Sheila Buckley and her staff at the Learning Disabilities Association of America, Pittsburgh, had to do some quick thinking and fast acting to keep its annual meeting from being canceled after concrete flooring at the venue, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, collapsed.

But unfortunately, they couldn't do much about the major snowstorm that would hit Pittsburgh during their convention.

All Hands on Deck

The convention center was forced to close temporarily after a 6-inch-thick concrete floor in a loading area collapsed under the weight of a tractor-trailer, sending a mixture of concrete, steel, and equipment onto a public area below and leaving the tractor-trailer trapped in a 20-foot-by-60-foot hole in the floor/ceiling. No one was hurt.

The accident happened on February 5 and one week later, February 14, LDA's annual meeting was scheduled to start. But the convention center was closed for repairs. (The area has since been repaired and the center reopened a short time later. Local officials said it was an isolated incident and no structural problems were discovered.)

Upon hearing the news, Buckley, LDA's executive director, scrambled to find a way to salvage the meeting because canceling was not an option. “This conference represents our largest source of revenue, so to have canceled it would have been far worse than having low attendance,” says Buckley.

Her team worked with Visit Pittsburgh, the city's destination marketing organization, to secure meeting space. The bureau was able to get meeting space for LDA at one of the hotels in its block, the Westin Convention Center Pittsburgh. It also secured space at the Byam Theater and the Hilton Pittsburgh for the keynote sessions and helped locate shuttle transportation. “I was amazed at how well they (Visit Pittsburgh) worked with us,” says Buckley. “It was ‘All hands on deck.’” The convention center picked up all the expenses associated with having to relocate.

Snowed Out

But that wasn't LDA's only challenge. On February 12, the day that attendees were to arrive, a major snowstorm blanketed the eastern United States, dropping two feet of snow in Pittsburgh. “It was a double whammy,” says Buckley. So, all of LDA's efforts to adapt the meeting and communicate the changes to attendees were in jeopardy. “We had a lot of flight cancellations. That was the icing on the proverbial cake.”

More than 1,000 attendees made it through the storm to Pittsburgh, but that was about 1,000 fewer than the association normally gets, Buckley says. Some people waited through six-hour delays at the airport, others found alternate modes of transportation. A few speakers didn't make it, but other experts within the LDA stepped in and ran the sessions.

Through it all, the conference ran smoothly. “Despite the circumstances, most people were very pleased.” But financially, the meeting fell short of projections. “We're not terribly far off, but its enough that we might have to make some adjustments in the coming months. But it could have been far worse.”

It's the second year in a row that the association's annual meeting has been disrupted. Last February, the meeting was moved from New Orleans to Jacksonville because of Hurricane Katrina. Buckley is keeping her fingers crossed that next year's meeting in Chicago is perfectly normal.

As for advice to other planners facing emergencies, Mary-Clare Reynolds, LBA's meeting planner, says “Don't panic. Conferences are not put together by one person. Staff and volunteers will be ready to help you.”