When Hurricane Katrina slammed through the Gulf Coast, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced — and so were a whole lot of medical meetings. Cancellation wasn't a possibility for many societies, both because they needed to disseminate the latest research and because the conference is important to their bottom line.

So some planners began the race to find a new home for these meetings even before the storm swamped New Orleans. “We pulled together a disaster committee the weekend prior to the hurricane hitting,” says John Gruber, executive director, Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, Beaverton, Ore., whose meeting had been scheduled for the first week of November at the New Orleans Sheraton. “Canceling was a possibility, but a very low probability. We didn't want to cancel if we could do anything to salvage the conference,” he says.

After contacting his regional Sheraton sales manager in Seattle and his national contact at Hyatt to find a hotel that could accommodate the meeting on the same days of the week — a must for his audience — it ended up being a fam trip that saved the day.

Gruber had seen the Grand American in Salt Lake City on a fam trip last year — his first-ever fam — so he also contacted that property directly. “The Grand American was able to take us exactly two weeks later on the same days of the week,” he says. “Taking that fam trip paid off in spades for both of us.”

Ironically, the last time his organization was in New Orleans was 10 years ago, just after another hurricane had hit. While they didn't have to move the meeting that time, attendees and staff “did have to work around having water on the floors. Maybe we'll consider New Orleans again in another 10 years.”

Moving locations did create problems, though, and at press time Gruber expected to miss his attendance goal of more than 1,500 by quite a bit: “We'll probably be closer to 850,” he says. While the timing was too tight to do much destination marketing, he did send out a mass mailing to his Western states mailing lists in hopes of drumming up more attendees. Fortunately, he had cancellation insurance, which helped with relocation and marketing costs. “All those years we paid the premium and never used it, but when we needed it this year, it was good to have,” he says.

Don't Wait

“The thing that helped us most is we recognized there was going to be a problem and didn't wait until we heard from the hotel before starting to look for new locations,” says Gruber. “Subsequent to our getting in, the hotel was deluged with people trying to relocate. You have to be able to move quickly.”

That's something Susan McSorley understands. McSorley, director, convention and meeting services, American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, was able to relocate her displaced annual meeting of 29,000 or so from New Orleans to her organization's home town of Chicago in just a few weeks.

“We sent out feelers to a dozen or so cities before the levees broke to check for availability,” McSorley says. Like Gruber, she had a crisis team in place, and they put every possible option on the table. “We had a lot to move — education, exhibits, ancillary meetings, committee meetings, social and exhibitor events — and we had to get up to speed quickly on what Chicago could do. The bureau did a phenomenal job in assisting us in making our decisions, keeping us informed, and just being there,” she says.

McSorley did have some speaker drop-off because she had to move the dates further into March, which led to some conflicts over school spring breaks. There also were conflicts with dates of other educational activities organized by specialty societies whose members also are members of AAOS. One moved its dates to allow its members to attend the AAOS meeting. “Talk about partnering with people — we partnered not only with the city and the bureau and the hotel community, but also with our orthopedic community,” she says.

“Now that I sit back after [being in] the throes of it, it was a huge undertaking, and we got through it very well,” she adds. “That's what happens when you work with professionals, with people who know what they're doing and enjoy what they do. That's what really resonates for me.”

That, and keeping a positive attitude. “If you're open with your communication, there isn't a lot of panic because there aren't any secrets. When everyone understands what's going on and why, that gets rid of a lot of the anxiety.” While she's had to change her marketing plans a bit — AAOS hasn't been to Chicago in years, whereas New Orleans was a regular stop on its rotation — she expects to actually break attendance goals. And, she says, displaying that optimistic spirit, “We've already decided that it will be 65 degrees and sunny.”

Hometown Advantage

Joyce Gambino, director of meetings and conventions, Society of Thoracic Surgeons, also was able to relocate her displaced annual meeting of 4,500 or so from New Orleans to Chicago, where STS is headquartered. Keeping the same January 29 to February 1 dates was imperative, and Chicago was able to move other groups to accommodate STS. Within two weeks, her office had lined up McCormick Place, and room blocks at the Chicago Hilton, the Fairmont, the Chicago Marriott, the Chicago Wyndham, and the Hyatt McCormick Place. One nice perk: The hotels and the city are donating $10 of each room night's rate to help the Gulf Coast hospitality industry in the society's name.

“We usually stay in warm climates, but because I was locked into those dates, I was very limited,” Gambino says. But the convenience of moving the meeting to her headquarters locale made siting restaurants and special venues for a social event a little easier.

The big push for Gambino was to redo the booth assignments for the sold-out expo hall. “Everyone was happy where they were, and now you have to make them happier,” she says, adding that all the exhibitors were being very understanding, given the situation. She lost only a couple of exhibitors who were local to New Orleans and planned to drive in, and one that decided to go to another conference instead. To provide a little practical help for its Gulf Coast members, the society is providing them with free registration. “Also, a lot of our Gulf Coast doctors are unemployed right now, so we're going to be doing a job fair for them. There are some good things that are coming out of it.”

Ayuko Kimura-Fay, CMP, director of meetings with the American Society of Hematology, Washington, D.C., expected to draw approximately 20,000 attendees to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans December 3 to 6. She ended up moving her meeting to Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Center after working with a total of 13 cities to find an appropriate fit. Instead of the usual 10- to 12-year lead time, she had three months to move 69 education and scientific sessions, more than 800 oral presentations, almost 3,000 poster presentations, 250 affiliated meetings, and 38 corporate symposia, along with 300,000 feet of exhibit space and 9,500 sleeping rooms.

While she initially anticipated a drop-off in attendance, “at this point, our attendance figures are about where they were last year,” she says. Even with having to push her dates back a week or so, Kimura-Fay was able to retain 98 percent of her speakers and presenters. “Their flexibility has been amazing.” She's grateful to the 13 cities she worked with after the storm, as well as employees of the New Orleans CVB “for working with me even when their own lives were in turmoil.

“Everyone at ASH is very disappointed that we had to move our meeting from New Orleans under such terrible circumstances,” she says. “ASH has started a Katrina Relief Program, and a portion of the money we raise will go toward helping the people of New Orleans rebuild. We look forward to holding our meeting in the new New Orleans in the future!”