Cleveland-based independent planning firm Conferon Inc. was actually running a 250-person meeting for the National Association of Business Economists (NABE) in the Marriott World Trade Center when the attack occurred on September 11.
"Luckily, our people were able to get everybody out safely. They were already departing when the second plane hit," said Bruce Harris, founder and president of Conferon. He described independent meeting planner Blake Hobbs, who was running the meeting on site for Conferon, as a "hero" who stayed behind to get everyone else out before he would leave.
Hobbs, who was on the lobby level of the hotel when the first plane struck, had 118 people in a breakfast meeting at the time.
"I looked out the lobby windows and could see in the reflection of the building across the street, the fire and smoke bellowing out of the north tower high above where I stood," he said. "Seconds later, debris began hitting West Street just outside the front door of the hotel."
Covering his mouth and nose with a napkin from the breakfast to avoid breathing in too much smoke, he directed people to an exit near the south end of the building, still not knowing at this point what had happened.
"It was a meeting planner’s worst nightmare," he said.
A call was put in to Conferon headquarters, asking them to get word to NABE that the hotel had been evacuated prior to the second plane hitting the tower. All attendees of the conference have been accounted for safely; only two managers from the Marriott were missing.
"My fear is that it may be one of the security guards that I worked next to in the evacuation of the guests," said Hobbs, who eventually made his way home to Lake Wily, N.C., after a exhausting trip via foot, cab and train, which included a stay overnight in Philadelphia with only the clothes on his back.
"I didn’t mean to be a hero," he said. "I was just doing my job.
Like everyone else in the industry, Conferon has been hit with cancellations in the aftermath of last week’s events. A week after the disaster, the company was down about $3.6 million in hotel rooms. About 50 to 60 percent of the cancelled meetings will be rescheduled, but the impact on the industry long term will be substantial, especially if there is more terrorist activity.
The types of meetings held may also change drastically, he said. "Anyone in the Webcast business is on the front end of a big boom," Harris said. "It doesn’t solve all the problems, but its less risky and less expensive."
Associations that depend on conference and meeting revenue to carry them through the year may be damaged far worse than corporations, Harris noted. And October, typically a billion-dollar month for many hotels, is sure to be hard hit, especially if properties are only at 5 to 10 percent occupancy. "There will be major changes in the landscape and a lot of companies may not survive. This doesn’t look like its going to go away quickly. September 11 will have a much greater impact than the recession ever did."