by Barbara Peterson | March 01, 2018
In the Florida Keys, they called it the "Irmanator," aka Hurricane Irma, a Category 4 storm that plowed through the archipelago at the beginning of September 2017, destroying residences and hotels along a nearly 100-mile swath, and cutting off the main road artery through the Keys.

In late fall, Napa Valley, the hub of California's wine country, was recovering from the worst drought-fueled wildfires in a half-century, and local businesses were half-jokingly plotting a new culinary trend: smoke-flavored wine.

And in Southeast Texas, when Hurricane Harvey dumped 50 inches of rain on the Houston area, it unleashed a tsunami of superlatives -- with some labeling it the costliest disaster in the nation's history, causing nearly $200 billion in damage, rivaling the combined recovery costs following superstorms Katrina and Sandy.

If 2017 was the "year of the natural disaster," as some have dubbed it, many experts believe it was also a turning point, adding to the growing sense -- supported by science -- that rising global temperatures will contribute to more severe weather and all the havoc it creates for some time to come.

Already, forecasts say 2018 could see another rash of record-breaking wild weather. For planners, this adds a layer of complexity to site selection, insurance and contingency plans. Conference organizers, particularly those who plan large events years in advance, are beginning to find that the topic of climate change -- and its impact on some meeting destinations -- is increasingly hard to ignore.

One looming question: What is the obligation of destinations, as well as meeting organizers, to address the impact of climate change? Moody's Investors Services recently tackled that issue, warning cities and states that they risk having their credit ratings downgraded if they don't prepare for the effects of global warming on their infrastructure. In a recent report, Moody's singled out Texas, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi as the states most threatened by a repeat of this past fall's whopper storms.

"Weather is always an issue, and whether it's good or bad, it should be factored into contingency planning," says Joan Eisenstodt of Eisenstodt Associates in Washington, D.C., who consults for meeting planners and associations. "But how many of us think about the climate issues of taking a meeting to, say, a 'winter resort' area where there might be no snow?" (In fact, that did happen this past season in Vail, Colo.)

Indeed, is this issue really on planners' radars? "I'd love to say yes," says Nancy Zavada, CMP, founder and president of MeetGreen, a sustainable-events consultancy and event-management firm, "but I'm not really seeing a lot of meeting professionals say, 'Hey, let's not meet in this place' due to climate concerns." 

For some, perhaps only firsthand experience will force that issue. "Unless you were personally affected by something, you've probably already moved on," says Lori Heller, program director, meetings and events, at the Greenhouse Agency in Santa Monica. 

But in some destinations, the subject is more top of mind than others. Heller recalls that during a program she held in New Orleans a few years ago, attendees were struck by the lingering effects of Hurricane Katrina. "We could still see the evidence" of the 2005 storm and epic flood, she notes. 

Not surprisingly, in Puerto Rico, "it is a key part of the conversation now, and every year it is becoming more important," says Milton Segarra, former CEO and president of Meet Puerto Rico, who is now CEO of Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast. Even before Hurricane Maria bore down on the island, he says, associations and companies considering Puerto Rico were asking about individual properties' ability to withstand tropical storms, along with other environmental concerns, like LEED ratings. "It's the new normal, and we have to be prepared," notes Segarra.

How real is it?
There's plenty of debate over global warming, with skeptics (including President Donald Trump) arguing that there's no firm evidence that it exists -- or, if it does, human activity isn't the cause. Meanwhile, a report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office shows the federal government alone has spent $350 billion over the last decade due to the impact of extreme weather. Further, the GAO projected, those costs will double if nothing is done to halt the trend of rising global temperatures.

The time for debate has passed in destinations that are suffering the irrefutable results of climate change. At press time, Cape Town, South Africa, was girding for "Day Zero," when the city of 4 million, a popular global meeting destination, would simply run out of water due to one of the longest droughts in the region's history. At that point, residents will have to line up at water stations to collect rations. Hotels already are limiting activities like taking a bath, swimming in the pool and the frequency of towel and bed-linen changes. If the taps do run dry by mid-July, according to the latest prediction, it could well be "the disaster above all disasters," warns Helen Zille, the head of Cape Town's provincial government. (A spokesperson for the South African tourism industry told M&C that such predictions were wildly exaggerated and that planners should not be deterred.)

