When the American College of Emergency Physicians opened its 2006 Scientific Assembly on October 15 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, it was meeting in a facility where just months before emergency physicians had still been treating patients in a temporary emergency room, and in a city where a downtown emergency department was still being operated in an abandoned department store. And so it was especially fitting and significant that emergency physicians — who have continued to play such a critical role in disaster relief — were among the first to bring a citywide medical convention to the Katrina-devastated city. (ACEP's meeting followed on the heels of the American Society of Human Genetics conference; the American Psychological Association convention was held earlier in August.)

The decision to stick with their plan to meet in New Orleans rather than move venues wasn't easy, but ACEP board members felt there was an emotional imperative to do so. In announcing the decision, made less than three months after Katrina struck, Rick Blum, MD, then president of ACEP, said: “Scientific Assembly will provide jobs for the residents of New Orleans to help them rebuild their lives. It will also provide needed tax revenue to help the city reestablish critical community services where ACEP members courageously represented emergency medicine to the nation.”

A Unanimous Yes

The decision-making process began right after the disaster struck. The ACEP Board of Directors discussed the issue in September 2005 while they were still at that year's Scientific Assembly in Washington, D.C. Representatives from the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau came to Washington to meet with the board. Then, in October, key staff members went to New Orleans to see the city for themselves.

“On the drive into the city, we did not see as much devastation as we'd expected. The most devastated areas were not the areas we'd be using — downtown and the French Quarter, where the convention center and the hotels are. That was a comfort and it was a major hurdle for us to get over,” says Jack Fritz, CMP, ACEP's director of meeting sites and exhibits. “They were already running high occupancies at many hotels, housing people for the relief effort, so we saw the hotels in action. We received assurances throughout all sectors of the hospitality community — the CVB, hotels, everyone. The cab companies and restaurants told us they would work with the bureau to be sure they'd be fully staffed during the peak days.”

The staff members who'd visited the city themselves met with the board at the regular board retreat in November, and that's when ACEP made the choice to stay with New Orleans. “It was a unanimous decision,” says Debbie Smithey, CMP, director of educational meetings and CME for Irving, Texas-based ACEP. “They felt a strong commitment to our many members who were involved in providing disaster relief following the hurricane.”

Convincing Attendees

But would members throw their support behind the decision? In an interview with Medical Meetings last spring, Tom Werlinich, ACEP's associate executive director, educational and professional products, said that a survey of the membership before the decision to go back to New Orleans was made showed it was split 50-50 on the issue.

The meeting preparations and program focused on the location far more than is usually the case. Marketing efforts were geared toward reassuring attendees that New Orleans would be ready, and emphasized a goal of supporting local colleagues, as well as the city, with the slogan: “Last to leave — first to return!”

“We marketed the meeting as an opportunity to honor those who responded to the disaster as well as to show support for the city of New Orleans,” says Smithey.

ACEP had acquired new technology, enabling organizers to do a more aggressive marketing campaign. They were able to send frequent e-vites and meeting reminders, enhance the meeting Web site by adding a pre-conference blog where members could discuss the upcoming Scientific Assembly, post Web site updates about which restaurants and attractions had reopened, add links to the New Orleans CVB Web site and others, post video clips of recent events that had taken place in New Orleans, and post a video from Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu thanking ACEP for coming back to New Orleans.

In addition, a FAQ section on the Web site answered questions such as: Is the character of New Orleans still alive? Is it an environmentally safe place to visit? If I have a medical emergency, will nearby hospitals be open? Is there enough police protection?

To keep themselves apprised of the situation firsthand, ACEP staff continued to make site visits to monitor the city's recovery. “I could see that progress was being made. On the first visit they were finishing the cleanup. On my next visit, you could see new paint and carpeting was being installed,” says Fritz.

Despite the fact that recovery and cleanup efforts were ongoing, ACEP was able to offer attendees and guests a choice of 15 tours of historic areas and other notable sights, as well as the “Post-Katrina Tour — A Tale of Two Cities,” which showed the contrast between those areas of New Orleans that were truly devastated and others that remained relatively undamaged.

As if they didn't have enough to contend with in building registration, the meeting was scheduled during hurricane season. “We were concerned that people might be reluctant to register because they were predicting a big hurricane season again in 2006,” says Smithey. “As most meeting planners do nowadays, we did have contingency plans. One of our affinity programs is travel insurance, so we made sure that attendees knew where to find that information at our Web site.”

As part of their marketing efforts, organizers also reached out to regional doctors who were affected by the disaster. “We offered some discounted one-day meeting rates for those in Louisiana and the surrounding states who were not able to come for the entire conference. We knew what many of our potential attendees had been through and understood that many of their lives were still in upheaval,” says Smithey.

Some of the risk of potential low registration numbers was ameliorated by the fact that hotels were much more flexible than usual in their attrition requirements, notes Fritz. But fortunately, the marketing efforts paid off. The year before in Washington, D.C., ACEP's convention drew about 6,300 attendees, including 1,800 exhibitors. The target for New Orleans was 6,200, and total attendance was approximately 6,000, including about 1,800 exhibitors. “We didn't hit our target, but we came close,” says Smithey.

