WHEN A KILLER TSUNAMI devastated Southeast Asia in December, American Express, which has a large division in Thailand, immediately made a cash donation to the Red Cross. The next week, Ed Gilligan, group president of global corporate services, international payments and American Express Bank, headed east to spend time with the company's employees based there.

“What else can we do to help?” he asked.

It was the American Express team in Thailand who thought of relocating the company's ICCSBS meeting — a gathering of about 800 employees, from more than 25 countries, from the International Consumer Card and Small Business Services division — to Phuket. The resort area, which relies heavily on tourism, had seen hotel occupancy drop from 90 percent to less than 10 percent. The employees told him what they really needed wasn't charity, but for people to come and visit.

Hold a meeting in Phuket. Come here and conduct business as usual. Show the world that we are up and running and ready for meetings and incentives.

“Ed took that message away,” says John G. Clark, American Express' Singapore-based vice president of public affairs and communications for the Japan/Asia-Pacific/Australia region. “From then on, he looked at every way of making it happen.”

Reality Check

That was in early January. The first step was to make sure that Phuket really could handle the company's 800 attendees. “People from our local Thai office — as well as myself and Jeff Jackman, manager of meetings and employee recognition — went to Phuket to check out that our people would be safe,” Clark says. “In some of the images you saw in the media, locations were somewhat confused. Some of the places that the media said were Phuket were actually Khao Lak, which is 120 km north of Phuket in southern Thailand. The devastation there was catastrophic.”

While some parts of Phuket were severely damaged, the scale of destruction was not the same as in other areas hit by the tsunami. The advance team found all five hotels of the Laguna complex — the Sheraton Grande Laguna Phuket, Banyan Tree Phuket, Dusit Laguna Resort Phuket, Laguna Beach Resort, and Allamanda Laguna Phuket — in excellent condition. The Phuket airport also had not been affected, Clark says. “The only thing was that there wasn't anybody going through it.

“When I went in January to do my first look around, what struck me was that it was so quiet,” he continues. “In any restaurant, there were only one or two people dining. The Laguna properties lay claim to the largest swimming pool in Asia, and there was no one in it. It was very, very quiet.”

But the hotels were fully operational and ready for business. “They were able to accommodate all our needs and special requests, everything from building a marquee on the golf course for the awards ceremony to supplying transportation to move people from one hotel to another,” says Clark. “Jeff [Jackman] went to Phuket with a clear mandate [to see] whether everything we needed would be there. If there was any question of us delivering a quality meeting, we wouldn't have done it.”

“Logistically, it was a challenge,” he adds. “We were in different properties, but within five minutes of each other. We also used small boats to get from one property to another, which added to the charm of the location.”

Although he would not reveal specifics, Clark made it clear that Laguna Phuket did not give itself away just to get the AmEx business. “I know the Laguna properties were very pleased with the deal that was struck,” he says. “It was fair to them and fair to us. It wasn't our position to take advantage of the situation.”

Once the advance team returned from Phuket, they had just six weeks to pull the meeting together. The original meeting hotel was able to re-sell a large portion of the rooms, and let American Express out of its contract with no penalties, provided that they would use the remainder of the rooms for other meetings over the next year. Fortunately, none of the flights had been booked yet.

The biggest challenge was communicating the change in destination to senior management and the attendees. The planners knew that some attendees might have reservations about going, so Gilligan held calls in each region, explaining why they had decided to move the meeting and what they could expect from the trip.

Not one person dropped out, according to Clark. “We told employees it wouldn't be looked on negatively if they didn't want to go. But in the end, everyone invited to go did.

“A lot of our time went into sharing our experiences and telling them how the hotels had gotten back,” he adds. “There was damage. And people had lost their lives. But we wanted to make our people feel comfortable that where we were going, restoration had already begun. You could still have a great time there and at the same time be respectful of what had happened. And that people in Phuket were waiting to welcome our people.”

Giving Back

Attendees were invited to arrive March 14, the day before the meeting, to participate in cleanup and rebuilding efforts. Hundreds did.

“We worked in an area known as Bang Tao,” says Clark. “It's a beach area that was quite badly affected, close to the Laguna properties. We knocked down walls, getting things prepared to be rebuilt. One group put in residential doors and windows for locals. Another picked up debris along the shore and in houses and stores. It was a full-on day in very hot weather. But the people who did it are still talking about it now. Our people felt good about working alongside colleagues. It was a powerful and rewarding experience.”