As it turns out, a doomsday prediction can be a mixed blessing. The Maldive Islands, which according to some forecasts could disappear into a rising Indian Ocean by the end of the century, are now known for upscale resorts catering to a "see it while you can" imperative. For other places, the race is on to prevent their worst-case scenarios from coming true. Well before Hurricane Irma hit, for example, the Army Corps of Engineers was racing to save Key West from submersion, citing estimates that the sea level in the Florida Keys will rise 15 inches over the next 30 years. 

In the case of Venice, where periodic reports warn that the city is slowly sinking, officials have spent more than a decade investing in and constructing advanced floodgates and other technologies to keep the rising Adriatic Sea at bay. The verdict is still out on whether such efforts will ultimately succeed.

In New Delhi last year, air pollution was so bad that international airlines were forced to cancel flights into the Indian capital for several days due to poor visibility. Similar scenarios have played out in Beijing and elsewhere in both China and India, with much of the blame ascribed to the growth of coal-burning plants. While some environmental progress has been made in these countries, flare-ups of pollution persist and endanger the health of their citizens -- and their perception as safe places to visit. 

A test of hospitality
Concerns over climate change cut across all industries, of course, but for the hospitality world it's an especially delicate dance, raising the question of how to address the issue without turning off the visitors they depend on.

Puerto Rico has been working to publicize the opportunity rebuilding affords to modernize its infrastructure more in line with building codes found in South Florida, which clearly made a difference in withstanding the epic storms of this past season. 

But that will take time -- and for 2018 it seems the damage is done. Of about 100 groups scheduled to meet in the U.S. territory from last September through this June, 46 canceled outright, and dozens more postponed their events until more properties are back to normal operations. Yet, the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association went ahead with plans to hold its annual Travel Marketplace in San Juan at the end of January, drawing more than 1,000 exhibitors and attendees and providing a much needed boost to morale.

For Houston, the country's fourth most populous city, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey has been tempered by a relatively unscathed tourism infrastructure. "While a lot of residential areas were heavily impacted, 98 percent of the hotels and most of restaurants in downtown were back in business almost within the week," says Leah Shah, head of public relations for Visit Houston. She and other city officials credit the city's flood-warning and -control system for averting a greater disaster.

Houston's destination marketers are keenly aware of the power of optics: In a serendipitous turn of events, the World Series took place in Houston soon after the hurricane, on a bright sunny day that made for positive visuals and helped buoy morale, even as the greater Houston area was still dealing with extensive damage and displacement. "Having the World Series here really helped to counter the impression that was left from all the news coverage," says Shah. "It got the message out that we're open for business."

While Houston recovered quickly, other areas have physical challenges that can make it harder to regain normalcy after a natural disaster. Consider Northern California's wine region, where wildfires raged last year in early October, stoked by hurricane-force winds of nearly 80 miles per hour. Tourism is a major economic driver for the region, generating more than $1.93 billion in spending annually, and a few of the larger properties in the area were destroyed, including the 250-room Hilton Wine Country Hotel in Santa Rosa and the 124-room Fountaingrove Inn. Neither is expected to reopen.

Meanwhile, Sonoma County's tourism officials took pains to spread the word that its hospitality infrastructure was largely intact and posted a list of properties that are fully open. The bureau stressed that the fires had damaged only 10 percent of the county's 1 million acres, and that the 2017 grape harvest was already 90 percent complete. "We don't have the capacity to have 5,000 people at a convention," notes Tina Luster, a communications and marketing official at Sonoma County Tourism, "but we do have an ideal setting for smaller, more intimate events."

The upshot?
The public's concerns about the environment have multiplied over the past few decades, ever since the first Earth Day in 1970 and on through the rise of carbon offsets and sustainability movements, pushing large consumers of energy -- such as hotels, convention centers and airlines -- to prove that they have taken meaningful steps to reduce their carbon footprint. Growing instances of extreme weather have added urgent impetus to this movement.

As a natural outgrowth of that, some destinations are beginning to get out in front of the issue, calling attention to -- and  sometimes openly promoting -- their green credibility. According to MeetGreen, host cities that fall into that category include San Francisco; Madison, Wis.; and "most of Canada," as Nancy Zavada puts it. Clearly, these places recognize the need to address the growing threat to our planet. It remains to be seen whether such efforts will be able to turn an increasingly dire tide.