“I've Lived in Orlando for 42 years and worked for Orange County for 28 years, so I have a pretty good historical perspective,” says Tom Ackert, executive director of the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. “I've never seen the sort of impact we've received over the last two years with the hurricanes that have hit us. I believe it has some people thinking more and more about whether they should plan an event during hurricane-prone months.”

Fortunately, Orlando and other regions at risk for hurricanes have yet to see those concerns translate into a precipitous drop in business booked during the months in question.

According to Norwood Smith, vice president of sales for the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau, a comparison of group business data from one hurricane season to the next, whether looking at actual bookings or leads, is “inconclusive.” But, on a year-to-year basis, Smith adds, group business is up. “Could it have increased even more [without the hurricane impact]?” asks Smith. “I just don't know.”

It's the same in Orlando. While Ackert reports planners voicing concerns about meeting during hurricane season in Orange County, business has remained steady. Yet when Martha Craft, director of public relations for Atlanta-based Orkin Inc. was forced to relocate an incentive scheduled for New Orleans in September, she dismissed Orlando as a possible destination, even though it could have provided her with exactly the same dates she had booked for New Orleans.

“I wasn't ready to go from one hurricane-riddled area to another,” she says.

Many Concerns

One of the biggest shows held at the Orange County Convention Center season is Premiere Orlando, a beauty industry trade show that usually attracts more than 35,000 attendees to Orlando every summer. Scheduled for late August 2006, show organizers are “nervous,” says Ackert, about the prospect of continuing to hold the meeting in its traditional late summer slot, and are discussing changing dates.

To the west in Tampa, “We also hear concerns,” says Smith, particularly from geographically removed planners, who may not be as hurricane-savvy as planners from the Gulf Coast. A sales manager with a major hotel chain who has responsibilities in the Caribbean also reports that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he received numerous phone calls from planners looking to change dates, including one call from a person who wanted to make a change to a meeting that was just 14 days away.

“There is always going to be a segment of planners who are very concerned about the possibility of a hurricane or foul weather,” says Gary Sain, chief marketing officer and a partner with Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown, and Russell, an Orlando-based travel and tourism marketing firm. “With corporations, money is time — they're concerned about anything that might hinder their meeting.”

Destinations Respond

What are different cities doing to preserve their viability as meeting destinations during the peak hurricane months?

This is no academic question for Nikki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Meetings account for an increasing percentage of the total of business travel that comes into Fort Lauderdale,” Grossman says. “It's important for us to maintain our credibility [with planners], and we don't want to lose our seat at the table when it comes to summer business.”

In the aftermath of the four hurricanes that ripped through Florida in 2004, the Fort Lauderdale CVB initiated an incentive campaign through which meeting planners who bring 600 room nights of business in August or September in 2005, 2006, and 2007 get free use of the convention center, as well as attrition waivers in the hotel package. When the city received a direct hit from Hurricane Wilma in October 2005, the CVB extended the incentive initiative through 2008 and added the month of October.

The result has been a quantum leap in booking large group meetings, particularly during September, “which has always been the period of time that's needed the incentive,” Grossman says.

Reduced rates during the late summer and fall have always been an incentive for planners booking groups in Florida. Orlando's Ackert says hotels are also showing much greater flexibility when it comes to cancellation policies during hurricane season.

Visit Florida, which promotes Florida tourism, has launched several hurricane-related initiatives as well. Its Cover Your Event insurance provided free insurance coverage during this hurricane season, and will continue to do so 2007. According to Tracy Dunaway, director of sales for Visit Florida, 110 groups insured their meetings through the program this past hurricane season, only one of which filed a claim.

“They had booked in Naples and were displaced by Katrina,” Dunaway says. “They have since moved their date to February, and the insurance is covering the differential in rates [between high season and low season]. So the insurance accomplished exactly what it was intended to.”