The second option for those arriving early: organized shopping trips.

“The Thai tourism people said it was important to put money back into the local economy,” Clark says. “We bused people to different parts of the island to spend money. In addition, we created a bazaar with 30 to 40 local retailers offering everything from cashew nuts to wood carvings to suits. We tried to make it as easy as possible for our people to spend their money.”

The next morning, these same people woke up early and launched into two solid days of meetings and workshops, all under the theme “Winning Together.” “People worked hard and played hard while they were there,” Clark says.

On March 15, the opening day of the event, participants heard directly from Ed Gilligan about why the company moved the meeting, and several employees were recognized for their efforts in the aftermath of the tsunami to ensure the safety of AmEx employees and clients in the area.

Vinai Buapradit, vice governor of Phuket, also attended the opening ceremony and thanked everyone for coming to his country. “This conference helps send a message to the world that Phuket is once again ready to be the destination of choice for business purposes,” he said.

That evening, there were cocktail receptions at four venues throughout the hotels and an on-site group dinner and awards ceremony.

On the second day of the meeting, Ken Chenault, CEO and chairman of American Express Co., spoke of how the response to the tsunami exemplified the AmEx corporate culture: “American Express people around the globe answered this call to service before it was ever requested. They knew what they had to do and they acted, working long hours to help colleagues and customers.”

After another day of strategy meetings, the highlight of the closing dinner was a ceremony to honor the tsunami victims. The group had not been to the beach except for cleanup efforts, out of respect for the lives lost.

“One of the ways the Thai community healed was to light lanterns and let them float off into the air as a mark of respect,” says Clark. “So that's what we did. Everyone found it very moving, and it was the right thing to do. It helped our people get back to the beach while acknowledging that a major natural disaster occurred there.

“There is that emotion that stirs in everybody once you're there,” he says. “But it's also important to move on. The local people have mourned, and are now just getting back to enjoying life.”

“We had a fantastic meeting,” adds Gilligan. “The people of Phuket could not have given us a warmer welcome. Moving our meeting there was the right decision for American Express, and I hope we helped the island send a message to the rest of the world that Phuket is once again open for business.”

Back to Thailand

Just six months after the devastating tsunami that claimed more than 175,000 lives in Southeast Asia, the six provinces along Thailand's Andaman Coast — including Phuket, Phi Phi, Phang-Nga, and Krabi — are slowly returning to normal.

In Phuket, about 87 percent of the more than 500 hotels are open for business, with another 10 percent expected to be open by the end of this month. Hotel occupancy was running between 40 percent and 50 percent as of press time. (Occupancy is usually between 70 percent and 80 percent at this time of year.) In Krabi, 88 percent of hotel properties are open.

“Places like Phuket, Krabi, and Trang (two hours north of Phuket) are open for business and anxiously awaiting tourists,” says Bradley Fennessy, spokesman for the Tourism Authority of Thailand's New York office, who just returned from the region. “The local economies have taken a severe hit, and their livelihoods depend on tourism.”

In the province of Phang-Nga, which includes Khao Lak, just 38 percent of hotels are open. Khao Lak suffered the most damage, with entire resorts and villages virtually wiped out. Thai officials say it may take up to three years to rebuild the area. Phi Phi Island, another resort destination, was also hard hit. The area is slowly rebuilding, but will not be operational for another one to two years.

To lessen the risk of future disasters, the Thai government has established evacuation routes and installed early warning systems for all six provinces. While the threat of diseases and flu have passed, general vaccinations are suggested but not necessary.

“I anticipate that by this time next year, the region will be back where it was — but it's a very painful process,” says John G. Clark, American Express' Singapore-based vice president of public affairs and communications, who organized the company's recent meeting in Phuket. “The beaches are beautiful, the people and hotel properties are exquisite. It's still a wonderful place to go.”

Here to Help

American Express employees had the opportunity to work with the Phuket Tsunami Recovery Fund, which is providing materials for a humanitarian team to rebuild homes in the Bang Tao community, 10 miles south of Phuket airport. Teams helped to clear the beach area and rebuild damaged properties nearby. To help rejuvenate the local economy, the company also organized shopping excursions around the island.