Just five days after Hurricane Katrina, the American Society for Microbiology, organizers of the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy conference, announced that the meeting would be moving to the Washington (D.C.) Convention Center. Before the hurricane hit, ICAAC had been expecting to draw 12,000 attendees to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.
Jim Sliwa, ASM's media relations manager, says, “We really wanted to stay in New Orleans — they'll need the business — and it's so much easier to handle the logistics if you don't have to change locations. But we got the Washington Convention Center very quickly — when you hear the dates, you'll understand why: December 16 to 19. It's similar to what happened right after 9/11/01, when ICAAC was [scheduled for] Chicago the week after the attacks. Luckily, the Chicago Convention Center could find dates that worked for us, but again they were the week before Christmas.
“Now comes the fun — redoing the entire logistics for the convention center in three months,” Sliwa says. Deposits for New Orleans hotels will be refunded, and registration will automatically transfer to the new dates and site. Those who are unable to attend the rescheduled ICAAC will receive a full refund of registration fees and hotel deposits as long as they notify the organizers before September 23. ICAAC's airline partner, United Airlines, also agreed to waive the $100 change fee for ICAAC attendees.
Lori Fienman, ASM's assistant director of meetings, says that the New Orleans hotels with which they had contracted have released all their obligations. “I assume we'll get our deposits back, but it will probably take a while — our contacts can't even get to their offices right now.” Her department also was in contact with the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corp. to do due diligence on locating new hotels, but with the conference business not exactly booming in mid-December, she doesn't anticipate any problems.
“We were far enough away that we hadn't yet printed the programs, or the abstract book,” she adds. “There are some things like bags that we already printed that we won't reprint. We're looking at it from the viewpoint that if it's critical, we'll do it.”
ASM also held off informing attendees “until we knew what city we were going to, because it was very important that they knew that ICAAC was continuing. Even though we knew we weren't going to be in New Orleans, we put off announcing it until we knew that it could be held, and where and when,” she says.
ASM actually might be in a better position by virtue of having its conference dates so close to the hurricane's striking. As Fienman says, “It'll be very difficult for people who have spring meetings in New Orleans. I don't know if hotels are going to let them out of their obligations as easily.”
On September 7, New Orleans announced it was cancelling all citywides through March 31, 2006, taking the decision out of the hands of organizations such as the American Society of Anesthesiologists, which had been delaying a final decision. The volume of displaced meetings is unprecedented, and CVBs around the country, from Boston to Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, San Antonio, and Los Angeles were fielding calls from, and offering help to, planners looking for alternate venues.
But what about meetings that are not citywides? Bernie Halbur, PhD, professional development director and meeting management director with the Alliance for CME, Birmingham, Ala., said she immediately contacted her national salesperson, who was exploring options for the Alliance's January 2006 meeting at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside.
At press time, Halbur was looking into the option of moving the meeting to an other Hilton, and was also examining the meeting's cancellation insurance. She said, “We're gathering as much information as we can about three possibilities” — having the conference in New Orleans as planned, moving it to another city, and determining what education can be provided if it has to be canceled.”
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