Hotel Online  Special Report

 The Threat of Hurricanes, Floods, Fires, Earthquakes and Tsunamis
Pose Difficult Questions for Meeting Planners, 
Hotel and Convention Center Managers
By Sandi Cain
Orange County Business Journal Staff
February 2006

February 2006 - The convention industry is taking another look at emergency procedures in the wake of last year’s devastating hurricane season. 

Meeting planners wonder what they can do to prepare, short of supplying every conventioneer with a disaster kit. Hurricane Katrina left the insurance industry with a lot of tough decisions to make. And traditional convention powerhouse New Orleans still is trying to figure out how to rebuild. 

“New Orleans was a wake-up call for everybody,” said Dave Meeks, general manager of the Anaheim Convention Center.

Seventy-two percent of convention planners typically ask if a facility has disaster or evacuation plans, according to a November survey by Meetings & Conventions, an industry trade publication. But just over half tailor contingency plans to every event.

And only about a quarter of them buy cancellation insurance, according to Eileen Hoffman, assistant vice president of insurance services company AON Corp. in Washington, D.C. 

Since 2001, most plans focused on preparation for terrorist attacks. Now, natural disasters are at the top of contingency planning again.

While Orange County isn’t subject to hurricanes, the threat of floods, fires, earthquakes and tsunamis poses difficult questions for meeting planners, cities, and hotel and convention center managers.

Anaheim—the hub of the county’s convention and tourism industry—must include plans for the resort district where Disneyland, the convention center, Arrowhead Pond and Angel Stadium of Anaheim are concentrated.

Along the coast, cities have to consider visitors in their plans for flooding, mudslides, tsunamis or high surf. 

“Business and industry has a big stake in what cities do in terms of disaster planning, response and recovery,” said Dave Wiggins, past president of Anaheim-based SoCal Tourism Safety & Security Association.

Companies need to look at more than just the availability of hotel rooms after a disaster, said Tim Brown, managing partner of Newport Beach-based Meeting Sites Resource. 

“You need a fair assessment of what’s contracted for and what’s available,” he said.

If restaurants aren’t open and airline service is scarce, the potential destination might not be a good choice, he said.

Big Easy: Long Road Back

Some 45% of planners will wait at least two years before taking a convention back to New Orleans, according to the Meetings & Conventions survey. Two years ago New Orleans had 10 million visitors and about $5 billion in visitor spending. Some 80,000 jobs were supported by the tourist industry in the Big Easy.

A two-year hiatus would be devastating to OC business. The county hosted roughly 42 million visitors last year. One million of those were conventioneers. 

This year, roughly 600 meetings and conventions will bring another 1 million to town, about a third of them in the first quarter alone.

The key to disaster preparedness is to anticipate what might happen and have plans in place for those situations, Brown said. Cancellation clauses in contracts also help.

AON’s Hoffman expects more planners to buy cancellation insurance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. She said there was a spike in policies after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Brown intends to take more time to learn what plans host cities have in place.

“We have a very thorough force majeure clause that covers just about everything, but New Orleans put a new spin on things,” Brown said.

Detailed safety, security and disaster plans can help a city lure convention business.

The Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau gets many queries about security from convention groups, said President Charles Ahlers. 

Convention sales staff members often take police and security officers along when planners come here for site inspections.

“When we market the building, we point to Anaheim’s safety record,” the convention center’s Meeks said.

Staff reviews safety and security procedures with almost every group coming to the convention center, Meeks said. His staff also meets monthly with hotels and the police department. 

“The city and convention center take us seriously,” said Kevin Johnstone, director of tradeshows for the NAMM Show, Anaheim’s largest convention.

Crisis planning in OC’s tourist and convention hub goes well beyond the convention center.

Hotels such as the Hilton Anaheim provide insider tours to meeting planners, who do a complete review of all safety measures.

City officials meet monthly with county and state agencies and ham radio operators who serve as a backup communications team.

Anaheim’s preparedness plan was approved by the state in 2004. This year it will be updated to meet national standards, said Ellen Lopez, manager of the city’s office of disaster preparedness.

Anaheim offers emergency response training to area businesses, including hotels. It has a satellite communications system in place, tests backup generators monthly and has agreements with private companies for equipment and services needed in an emergency.

Meeting and convention planners approach disaster planning in different ways.

Large conventions such as NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) have intricate plans in place, while others rely on the convention center and hotels to get them through.

NAMM’s Johnstone took part in a simulated disaster at the convention center last summer that used a model based on the NAMM show.

Along the coast, cities have focused on tsunamis. 

While only a handful of deaths have resulted from tsunamis statewide during the past 150 years, new coastal resorts perched at the edge of the sand have heightened the issue.

In October, Huntington Beach became the first city in the state to be designated “storm ready” by the National Weather Service. 

Dana Point recently became the first OC city to be certified “tsunami-ready”—an extension of the Weather Service program. Huntington Beach hopes to earn that designation by the middle of the year.

Both cities work closely with their resort and business communities.

“We have established communication links with the resorts,” said Mike Rose, Dana Point’s emergency and support services manager.

Dana Point works with the OC Sheriff’s Department to coordinate evacuation plans. The city is inside the San Onofre nuclear plant’s evacuation zone.

Huntington Beach asks hotels to take part in its emergency response training. The city also has a siren system to warn of dangers. 

After Hurricane Katrina, the city updated its efforts to arrange emergency bus service from the beach. 

“We can have 100,000 people at the beach and many of them are kids with no means of transportation” said Glorria Morrison, emergency services coordinator for the city.

California Model

Compared to the Gulf Coast, California is far more advanced in disaster preparedness, Dana Point’s Rose said. 

“The state’s Standard Emergency Management System is the model for new national standards,” he said.

Still, businesses must make sure workers feel safe enough to stay during a crisis. 

“What we learned with Katrina is that you can’t count on the fact that employees will stay at work,” NAMM’s Johnstone said.


Sandi Cain is a freelance writer and contributor to the Orange County Business Journal and meetings industry publications. She specializes in hospitality, tourism and travel. Cain holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Kent State University in Ohio, where she majored in social studies. A former high school teacher, she has written for niche-market sports publications in the U.S., England and Australia and formerly worked in both the printing and high-tech industries. A Cleveland, Ohio native, Cain hasbeen a resident of Laguna Beach since the late ’70s. She enjoys travel, gardening, reading and spoiling her three cats.

Sandi Cain
Laguna Beach CA

Also See: In Recent Years, the Fall Convention Business Has Been Scarce in Anaheim / Sandi Cain / August 2005
No Debuts and a Few Less Rooms Mark Hotel Scene in Orange Country, California / Sandi Cain / May 2005

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