And some attendees even brought along their families. The number of registered guests in New Orleans was about 900 compared with 1,100 the previous year in D.C.

ACEP also did fairly well on the exhibitor front. The meeting drew 343 exhibiting organizations, compared with 354 in Washington, D.C. the year before. “Given the circumstances, that's not a big difference. With regard to income from exhibits, we were about 5 percent shy of what we'd budgeted,” says Fritz.

“When we met with the exhibitor advisory committee at the end of the meeting, the general consensus was that traffic was a little bit down from previous years, but that had been expected. The quality of the leads they did get was solid, so overall they were pleased,” adds Fritz.

Staffing Up

From a logistical standpoint, the meeting went smoothly. “There was plenty of staff at the convention center. And the service contractor and the AV company really staffed up to help ensure that everything would go well. They assigned lots of experienced labor to the show, beefed up their numbers, and gave us some well-seasoned talent,” says Fritz. “Shuttle and taxi services were good.”

However, there were shortages among restaurant personnel. “Not all restaurants were open on all nights,” says Fritz. “At one restaurant, while there was a 45-minute wait to be seated, there were also empty tables because there was not enough staff to cover all tables.”

Fritz advises planners considering New Orleans to see the city for themselves, staying a few days to try different hotels “You'll be surprised by how normal things are there,” he says. “The hotels and the convention center truly want to work with each group to make sure that there is a good comfort level with any risks. Because, let's face it, there is a risk.”

Voices from the Front Lines

Organizers not only tailored the marketing, they also customized the content to address Katrina-related themes and reaffirm emergency physicians' dedication to the city. ACEP's educational program always features a track on pre-hospital and disaster medicine. This time it included a two-hour session titled “Town Hall Meeting: The Katrina Experience,” at which four speakers who worked on the front lines in New Orleans treating patients in the aftermath of the hurricane shared their experiences and lessons learned. In addition, disaster medicine was one of the key themes of the Research Forum, which focuses on advances in emergency medicine.

The meeting also drew some high-profile speakers. At the opening session, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco proclaimed it Emergency Medicine Week in Louisiana, thanking emergency physicians for their role in responding to Hurricane Katrina and for returning to support New Orleans with their annual meeting. The next day, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt addressed issues of preparedness and how emergency medicine fits into the nation's health policy goals.

One of the most moving moments took place at the opening session, when ACEP President Brian Keaton, MD, asked those in the audience who'd stayed in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and those who'd traveled there to treat patients to stand. Next, he asked those who had cared for refugees in other cities or worked extra shifts to cover for colleagues who'd traveled to the Gulf Coast to stand. “You represent the best in American medicine. You are my heroes and I salute you,” he said.

Keaton repeated the tribute at the Town Hall Meeting. And both times many people in the audience stood up. “It was very touching,” says Smithey.

That kind of acknowledgment gave a crucial message to the local healthcare community. “The College's commitment to come to New Orleans demonstrated an overwhelming support for the emergency physicians in New Orleans who remain committed to taking care of patients, and a willingness to take the chance of decreased attendance in order to support our recovery,” says ACEP member Jullette M. Saussy, MD, director of EMS for the City of New Orleans, and medical director for the New Orleans EMS and Fire Department.

“It was surreal to be in the convention center with thousands of emergency physicians when one year earlier we'd evacuated 21,000 citizens from that very spot,” she adds. “Things were so different one year later.”

Blogging About the Big Easy

To help create a positive buzz, the American College of Emergency Physicians introduced a pre-conference blog on its Web site, encouraging members to tell their colleagues why they were coming to the annual Scientific Assembly in New Orleans. It's clear from the entries that the Big Easy hasn't lost its magical appeal. One physician wrote: “I was married there and the romance, good times, and excellent food all contribute to making New Orleans one of the best cities in the world.” Doctors also wrote about their commitment to supporting the city's rebuilding efforts. Here's a sample of their comments.

  • “I am really interested in the disaster sections. I want to learn from the experience of those [who] dealt directly with FEMA, et al.”

  • “I salute ACEP for taking the bold, although not necessarily wholly embraced, step of bringing Scientific Assembly to New Orleans.“

  • “I am looking forward to giving support to our fellow emergency docs who did so much for the people of New Orleans and for the image of emergency medicine.”

  • “I am proud that ACEP decided to stick with its plan and hold Scientific Assembly in New Orleans. This not only demonstrates the same character that was seen by the many emergency physicians and nurses who stayed at their posts during the disaster, but it also contributes to the economic recovery of one of America's most unique cities.”

Pitching In

The American College of Emergency Physicians offered a special feature on the exhibit floor of its New Orleans meeting: a booth where attendees were encouraged to help in the effort to rebuild the city by making individual donations of $5 to a different charity each day. Donations totaled $1,750 for Mobile Loaves and Fishes and $4,000 for Habitat for Humanity. St. Thomas Community Health Center received $6,000 from attendees, plus donated or significantly discounted equipment and supplies from many exhibitors.