The morning after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Larry Brownell watched the devastation unfold on a television in his Rocky Hill, Conn., office. The city's streets were flooded, and thousands of victims were taking shelter in the Superdome and the convention center.
TV cameras also showed the Hyatt Regency nearby, where Brownell, the executive director of the Marketing Research Association, was supposed to greet 500 of his 3,000 members at the group's fall conference next month.
"I knew one complete side of the hotel had all the windows blown out," he recalled of the early news reports, before the extent of the damage-and the fate of his conference and dozens of others-was clear. "You can imagine the word that came out of my mouth."
There will be no more conventions in New Orleans this year. The earliest they may resume is April 1, the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau says. According to Tradeshow Week, New Orleans ranks fifth in the convention market, with a 6% share, behind Las Vegas; Chicago; Orlando, Fla.; and New York.
Moreover, no timetable has been set for the reopening of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, one of the largest in the country. The convention center fared worse from the occupancy of an estimated 30,000 hungry hurricane victims, forced to go without food or water for three days, than the hurricane itself, which did not cause major structural damage.
New Orleans drew more than 10 million visitors last year, according to the visitors bureau, which last week told BtoB's sibling publication Advertising Age that every convention booked in the next 60 days (some 122 conventions with 188,925 expected attendees) had been notified the bureau will help them relocate to another city or reschedule in New Orleans for a later date.
The Trade Show Exhibitors Association keeps an informal count on its Web site (www.tsea.org) of 24 convent ions scheduled for New Orleans in September and October that have been canceled altogether or relocated to such places as Atlanta, Orlando and Phoenix.
That doesn't include moves by the National Association of Convenience Stores or the National Business Aviation Association. NACS switched its annual show to Las Vegas Nov. 15-18. Las Vegas was one of the few venue alternatives big enough to accommodate NACS' 25,000 attendees, 1,400 exhibitors and gross exhibition space of almost 1 million square feet.
"If anything can take on last-minute planning like this, it's Las Vegas," said Daralyn Chase, sales director for Custom Conventions, a destination management company with offices in New Orleans and Las Vegas, which has 9 million square feet of convention and exhibit space, more than any other city in the world. The company is relocating 10 groups from New Orleans, a total of about 2,000 attendees.
Chase said the entire trade show industry is rooting for the Crescent City to rebound.
"It's one of our favorites in the European market and the domestic market. New Orleans is legendary for its service," Chase said.
With the pictures from New Orleans growing ever more grim, the scene in Brownell's office was repeated around the country as meeting planners scrambled to reschedule their events. That Monday after the storm, Brownell and two colleagues qulickly jumped online to compile a list of major hotel chains that could accommodate their space requirements if they were to move the conference. He knew he had to act fast: Exhibitors were already calling for updates.
In the end, Brownell was fortunate: He was able to move the conference to the Hyatt Lake Las Vegas and keep nearly the same dates, Nov. 1-3. Canceling altogether would have meant a $90,000 loss. "So far, we've only lost one exhibitor," he said.
It looks like exhibitors are also sticking with the National Business Aviation Association, which has relocated its annual meeting to the Orlando Orange County Conventi on Center Nov. 9-11, a week earlier than originally planned. The group expected as many as 30,000 attendees in New Orleans for the country's largest aviation show.
"There's no other show like it in the U.S.," said Susan Fithen, marketing and communications manager for Cincinnati-based General Electric Transportation, Aircraft Engines, a show exhibitor. She said she doesn't foresee any problems with the new venue, partly because the show has been to Orlando before. "They did a good job switching it around. I'm sure the organizers are going crazy trying to fit people into their [exhibit] spots."
Though the show is now a week sooner than in New Orleans, Fithen believes that's better than the alternative date-sometime in December, the only other time the Orlando facility was available. "That wouldn't have worked," she said. "Nobody wants to do much in December."
Her biggest task will be rescheduling her contingent's airline flights. On the other hand, she was told her hotel reservations, made a year ago, should transfer to Orlando without a snag. Fithen says the NBAA show is an important place to introduce new products and she doesn't know of any exhibitors that will skip Orlando. Representatives from two other show exhibitors, Boeing Business Jets and ExxonMobil Aviation, also said they planned to attend.
Various industry groups have created relief funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina. The Trade Show Exhibitors Association will use money it raises to help industry professionals. The Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International will match all contributions up to $25,000, with donations going to the Red Cross. The group is also extending by 90 days all memberships of its Gulf South chapter.
The Marketing Research Association, which Brownwell said has a substantial number of members in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, created a message board on its Web site, www.mra-net.org. Victims can use the forum to ask for professional help, and people outside th e region can volunteer available office space, phone lines, computers or other forms of support.
Another Web site established shortly after the storm, www.Post-KatrinaTalent.org, offers a free job board for marketing, public relations, advertising and creative professionals displaced by the hurricane.
John Deveney's boutique public relations firm, Deveney Communications, followed its own hurricane evacuation protocol after the storm. As a result, all seven of its employees left New Orleans to live with friends and family across the country while they continue to work.
The firm accepted help from a company in Jacksonsville to print a brochure. "The level of generosity that's been expressed during this has truly been inspiring," Deveney said.
Deveney, who threw the company's server into the back of his truck and drove to South Florida, stopped along the way in Montgomery, Ala., to buy a new cell phone, since the 504 area code in New Orleans was a victim of the storm. It was the one turn of events he had not planned for.