Hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, floods, and other weather events are realities event professionals must plan for. A detailed disaster preparedness plan is key.
Global warming has a far-reaching impact — events included. It is contributing to extreme weather which makes an event planner’s already tough job even tougher. It’s essential to have a disaster preparedness plan in place to deal with extreme weather.
According to a UN report, greenhouse gas emissions are at their highest level in two million years. These gasses blanket the planet and trap the sun’s heat. That’s why the earth is now 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was in the late 1800s. The US Environmental Protection Agency blames us for the increase. Our reliance on fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation being the biggest culprits.
As the temperature increases, polar ice caps melt, sea levels rise, and the weather changes — for the worst. In addition, the jet stream has become more amplified, causing larger, slower-moving storms with patterns that get stuck in one place. The result is longer heat waves, more intense winter storms, and hurricane seasons that are more active and unpredictable.
So far, this summer is off to a bad start, with extreme weather events ravaging multiple states recently. In Montana, historic flooding devastated communities and infrastructure in and around Yellowstone national park and forced a rare closure. Further south, reservoirs sank to new lows, triple-digit heatwaves left millions sweltering, and wildfires ripped through Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska, and California.
There is a 65% chance of an above-normal season, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center’s 2022 Atlantic Hurricane Season forecast.
By now, most event professionals know that weather instability is a reality to contend with, but how many have a meetings-specific disaster preparedness plan in place? According to Tyra Warner, an attorney, and professor who teaches hospitality law and crisis management at the College of Coastal Georgia, not many. “Ever since Hurricane Katrina, smart planners started implementing contingency plans for weather events, but many still don’t have plans in place,” said Warner. “It can seem daunting to develop such a plan, but taking it one step at a time makes it more manageable.”
1. Get it in Writing
The crisis management plan must be written out in full, with all stakeholders having had the chance to help develop it — especially during the contract phase. Hoteliers in large cities often don’t want to let planners out of contracts until the 11th hour, when it’s 100 percent sure the hurricane will hit their city. “That’s too late for the group. Planners need time to execute their plan B, which entails finding an alternative destination and notifying the attendees, and making new travel arrangements. That all takes time, and it needs to be in your contract,” said Warner.
Insurance is another option planners should start looking at to get added security for their attendees. Trip insurance allows travelers to cancel their trip ahead of departure if inclement weather is becoming a concern, as long as it’s purchased before a hurricane is named and imminent. Cancel for Any Reason (CFAR) can be added to any typical trip policy, requiring no justification for canceling for an added level of flexibility.
2. Plan for a Fire Drill
Remember the fire drills from grade school? You cannot do that at a meeting, but it’s crucial to have an onsite strategy for a fire drill when a weather event hits during your meeting.
Familiarize yourself with the alarm system at the property. “Do this during the pre-event site inspection. Make sure the alarms can be heard in the meeting rooms, or is it only in the public areas because that can happen sometimes,” said Warner.
3. Communication is Key
Nail down if there is going to be an alarm or if there will be an announcement over the public address system that will tell people where to go. Also, choose a spokesperson or spokespeople. It should be the lead planner supported by someone from the hotel. “One thing most planners fail to do is to bring the event speakers into the loop,” said Warner. “I’ve spoken at many conventions, and nobody has ever briefed me on what to do in an emergency. That’s something that should be standard practice. Speakers are an obvious choice for initially informing the attendees and acting as a bridge to the planner or the hotel staff person who can communicate the pertinent details of the situation to the attendees — especially if it’s a big convention and the staff can’t be everywhere.”
4. Have an Evacuation Plan in Place
Of course, know where all the exits are related to each meeting room the group uses. But beyond that, have a plan for the group if they have to use the exits. “Sometimes there’s a shelter in place alarm and an evacuation alarm. The worst thing you want to do is evacuate if there’s a tornado or hurricane outside. So figure out where you want people to go,” said Warner.
If the plan is to shelter inside the property, have a route marked out by staff that directs the attendees to the gathering point, usually an inside ballroom or even a sub-basement area in the hotel if it’s really serious. Also, plan to distribute water, food, and blankets if necessary.
If the plan is to leave the facility, Warner advises against reinventing the wheel. Find the facilities plan, and then adapt that to your needs if necessary. “Make sure that as a planner, you walk the evacuation route when you get on-site, and choose a muster point, a place that you will gather your people, and your staff and the hotel,” said Warner. “It’s not enough to just get the group outside the building. You need a place to gather so you can make sure everybody got out safely.”
5. Get Out of Dodge
Sometimes that’s easier said than done. Especially in these times with all the problems, airlines are having. Savvy planners have contingency contracts with other modes of transportation if it becomes unrealistic for a group to travel by air. “Amtrak and bus companies are the more common suppliers to turn to, but I’ve known of some cases where smaller meetings have even used rental cars, but that’s rare,” said Warner. “Whichever way groups go, it’s crucial to have contingency contracts set up in advance just in case your group does get stuck on the ground.”
6. Avoid the Political Firestorm
Climate change has long been a very politicized issue, and thoughts on it are divided along party lines in the US. Don’t get hung up on that debate when deciding internally on a plan. “Stay focused on the fact that big storms and other natural disasters have become more severe and more costly in the past 30 years, particularly in North America, for whatever the reason,” said Warner.