Call it a snow sandwich. Nearly two feet of snow fell between Friday night, February 5, and Saturday, February 6. Then a second storm hit mid-day on Tuesday, February 9, and continued throughout the next day. It was the largest storm in Washington, D.C., in 80 years, and caused the most canceled flights in the U.S. since 9/11. The media quickly labeled it “Snowmageddon.”

And right in the thick of things, Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., was expecting a corporate meeting for 367 managers to start on February 10.

“We knew it was the perfect storm,” says John Jenkins, vice president and hotel manager at Gaylord National. “It was too difficult to call the meeting off because of the level of the executives attending and their schedules. So once we knew it was a go, our focus was to make everyone comfortable and safe.”

The D.C. area airports were crippled, except for a short break starting at noon on Monday and through Tuesday—the only window of opportunity. D.C. is notorious for being unprepared to handle major snowstorms. “When it snows in D.C., they’re not used to it,” says Jenkins. “They just don’t have the equipment.”

Plan of Acton

Jenkins’ team started preparing a week before the event, then sprang into action as it got closer, holding two meetings a day—one with the hotel’s leadership and one with department managers. On Monday morning, the client instructed all attendees to change their flights from Wednesday to Tuesday, so they would arrive before the second storm hit. As the execs were all BlackBerry-equipped seasoned travelers, the planner was able to rely on e-mail to communicate with them. The airlines waived penalties because of the weather, so there were no issues there. And since a 1,500-person group scheduled during Storm Number One had canceled, there were plenty of rooms available at the resort for the early arrivals.

Jenkins then called a rally in the hotel’s cafeteria to gather his “stars” (the Gaylord term for employees) and discuss what needed to be done. He offered the housekeepers, catering staff, and front-desk staff the chance to volunteer to stay on-site for three nights, and had 115 staffers take him up on it—the first time the hotel had ever done that.

Then he reached out to all of the hotel’s outside partners—the landscaping crew, the hotel-cleaning crew, even the marble-cleaning crew that takes care of the hotel’s 75,000 square feet of marble (which has to be cared for when it snows or it can be damaged), all of whom also stayed over at the hotel to keep things running.

Another issue was making sure that the food and beverage would arrive, so the hotel stepped up its delivery schedule to have everything there two days early, even ordering extra inventory for its restaurant outlets. “What’s so great about this hotel is that it’s completely self-contained,” says Jenkins. “All the restaurants and retail shops were up and running during the storms, just humming along as the snow was coming down outside.”

Why D.C. in February?

It’s a reasonable question, but as the meeting planner, who asked to remain anonymous, explains it, any meeting in February is bound to face some sort of challenge from the snow. If there’s no snow at the destination, there will likely be snow at one or more of the locations attendees are flying from.

The company also chose the D.C. area because so many of the speakers they wanted for the meeting were based there. The rest changed their flights, heading into Richmond and Norfolk (the choice of many attendees as well).

A popular socializing spot ended up being in front of the three huge screens in the Gaylord lobby that project up-to-the-minute airline arrivals and departures at the three area airports—Baltimore Washington International Airport, Dulles International Airport, and Reagan National Airport.

For Jenkins, communicating about travel plans was “the biggest piece. We were in constant communications with the airlines and our Celebrity Services team, which was handling all the VIP arrivals.” The same with the meeting planner, who says the most challenging part of the entire ordeal was that “there were only so many hours in a day to respond to the hundreds of e-mails.”

In the End…

…the meeting went off without a hitch. The hotel waived all attrition and cancellation fees, and the client actually came in at 112 percent of the original room block because of all the early arrivals, and only lost 50 of the 367 attendees.

The client even decided to create a video based on all the different stories attendees had about how they made it to the meeting. “As people came to registration, we heard all kinds of stories of how they made it there—it was like the movie, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” he says. “So we decided to tape them all and show them to the group on Thursday night. They loved it.”

Most, if not all, of the participants would even go as far as to say it was fun. “The stars had a great time, and the attendees had a great time,” says Jenkins. “Everyone was upbeat, with the beautiful snow outside, though there was havoc all around us.”


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