Alex Zapple was walking back to her hotel from dinner when she heard sirens blaring and saw multiple police cars racing past. It was Thursday, April 18, about 10:30 p.m., and she was just a few blocks away from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where police officer Sean Collier had just been fatally shot by the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Tamerlan and Dzohkhar Tsarnaev. The suspects then carjacked an SUV and drove to nearby Watertown where they got into a shootout with police.
Zapple, event services senior coordinator at association management company SmithBucklin, got back to her hotel, the Boston Marriott Cambridge in the Kendall Square area of Cambridge, and learned viathat there had been a shooting. She was unaware at the time that it was related to the Boston Marathon tragedy. That night, police and National Guardsmen were in the hotel lobby and throughout Kendall Square, but they did not search rooms or bags. “The police were very calm, a nice presence to see,” she says.
Zapple went to bed that evening uncertain of what the next day would bring. As the meeting planner for a 200-attendee medical meeting that SmithBucklin was running at the hotel, she had more to think about than just her own security on what would be one of the most intense days in the city’s history.
The conference had begun Wednesday, April 17, two days after the bombing at the Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured about 176. The association had cancellation insurance with terrorism coverage so it could have cancelled and filed a claim, but the association opted not to. Attendees wanted to meet, and there were assurances that the area was secure. There were few, if any, cancellations.
The hotel was swept for bombs on Tuesday before everyone arrived because of bomb threats in the area following the marathon tragedy, and the security at the hotel and in the city was heavier than normal. But other than that, the first two days of the conference went off without disruption. Attendees were out and about experiencing Cambridge and Boston, just across the river. Things changed on Friday.
Zapple woke up early Friday morning and got the latest update on the manhunt. She learned that one of the suspects was dead and the other was at-large, believed to be hiding in Watertown, about four miles from the hotel. At about 8:00 a.m. Gov. Deval Patrick gave a “shelter-in-place” advisory, asking everyone in Boston and a number of surrounding cities to stay indoors while police searched for the suspect.
Given the circumstances, association leadership decided to continue the conference as scheduled. This was the last day of the three-day meeting and it would adjourn at 4:30 p.m. About 100 attendees were staying at the Marriott, and the rest were locals. Association leadership communicated the situation to all attendees, urging commuters to use their best judgment and heed the recommendations of local authorities. Some were already en route by the time the governor made the “shelter-in-place” request, so the association had about 120 in attendance for the Friday sessions.
Police were stationed on the hotel grounds all day Friday. Inside, security was beefed up, and only guests and meeting attendees were allowed in or out. Security had a list of Zapple’s attendees and vendors, and each was asked to show identification to get in. “They weren’t barring the doors. You could go outside, but it was truly at your own risk and you were asked what you were doing,” said Zapple. The only reason to go out was to get some fresh air because just about everything was closed. Cell phone and Internet service was not affected, so people were able to call and e-mail. The hotel installed a landline phone connection in case cell phone service was cut.
“No one was frightened or upset,” says Zapple. “I think us being calm and the presence of hotel staff and security around the lobby helped. You could definitely see that they were working to keep us safe.”
The meeting went on as planned. All the speakers and most of the 14 exhibitors made it in—one of the speakers had flown in from New York that morning. Zapple and the other staff member onsite, Senior Operations Coordinator Zoe Fuller, monitored the news mainly through the Twitter feeds of the Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown police; the governor’s office; and the airport. When attendees came out of their sessions, they were eager for updates on the manhunt, the status of flights, and the lockdown, and Zapple, Fuller, and the hotel staff told them what they knew.
Other guests in the 421-room hotel, which was almost full that night, were somewhat surprised. “They’d come up to us and say, ‘you’re still having your meeting? That’s great,’” recalls Zapple. It created a sense of normalcy on what was otherwise a very unsettling day.
The only major disruption was lunch. The original plan was to have attendees eat on their own, but with the lockdown, the hotel restaurants and bars were packed. So, working with the hotel’s event manager, Shannon Kent, they organized an affordably priced lunch, using food the hotel had on hand.
“The hotel did a phenomenal job, especially since some of the staff were not able to get in,” says Zapple. “People were stepping into roles they didn’t normally have.” Hotel General Manager Alan Smith sent a message to Zapple’s attendees explaining that housekeeping would not be on its normal schedule, but if someone needed a room cleaned to please contact him. The note also included hours and information for outlets at the hotel. The hotel staff kept in constant communication with SmithBucklin’s staff and went above and beyond to accommodate any request, Zapple says. “If I asked for something, I got it.”
The meeting ended at 4:30 p.m., and people headed home despite the lockdown. Public transportation was closed but taxis were running, and attendees had no problems getting them. The airport was open and largely empty so there were no delays.
At 6 p.m., the lockdown was lifted and public transportation opened. A few hours later the manhunt ended with the fugitive in police custody—ending a tumultuous and tragic week.
Considering the situation, the meeting itself went very well, says Zapple. “We just tried to create a sense of normalcy, making sure attendees felt comfortable and safe and aware of what was going on. The city of Boston and the Boston Marriott Cambridge did a phenomenal job in a very tough situation.”