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Houston flooding from Hurricane Harvey Photo by Citysqwirl / © Getty Images
Flooding in Houston street due to Hurricane Harvey.

Back in Business: Special Event Pros Share Their Comeback Strategies After Disasters

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, four special event experts share how they bounced back after natural disasters--and you can, too.

Twelve years ago today, 85 percent of New Orleans was underwater due to Hurricane Katrina, and the governor had ordered everyone—including refugees in the Superdome—to evacuate the city.

As Texas struggles to recover from Hurricane Harvey, Special Events shares the stories of four event professionals who endured similar disasters and how they got back into business ASAP. Here is how they pulled it off:

Kellie Mathas: Keep Your Clients Close

In 2005, Kellie Mathas was working at Hosts New Orleans and “nine-plus” months pregnant when Katrina hit. Some staffers dispersed to other Hosts offices while four others remained in New Orleans. The team managed to get operations back up, which took three months. Getting the entire team in place took roughly a year, she says.

To keep your valued clients, Mathas says:

1. Don't wait to reach out to your clients to ask for support of your city and to ensure they keep their previously planned meetings or events booked. Most often, people want to help but aren't sure how to reach out, so you have to be an advocate for your city.

2. Some customers want to come in to see the devastation in order to decide if they will keep their convention in the city. If you are the person in your company responsible for showing them around, make sure you are not to be the only one to take on this burden. If you are the only one, it can make you feel overwhelmed and depressed about the destruction that surrounds you.

3. Encourage your clients who do keep their commitments to the city to opt for nontraditional ways to incorporate givebacks for your city. Whether it is cans of food built creatively instead of floral centerpieces or team-building projects that help to restore a playground, there are always ways that corporations can and will help.

4. Understand that you will have to be flexible with what used to be and what your reality is today. You may have to change your market direction or expand to a market you never really wanted to pursue, but out of necessity you must in order to stay afloat. Sometimes, that fork in the road that at the present might seem very dark could lead you into an exciting new career path that--had the disaster not occurred--you would have never pursued.

Mathas adds, “NOLA [New Orleans, La.] has Houston’s back. It's time we pay it forward.”

Kellie Mathas, CSEP
Owner/Chief Creative Officer
Crystal Clear Creative
New Orleans

Bonnie Boyd: Keep the Doors Open

When Katrina hit, the BBC team evacuated New Orleans but kept working remotely, and by mid-September were able to get most of the team together in the offices of the Baton Rouge [La.] CVB. Company head Bonnie Boyd and her team stressed to the industry that New Orleans would survive. “When the call from the pharmaceutical company with whom we had partnered for several years came in late September--we were still in Baton Rouge--we were able to pull rabbits out of the hat and actually do the event in the city,” Boyd says. “That meeting was Oct. 13-16, 2005.”

When the storm warnings come, Boyd says:

1.                Prepare.
Make sure all insurance policies on your property and business are in order and updated, as well as those policies of major vendors. Ensure that client contracts include plainly understood cancellations policies, insurance limitations and force majeure. Internally, BBC updates its disaster preparedness manual and evacuation plans annually along with relevant emergency training. All staff--both full-time and part-time--must understand these policies and procedures.

2.                Remember the importance of partnerships
Partnerships in times of crisis are paramount. BBC is a member of Global DMC Partners, a worldwide consortium of independently owned DMCs. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, we consulted with our clients and worked together with our partners to successfully relocate a number of contracted and proposed programs to one of the destinations represented by our extraordinary partners. Our clients were appreciative, and we knew that we had acted in their best interest. It also helped BBC know that we were not alone.

Additionally, working with vendors here in the region meant that we were poised to respond to the emerging requirements of a city recovering from Hurricane Katrina. New opportunities presented themselves, and it was partially because of our longstanding vendor relationships that BBC could respond early and quickly. Within a month, BBC staged the first corporate meeting to return to New Orleans, granted a rarity but a success nonetheless. As the weeks went by, the word went out that we were open and we were able to support the efforts of early construction, giveback workers and non-government organizations.

3.                Remember your resilience
From the get-go, BBC knew that New Orleans would make it through and that so would we. What sustained us was a belief in the city, our company and our team. The importance of persistent, positive and correct marketing cannot be stressed enough. We constantly got the word out by continuing to attend trade shows, organizing dedicated travel promotions, and cooperating with the CVB’s efforts to accurately communicate New Orleans’ ongoing recovery. With solid preparation and strong partnerships, we acted quickly and efficiently on behalf of our clients. While this was an exercise that no one should ever have to go through, it made us stronger and more dedicated to our industry and to our great city. To quote Denise Malo, DMCP, director of operations at BBC Destination Management, “Prepare. Protect. Partner. Persevere.”

Bonnie Boyd, CMP, DMCP
President and CEO
BBC Destination Management
New Orleans

Stacy Stern: Keep Your Life Online

Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina are famous right now, but plenty of big, bad hurricanes have wreaked havoc over the years. Stacy Stern has endured several—the worst, she says, was Hurricane Andrew in August 1992. But despite the mayhem, “My office was never down because the first thing I did was forward my phone to my cell,” she says.

