Special Events

Hurricane Havoc

Four deadly hurricanes since mid-August have caused an estimated $20 billion in damage and strained both the resources and the nerve of the event industry in the southeastern United States. But effective communications systems and a realistic appraisal of insurance coverage have helped local event professionals get back in business.

“Normal business is a challenge every day,” notes Jim “Smitty” Smith, general manager of Kirby Rental Service in Orlando, Fla. Both Hurricane Charley and Hurricane Frances forced the company to drop its tent installations; “[Hurricane] Ivan passed us by, so we got lucky,” he says. He adds, “We are doing some work in the Cayman Islands where you can’t call your neighboring states to send in their utility trucks, fuel trucks, water, ice food—count your blessings, America, we’ve got it pretty good.”

Independent planner Stacy Stern, CSEP, of The Special Events Group saw her business close down for a week when Charley wiped out power in Boca Raton, Fla., her company headquarters. She can’t even measure the cost of the hurricane series: “Who can predict the loss of revenue that might have happened?” she asks. “I am sure future clients are nervous about coming here now.”

Kellie Mathas, CSEP, CMP, felt the wrath of Ivan’s flooding in the New Orleans office of USA Hosts. Her office closed for nearly three days while employees evacuated the city. For Mathas and her family, this meant driving 22 hours to find an available hotel room in Houston, normally a 5 ½-hour drive.

She estimates that her office lost at least $50,000 in canceled business, but the company has mechanisms in place to address such problems. The company that rebooks before year-end will not lose a nonrefundable venue deposit, while branded and dated items must be paid for. “The main goal is that everyone is safe; that has to come over the bottom line,” she says. “But we know what cancellation does over the long haul to a monthly forecast.”

Here It Comes

Unlike other catastrophes, the path of a hurricane is somewhat predictable, a fact that Kelly Murphy, head of Panache Party Rentals in Pompano Beach, Fla., used to her advantage. Even though Charley, Frances and Ivan all led to cancellations, her operations stayed afloat thanks to her communications strategy. She and her team made three hard copies of all paperwork, then compressed all data and sent it to safe locations out of state. “We had a master list of all employees with three managers and called different point people after the storm to check on their status,” she explains. “Don’t panic—just go through the list and prepare. Most important is to communicate. The rest is up to a higher power.”

Dave Peters, head of Absolute Amusements in Orlando, used a similar strategy. His company had events slated in nine states plus the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and Bermuda during the hurricane series. Although some events canceled, his company was out of business “zero” hours, he says, thanks to the “many fine people [who] worked very hard to make sure very event went on time, on stage, on budget—well, at least the client’s budget—we got to eat the difference.” All told, he expects the hurricane series put a bite of between $50,000 and $125,000 on his operations.

“Having a plan in place made all the difference,” he says. “Our office teams reopened in our Las Vegas location. Sending critical equipment and data out of state was our best decision.”

Classic Effects of New Orleans also managed to pull off events—including a wedding—thanks to an effective communications program. “In spite of everyone’s high stress level because of the approaching monster storm, our contact was well-received in large part because our phone calls and e-mails were brief and specific,” reports company head David Spear, CSEP. “We gave cell phone numbers and critical deadline dates saying there would not be postponement penalties due to force majeure.”

The special effects at the wedding were particularly well received, Spear says. “I think the fireworks got a louder reaction than usual because they provided the only opportunity during a normally elegant ceremony to scream out loud and release some of the tension and anxiety!”

Understand Your Insurance

With estimates that one in five Florida homes has been damaged within the last six weeks, many will be surprised by what insurance does and doesn’t cover. Paul Creighton, CSEP, of vice president of T. Skorman Productions in Orlando, cautions that some event planners may try to cancel an event when a hurricane threatens. But “act of God” and “force majeure” clauses apply in cases of unanticipated disasters, he notes. “If a client is being prudent and wanting to avoid bringing a group to an area because a hurricane might be headed in that direction, that does not fall into an ‘act of God’ category legally,” he notes. “That’s a big distinction that most people do not understand.”

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