In addition, during the fall, Visit Florida held 10 emergency response meetings around the state. Called “Making Meetings Happen,” these educational seminars were designed to prepare tourism-related businesses to address the needs of meeting planners during times of crisis — such as hurricanes.

According to Tampa's Norwood Smith, communication and flexibility are essential in dealing with meeting planners during the hurricane season. “We try to stress date flexibility,” he says. “And we try to be up front with them from the start. We'll provide them with data from the National Weather Service, and we'll talk about the extra insurance available from Visit Florida. We'll put all the cards on the table.”

They'll Be Back

The consumer and equipment division of John Deere in Cary, N.C., has been holding annual training meetings in Sarasota, Fla., for about 10 years with few problems. But this year's event, which drew more than 4,000 attendees, was delayed two days because of Hurricane Wilma.

What could have been a problem was handled with aplomb by the partnering hotels and other suppliers, and Mark Barnes, training manager for the division, says that he will probably bring the meeting back to Sarasota next year.

“You need to weigh all the facts and make a smart business decision,” Barnes says. “You're just as likely to run into a snowstorm in Boston in October as you are to run into a hurricane in Florida.”

MasterCraft Boat Co. of Vonore, Tenn., scheduled its international dealers' meeting at the Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Beach in Cancun during the time in which Cancun was swamped by Hurricane Wilma. And while the event was canceled before the vast majority of the company's 250 dealers had made their way to Cancun, several attendees, along with Event Coordinator Teresa Clark, arrived early and were forced to evacuate the hotel and travel to Mérida where they stayed in shelters until they could be flown home. (See box.)

Despite that, Clark is rebooking the hotel for the rescheduled meeting some time next year, and is willing to again book Cancun or other hurricane-prone areas during hurricane season. “It's [the hurricane season] so long, it's hard not to hit one of the months, particularly in our business,” she says. “October is a good month for us because it's after Labor Day, when business quiets down, and it's before we get to the big boat shows.”

And that is what most planners will likely decide: that it all depends on when they need to meet and where attendees want to go. As Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Maritz Travel Co., St. Louis, and chairwoman of the board of Meeting Professionals International, adds, “The reality is that there is more demand than supply in the group market. It's almost impossible for people to say they are not going to consider Florida or New Orleans for meetings during hurricane season.”

Canceled in Cancun

For Teresa Clark, event coordinator for MasterCraft Boat Co. of Vonore, Tenn., October's international dealers meeting was not going to be any ordinary event. Scheduled at the Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Beach in Cancun, this was the first time MasterCraft had held a large-scale event outside the United States.

In anticipation, Clark arrived in Cancun on October 16 to nail down some last-minute arrangements and make sure that everything was in order for the 250 dealers who would be arriving from destinations around the world.

When Hurricane Wilma began to hit radar screens, Clark initially was not too worried. “We kept watching CNN, and everything indicated that it would move east, away from Cancun and out to sea,” she says, adding that the dealer's meeting was still on as of Tuesday night.

But by Wednesday, Wilma had transformed into a potentially catastrophic Category 5 hurricane, and MasterCraft called off the event. Unfortunately, five dealers, as well as guests, had made their way to Cancun early, and along with Clark, were stranded in the resort.

While the Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Beach “was phenomenal” in providing assistance to Clark and her group, the Mexican government was insistent that hotels be evacuated. So by Thursday, Clark and 13 others in the MasterCraft party were bused to a shelter at the university in Mérida.

“It was very good — very safe,” Clark says. “When we got there, they gave us a plastic chair, a pillow, a sheet, a towel, and an assigned space to sleep.” They spent the next 2.5 days in the shelter. On October 24, they flew from Mérida to Mexico City, and finally flew into Atlanta the next day. Their luggage followed — a month later.

Despite her travails, MasterCraft is going back to Cancun sometime in 2006. “After working with the hotel,” Clark says, “I have absolutely no problem rescheduling. It all depends on when the hotel can get back to normal.”