Early on October 29, with Superstorm Sandy threatening high winds and flooding, the largest cities on the East Coast began to shut down in preparation for the natural disaster.

For Meghan Schilt, CMP, however, the show would go on. The Apax Partners events manager was in the final stages of planning for a conference for 100 attendees that was to take place October 30 to 31 in New York City. Weather forecasts grew increasingly ominous the week before, so Schilt began making backup plans with her vendors—but her internal clients insisted on holding the meeting.

“I worked all weekend to get name badges printed, double check details, and get all of the materials I would need to the hotel on Sunday, in case the weather was too bad on Monday to get to the office,” Schilt said.

Under Pressure

On Monday morning, October 29, public transportation around New York was shut down ahead of the storm and all flights into the city were canceled. Schilt met with her production company to rework the conference setup using only the hotel’s furniture, in case the rental furniture trucks were unable to make it to Manhattan. She also called the venue to make sure they had backup generators and enough food to serve 30 to 50 people if the conference went on as planned.

While the hotel and its staff were prepared, many of the production items Schilt was relying on from outside the venue never arrived, including the set, some of the audiovisual equipment, and all of the rentals. Canceling the meeting started to seem like a good idea.

“This was the first time I had to deal with a situation like this and I felt the pressure of trying to decide on the best course of action, not knowing how bad it would be. But by Monday afternoon it was clear that this was not going to blow over.” When she called her client at 1 p.m. that day, the decision had been made: The event was canceled.

Weathering the Storm

By late Monday, Sandy crept closer to landfall and Schilt was still anxious over lingering concerns. Would traveling attendees and hotel staff be safe? Assuming everyone did make it there safely, what would the experience be like? What if, after all this, the storm turned out to be nothing?

“I was worried about everything. This was months of planning, a ton of details with many moving parts and ever-changing conditions,” Schilt said. “I think event planners have an instinctive nature to think about all the possible worst outcomes, prepare for them, and hope that it doesn’t happen—but remain calm no matter what.”

While the storm whipped through Manhattan, Schilt reached out to her attendees, coworkers, vendors, and production team via email to notify them of the cancellation. She also kept in touch with the two restaurants that were to host the dinners. For the 10 or so attendees who had arrived in New York prior to the storm, Schilt ultimately managed to bring them together for dinner on Oct. 31.

The Cost of Cancellation

Almost everyone involved with the meeting agreed to waive all charges, including the hotel, AV and rental companies, and both restaurants. Schilt’s team is planning to reschedule for spring 2013, and those same vendors have already agreed to apply any deposits to the future meeting.

Canceling this meeting also tested Schilt’s relationships with her vendors.“If it was not for the great relationships that I have with them, I’m sure the outcome would have been different,” she said. “This business is based on relationships, and they are worth more than any legal clause in any contract.”

Of course, there were still losses: Apax had to pay full price for floral arrangements that had already been delivered, linens that had already been shipped, and any printed materials. Looking back on the experience, though, “I think we are extremely fortunate,” Schilt said.

“It’s kind of amazing that more than six months of work was undone in about 48 hours,” she said. “But in comparison to people who lost their homes and are freezing tonight, it’s a small price to pay.”