Lightning planning for a post-hurricane reunion in Southwest Florida
Talk about being in a bind: When your 370-person client education and networking meeting is to take place in an area where a major hurricane raged just 20 days prior, there’s simply no way to know if you have chosen the right way to continue until the meeting dates arrive.
But Katie Wegerski, events manager for BHG Financial in Syracuse, NY, knew that 10 days before her Oct. 17-19 event at the Naples Grande Beach Resort, not far from where Hurricane Ian made landfall on Oct. 28. September: The airport was open; the station regained its power and suffered no structural damage, only cosmetic; facility staff were available for work; and the station could use the revenue at this difficult time. Oh, and force majeure would not apply to a cancellation or postponement.
In fact, the biggest challenge Wegerski faced was getting the participants to come. “We had a lot of cancellations in the first few days after the storm,” she says. “We do a lot of social entertainment at the event, and some attendees may have felt guilty for having fun in a destination facing such a terrible situation. But to ease their minds, we noted in our communications that the hotel was extremely grateful to us for wanting to move forward. On October 17, approximately 300 BHG customers showed up at the property.
Participants may also have been influenced by the fact that BHG created volunteer opportunities for them from day one. With the opening reception scheduled for 6 p.m., BHG has set up a five-hour noon schedule for meeting attendees and staff to carry out cleanup, serve food to community members and out-of-town aid workers (look at the picture) and perform other tasks. “Community centers in the area were desperately short of volunteers; they were so happy to hear from us,” says Wegerski. “Many of our employees worked in a warehouse, coordinating donated materials and loading trucks.” To further help the area, Wegerski set up a gift card drop box near the entrance to the meeting space for any individual or business that wanted to contribute. Result: nearly $10,000 raised for the cause.
The main event
The purpose behind the BHG meeting, a bi-annual affair called the National Seminar, is “to educate customers on the full range of our products, and to network and build relationships with them,” Wegerski said. The biggest question among its executives: would the quality of experience at the property be what they wanted for such a large audience? To try to make sure that would be the case, “I texted a lot with the event services people at the property,” she notes. From October 1, “every day I asked for an update and how things were going” in every department and area of the property. She relayed these updates to her leadership team, who then asked: you’re the expert, what do you think?
“I had a feeling that everything would go well for our meeting. I asked the management team if I should create a plan B for a new location, and they said no, so they were also optimistic. Now, when there was still no power to the property on October 6th, that’s when I started to get nervous. But the power was restored on October 8 and they reopened on October 10, so the hotel staff had a full week to prepare us.
Wegerski says the Naples Grande had suffered numerous broken windows and torn landscaping, “but you wouldn’t have known anything had happened around the property, even though it’s a short walk from the beach. Luckily the property sits on slightly higher ground than most of the surrounding area, which certainly helped “the property avoid damaging flooding”.
As for on-site service, all systems were working, Wegerski says. “Everyone was ready to work; the Wasn’t a problem at all with the staff. There was never a time when I couldn’t find someone when I needed to do something. And for the off-site excursions – a round of golf, a dolphin-watching cruise and a deep-sea excursion – “everything we booked worked; it was almost a miracle. The resort’s golf course had fallen trees and standing water in minutes.raison, but the course was good to play. For boat rides, the docks were storm-reinforcd, so they and the boats were intact. (the article continues after the photo below)
After the meeting was over, attendee reviews were “even better than some of our past events,” says Wegerski. “I think people understood the situation and appreciated the experience we were able to create under the circumstances.”
What advice would she have for other planners dealing with a touch-and-go situation like hers? “Emphasize to the property that you just want open and frank communication. Just tell me what’s going on – don’t sugar coat the situation and have us come to the property and be surprised. Give me a status update every day and let us make our decisions.