Having organized over 100 conferences across the country, the North American tourism promotion firm NAJ Group spends weeks planning every last detail of its events—except what to do if a surprise winter storm were to hit the East Coast. Read on to find out how NAJ Group dealt with Winter Storm Stella, and what the company learned from it.
We experienced a nightmare during our tourism technology summit eTourism LABS, held March 14–15 in Philadelphia. More than 30 percent of the event speakers had flights canceled due to Winter Storm Stella, which dumped up to 18 inches of snow in parts of Pennsylvania, closing schools, disrupting air travel and generally wreaking havoc.
On Monday, March 13, I logged onto inflight Wi-Fi en route from San Francisco to Philadelphia. Email alerts began popping up every 10 minutes from presenters whose flights had been canceled. By the time I landed five hours later, it appeared that 17 out of 43 speakers were not going to show. As eTourism LABS is largely focused on education, speakers are the lifeblood of the event. Meanwhile, attendees and speakers began contacting us to see if the summit was still going to be held.
We contacted our hotel procurement expert to see if it was contractually possible to cancel. She responded that our agreement indeed contained her favorite “f-word”—force majeure. Because airlines announced that 6,000 flights had been canceled the day before the storm, we could cancel at any time. But the hotel pick-up manifest showed that most of the attendees had arrived, so we decided to live stream the speakers in and hope for the best. It was now 14 hours until showtime.
Our team immediately moved to upgrade the hotel Wi-Fi to Ethernet level and began communicating with speakers about their abilities to present via Skype. They then worked with the hotel’s A/V team to practice toggling between Skype and live presentations. Delegates reported no serious Skype delays in the program—though quality of transmission varied depending on the strength of the speaker’s Wi-Fi connection.
To help meeting planners and other industry professionals, we wanted to share what we learned from our experience.
What to Do When Weather Grounds Your Presenters
1. Provide attendees with a plan of action. After breakfast, we gathered everyone together to announce the contingency plan. Seventeen presenters would participate via Skype, and uneven connectivity could be expected. NAJ Group would provide lunch, and DMOs and attraction attendees would receive a $400 credit towards next year’s event. When attendees are informed about what to expect, they tend to be understanding.
2. Determine the hotel’s threshold for flexibility. In our case, the hotel worked with us to adjust F&B and room-night minimums.
3. Turn to technology. Skype video call technology has advanced a great deal, both in features and call quality. It’s easy to record a Skye presentation for future distribution as well. Additional options include Google Hangouts, Facebook Live, Periscope, GoTo Meeting and even Apple’s FaceTime.
4. Upgrade your bandwidth. Upgrade to the fastest level of Wi-Fi possible at your hotel to ensure top connectivity on your end.
5. Test presentations in advance. Note that the Wi-Fi on the remote presenter’s side also needs to be strong. Presenters with the strongest W-Fi connections come across the clearest. Advise presenters to test Wi-Fi strength in various locations from which they will be broadcasting.
6. Be your own IT support. Don’t expect the hotel A/V staff to know anything about Skype or to help in connecting you to presenters. Instead, work with them to quickly toggle between remote and in-person presentations.
7. Streamline presentations for easy viewing. Two remote presenters were able to modify their PowerPoint presentations to make them more visible on Skype. By eliminating charts, graphs and tables and including slides containing fewer words, they achieved greater clarity and effectiveness. Their complete presentations were later made available later to anyone who completed the post-event survey.
Everyone from our team agreed that attendees bonded more with presenters, sponsors and each other, as the sense of shared hardship due to Mother Nature’s elements was outside anyone’s control.
Jake Steinman is founder and CEO of NAJ Group, organizer of eTourism Summit and other travel industry conferences.