Imagine you’re sitting down to dinner with one of your keynote speakers on the first day of your convention at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. Just as you’re about to take that first taste of clam chowder, the lights go out. And stay out.

That’s what happened to Paul Roetert, PhD, chief executive officer, Society of Health and Physical Educators, in March 2012 when a transformer at a parking garage across the street from the Hynes blew, taking out the power at the center, the SHAPE National Convention and Expo headquarters hotel, and everything else for 27 blocks. 

“This was our 127th convention, and this was a first,” Roetert told attendees at a session held during the 2016 American Society of Association Executives Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City this summer. Oh, well, he thought, it’s just a blown transformer and a little fire—how bad could it possibly be?

Dealing with Disaster

With only limited electricity from an emergency generator, the night sessions that were scheduled weren’t going to happen, so SHAPE staff informed the convention’s 6,000-plus attendees to check back in the morning for an update. With only one elevator working on generator power, attendees grabbed glow sticks and made their way back to their rooms, or to the bar—“there was a healthy amount of drinking going on,” said Roetert. That was Tuesday, the first day of the event, which was scheduled to run until Saturday.

The next morning found Roetert taking photos of the parking garage where the transformer fire happened, pausing to tell speakers as their taxis drove up that they should just head back to the airport. They were not happy, but with no juice, there was only one room that had enough natural light available to make holding a session feasible. SHAPE did hold a session there Wednesday morning, using a generator-powered microphone, but by 10 a.m. Roetert told everyone to go out and enjoy the city for the rest of the day.

“The insurance company kept telling us to keep going, that once the power came back up we’d be fine,” he said. By the time SHAPE attendees returned to the hotel, the lights were still out, but some exhibitors brought equipment to the hotel and engaged people in some games. “Though in retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best idea to have people running around and jumping in the dark,” he said, as his legal representative and co-presenter, Eileen Johnson, Esq., CAE, partner, Whitford, Taylor, Preston LLP, nodded vigorously. “I’m glad I didn’t know about that until now,” she said.

The next morning, the area was still out of electricity and hot water. SHAPE leadership met with the directors of the convention center, the host hotel, and staff, and then with the communications director of the convention authority for the Hynes to determine the health and safety concerns in the exhibit hall, where the show’s 240 exhibitors were already set up. “We wanted to have one synchronized message to send out from all of us,” said Roetert.

The convention center, which was filled with diesel fumes and exhaust from the generator, was too hazardous to allow anyone to enter, so the expo and a product showcase was canceled. Organizers were able to hold a general session using the one mic, but the conference was barely able to limp along. Organizers kept being told that the power would be back soon, to hold on and not cancel. Given the hopeful messages, the insurance company was loathe to give the green light to taking down the remainder of the convention, but by 6:30 that night, with the power still out, SHAPE was finally able to officially cancel the convention.