Hurricane Katrina—a nearly 250-mile wide, Category 4 hurricane that hit land near the Mississippi/Louisiana border just over two weeks ago—devastated an area the size of Great Britain. It also devastated the lives of many special event professionals. Here are some of their stories ...
In regard to the New Orleans office of DMC giant USA Hosts Destination Services (www.usahosts.com), headquartered in Las Vegas, "We don't have any realistic estimate of when the office will reopen," says vice president and general manager Don McPhail. "We are up and functioning right now through our national sales office, which operated from New Orleans and is now operating from Las Vegas corporate headquarters." As for business already booked in New Orleans, "We have shifted a large group to Orlando [Fla.], and others to San Francisco and other cities around the country," he notes.
Employees in the New Orleans office remain on the payroll and covered by insurance, McPhail reports. "We are relocating employees to other offices where we can, and where their family and life situations allow," he says. "Our first focus has been on our employees, who are truly like family to the rest of us in the company. We have worked together for a long time. Then on our clients, helping to relocate them and connect them to solutions to their serious challenges."
Kellie Mathas, CSEP, CMP, director of special events for USA Hosts' New Orleans office, and her husband evacuated New Orleans just in time to safely deliver their first child—son Cole—in a Baton Rouge, La., hospital on Sept. 5.
Another big New Orleans DMC—the local office of the PRA franchise network (www.pra.com)—is being operated by president Jeff O'Hara working remotely from Florida. He and his team are working to move business booked in New Orleans: "Many of the citywides have been relocated to Atlanta and Las Vegas," he explains. "Some of the smaller programs have gone to Phoenix/Scottsdale and Florida. Some programs are still in the process of checking availability in those cities and others. Many clients wanted to stay within the PRA system [and] therefore are selecting other PRA destinations."
O'Hara adds, "PRA New Orleans is committed to being an integral part of the rebuilding of the hospitality industry in New Orleans. As soon as the city sets a time line for welcoming visitors, we will be a leader in the effort to get this message to our vast network of clients. Many of our clients have reached out already during this difficult time, assuring us that their business would be in New Orleans as soon as it is practical. It is this level of support that will ensure that the hospitality community will continue to thrive on every level."
Stephen Hamel, of prop and centerpiece manufacturer Fancy Faces (www.fancyfaces.com), based in the New Orleans suburb of Covington, managed to hold on to his manufacturing facility—though Katrina tore off the metal roof and cut off electricity for 11 days. The power coming back on "was an exciting moment—considering we had been working with flashlights and a generator while packing orders," Hamel says.
With family and employees safe, he says the failure of communications systems was his biggest obstacle. "There was no communication by cell phones, and some land lines had just started to work," Hamel reports. "I had no access to the Internet." He credits determination with keeping his business alive: "We all had the determination to get our lives going forward. The destruction to the area was unbelievable."
And he is moving forward: "We will lose business in New Orleans, but are very lucky to have about 85 percent of our business out of state and international," he notes. Hamel received a call from a grateful Canadian client—Craig Gruzd of Designing Trendz in Toronto—last week. "He was overwhelmed that we pulled his job off," Hamel recounts. "He made my staff and me laugh; he said, 'You are un-*** believable!' We made his day, and he made ours."
Former ISES president David Spear, CSEP, owner of Madisonville, La.-based special effects company Classic Effects (www.classiceffects.com) and family spent nine hours driving to safety Destin, Fla., where "everyone is safe but anxious," Spear reports. "I would like to spearhead some type of relief effort for the severely impacted workers in the hospitality/events/meetings industries," he announced in an e-mail blast to colleagues. "Obviously the future is grim for housekeepers, banquet servers, decorators—even special event planners! It is way too early to know how we'll set this up, but this catastrophe cannot be allowed to destroy the lives and futures of so many people in our industry."
ISES (www.ises.com) members worldwide have already sprung into action to raise funds for Katrina relief. The nascent chapter in Calgary just hosted a fund-raiser, and the Sydney chapter's benefit is slated for Sept. 22.
To post messages—including offers of jobs and housing and to search for event professionals in the area hit by Katrina—visit the free Special Events blog by clicking here.