in the summer, but when something like this happens, you’re just glad you don’t have hundreds of irate conference-goers or incentive participants," says Schron. And for those who do? "Particularly in a place like New York City, you just have to stay put and wait for things to return to normal." Not that meeting attendees had much choice: according to general news reports, most major airlines canceled or diverted flights to affected cities, causing backups that may take a while to resolve, though several airlines have reported that full service to affected areas is to resume as of noon today.