In the decade since Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, New Orleans has rebounded to regain its stature as a premier destination for meetings. It’s an incredible turnaround for a city that had to shutter its CVB for six weeks and close down for meetings for more than half a year. Few can take credit for the recovery more than Donna Karl Sakelakos, CMP, vice president of operations at Tradeshow Logic, who, less than a year before the storm, took over as the CVB’s vice president of client relations.
Having dealt with the fallout of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the SARS scare soon thereafter, Sakelakos applied those lessons to create an emergency plan that worked so well for New Orleans that she is now at the forefront of risk management in the events industry. Sakelakos, who more recently helped Baltimore create an emergency plan it employed this year during its civil unrest, reflected on her role during Katrina, the lessons the industry can learn from the storm and the state of risk management in meetings.
Does it feel like it’s been a decade since Katrina?
It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years. The scary part is people have started to become complacent. In today’s world, it’s really frustrating to me that meeting planners are not taking emergency planning more seriously. That upsets me more than anything.
Can you describe your role in preparing New Orleans for a disaster?
When I came on board, one of my first tasks was to create an emergency plan. So we actually had a plan when Katrina occurred. However, the emergency plan we created was good for two or three days; it wasn’t for the CVB to be shut down for six weeks. We obviously had to extend that.
Where were you when the storm struck?
Part of the plan was if there was something that happened, I needed to fly out right away to get to a place where work could continue. I was supposed to be in the city that weekend, but I flew out that Friday to my home in Chicago when it got serious and [became evident] Katrina was going to happen. The storm hit that Sunday night into Monday morning. We were able to funnel all calls to my office in Chicago to respond to our clients, and we were able to keep our website up-to-date. That worked really well.
Does one moment stand out during Katrina?
I remember having a call with Stephen Perry [president and CEO of the New Orleans CVB], and he said the storm had passed and we were all good. An hour later, the levees broke and everything, as you know, went to pot.
What was the immediate impact on meetings?
The good news was there wasn’t a major convention in town. There were some clients doing events in individual hotels.
What did you do about the events planned for New Orleans after Katrina when the city was essentially shut down?
We as a CVB managed a lot of that. We worked with many of those organizations to place them in other cities. Not only did we find them a city they could go to, but we also tried to make trades with cities. We’d say, “We’ll give you X, Y or Z association in 2005. But if they are in your city in 2008 or 2009, can we take them?” We did a lot of trading. That’s kind of an interesting way to negotiate.
How did the disaster change the city’s future planning?
Until Katrina happened, visitors were lumped into a general city plan with residents. We got New Orleans to recognize that they needed two separate plans: one for residents and one for visitors because visitors are going to react differently and there are things you can do for them that are very specific to get them out of town faster or accommodate their needs. Your residents are going to wait until the last minute.
Do you remember the first meeting to return to New Orleans?
The American Library Association was the first large meeting to come back on June 1, 2006. The first step we took was getting the meeting planner and leaders into New Orleans for a site visit. We met with the police department and talked about security and economic development and went through all the association’s concerns. We were even talking about New Orleans’ air quality—that’s the level we got to. We were very open with the association and its executives but also their attendees. If you’re an attendee and you are going to a meeting, you want to make sure the association is looking out for your best interest, and that’s what we did.
Risk management is more than just the dealing with the disaster itself, isn’t it?
The reality is a lot of times it’s more about managing media. If you look at what [Visit Baltimore president and CEO] Tom Noonan went through in Baltimore, there wasn’t a disaster in the meetings industry. There was a public relations disaster, but no one’s life was in danger. Tom had to get out in front of it, not to minimize what was going on, but to get the truth out there. He had to push through it so in the back end it didn’t last for two years with people saying, “I’m not going to go to Baltimore.”
How would you rate Baltimore’s performance?
I thought they did an awesome job. You look at it today (that was only a couple of months ago) and it is hardly talked about. That recovery time was shortened by how well they managed the media.
Is every city as prepared as New Orleans or Baltimore for a disaster?
Maybe every CVB does have a plan out there, but the few I’ve asked, they go, “Eh, you know.”
Does that affect where you bring a meeting?
Unfortunately if I took that into my criteria, I’d probably be very limited on the number of cities I’d go to. I have two meetings in New Orleans in October. I know what the city has [for emergency plans], so I think it’s one of the safest places to go.
Photo Credits: New Orleans CVB, Gary Nichols/U.S. Navy, Ben Record/Flickr