When the storm is brewing, Stern says:

1.      Pack up all your jump drives and discs.

2.      Take your laptop and Ipad with you.  They will be your lifeline to communicate.

3.      You may not be able to access the Internet due to the lack of electricity, so you should have a wireless Internet card. This will allow you to be in touch with your clients.

4.      Make sure in all your contracts that there is a clause stating that you will not be responsible for “acts of God.” Having this clause will protect your financial obligation to produce events taking place where the hurricane hit.

5.      Forward your calls from your company phone to your cell. This way, you won’t miss a call.

6.      Take any files that you are currently working on. This will ensure you won’t miss a beat.

7.      Make sure you have your chargers with you and a backup power source so you can function.

“I have had to leave town several times and having done all the above allowed me to keep my business going and let my clients know that their events are in good hands,” Stern says.

Get the jump on your clients’ needs, she advises. “Right after the hurricane passes, you should send out a letter to all you clients and vendors letting them know you are alive and well and ready to work. Ask them how they are and if they need anything,” she says. “Next, contact all the venues you are working with and find out what condition they are in. If they have severe damage, then you need to find new ones. Find out if your vendors' businesses are still intact and if the items you need are still available.”

Hosting a special event is a step in the right direction for the recovery process, Stern adds. “In times of disaster, a good party lets people know that there are still good times to be had.”

Stacy Stern, CSEP
The Special Events Group
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Kelly Murphy: Keep Your Operation in One Piece

A longtime Floridian, Kelly Murphy been through plenty of hurricane watches, warnings and actual storms over the years, she says. But, she calls Hurricane Wilma—which followed Katrina in 2005 but hit Florida harder—as the “wake-up call” for her business.

To keep the operation intact, Murphy says:

1.      Prep managers for employee welfare check-in both pre- and post-storm. (Team members should have manager info, and managers should have two contact numbers for each employee)

2.      Prep the building and property (with hurricane impact windows or shutters), check the roof and yard, and tie down or remove any loose items

3.      Get electronics off the floor (unplug them to avoid power surges)

4.      Move your business server to a remote host. Before the cloud, we sent our data out of the state to run off a remote server.

5.      Safeguard account numbers and necessary documents.

6.      Read your insurance policy. (We had roof damage from the secondary storm two days later and the warehouse flooded. Our adjuster insisted it was hurricane damage and we were not covered.)

7.      Fill all the vehicles with fuel 

8.      Set your generators on standby (with enough fuel)

9.      Back up cellphones with a different carrier 

10.   Get extra cash out of the bank in case power goes out. (Our bank was closed for several days.) 

11.   Source extra supplies you may need to continue your business if vendors are unavailable

12.   Advise customers and vendors of your storm plan; maintain a list to communicate post-storm for pending events

13.   Heed the warnings of the local authorities.

14.   Make sure you have plenty of water, food, extra batteries and flashlights

15.   Consider Facebook check-in for your team--we did not have Facebook 12 years ago.

“All of the above is ok if you can get back to work in a couple of days,” Murphy says. “However, long-term power outages, fuel shortages, property damage, other businesses damaged, traffic impairments—such as road damage, traffic lights out, flooding, etc.--become the new normal.  So adapting and trying to stay positive through it all is challenging, stressful and exhausting.”

But, she adds, “The light comes through in the way of family, friends and coworkers pulling together. Even strangers become your new friends helping to get through the mess. When a disaster affects a widespread area, the recovery is challenging because everyone is struggling just like you.  But there is nothing like the human connection and compassion to erase the negative and lend a helping hand, and it is a two-way street. My heart goes out to Houston and the surrounding area, and my prayers and appreciation of the rescue teams both professional and volunteers. You can be sure that EPTA [Event Pros Take Action, which helps repair homes damaged in storms] will be heading to Houston to lend a hand when the water recedes.”

Kelly Murphy
Events on the Loose
Deerfield Beach, Fla.


Donate to SEARCH: "SEARCH Foundation is the leading organization in fundraising for the live event community and in times of crises, like the one our friends in Houston and surrounding areas are going through right now, we intend to be there to help and support our community. Our funds are raised by, and for, our community and like everyone, we need to be prepared to help those in need.  Now more than ever, we can use the support by donating at the SEARCH Foundation or joining our prestigious SEARCH100 to be a regular contributor and ensure in times of crises, SEARCH will always have the funds and ability to help everyone that needs us.”—Aaron Kaufman, CSEP, SEARCH Chairman

Support ILEA Houston: ILEA is sharing the news and needs of the ILEA Houston Chapter.

Support NACE: NACE has set up a clearinghouse for contributions.

Book an event at Town and Country, help the flood victims: Town and Country Event Rentals, based in Los Angeles, will donate $10 for every order placed in September to the American Red Cross and flood victims. The offer applies to both current and new orders of any size.

Support PCMA: PCMA has options for donations both inside and outside the U.S. If you live in the U.S.: Text to 41444, enter prefix “HELPTX," the dollar amount, and your first name and last name (e.g., HELPTX 50 Jane Doe). You will then then receive a link to complete the process of your payment. If you live outside of the U.S.: Visit the foundation's donation page here and enter HELPTX in the "I give because" box and PCMA will ensure your donation is directed to the PCMA Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.

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