December 16, 2017
    Lessons learned from Hurricane Irma

    This was the biggest event we’ve ever cancelled on such short notice. Along the way, I learned quite a few lessons

    By Andy Freed | 09/21/2017

    We didn’t have a big conference that week.

    That’s not usually something worth writing about. But here is—as those of us old enough to remember what Paul Harvey would say—the “rest of the story.”

    You see, we were scheduled to be running a conference for nearly 1,500 people in Orlando, Fla. Hurricane Irma had other plans.

    The storm was expected to hit Orlando on Monday morning. After an initial decision to shift the conference to start on Wednesday of that week, on the previous Friday we elected to cancel the event altogether to allow the venue to provide more room to evacuees from South Florida. As a result, more than 1,300 nursing home residents were able to take our room block.

    This was the biggest event we’ve ever canceled on such short notice. Along the way, I learned quite a few lessons. Here are a few.

    Get great information. Gordon Gekko had it right in Wall Street 30 years ago (note: second reference revealing how close to 50 I am getting). Information is the most valuable commodity there is. I spent that week monitoring forecasts, talking to security and operations personnel at the venue, reading about prior hurricane damage to our hotel, and more. Along the way, I found quite a bit of misinformation and rumors—it’s critical to dig deeper to find the correct, accurate info.

    Critical communications. We sent daily email updates, tweets, mobile app alerts and more to our attendees as our plans evolved through the week. Once we made the decision to cancel, we got word out within minutes. Doing so enabled people to change plans and avoid being stranded at airports.

    Six members of our team were on site during the storm. The resilience and commitment of the hotel staff, nursing home staff, and others was inspiring. A favorite moment was a singalong in the lobby with nursing home residents as the storm was starting to hit Orlando.

    Money Matters. Of course, canceling an event of this size has significant financial implications. Our advance planning with event insurance has been critical, as has keeping lines of communication open with all vendors.

    We’re fortunate that the storm did not do damage to our hotel. Others in the area weren’t so lucky, with problems from downed power lines to flooding. More critically, our decision to cancel made a huge difference for the residents of Atria nursing home—as soon as we canceled, buses filled with nursing home residents began arriving. Having seen the heartbreaking photos from Harvey of nursing home residents in waist deep water, we were pleased to be a very small part in preventing a situation like that. And we sure learned a lot along the way.

    Freed is president of Virtual Inc., Wakefield Mass., an association management company. He also is a past TRENDS Young & Aspiring Association Professional. Contact him at This article appeared originally at the Virtual Inc. blog.

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