by Sarah J.F. Braley | November 01, 2005

Jordy Tollett of the Greater Houston CVB

Jordy Tollett of the
Greater Houston CVB

In early September, when Houston’s Mayor Bill White declared that the city’s George R. Brown Convention Center would be used in its entirety to house evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, the general worldwide reaction was, “How kind of them.” The meetings industry’s concern was, “How is Houston going to handle the event cancellations and lost business?”
    The answer: Without a hitch. Of the three major events already scheduled, one was moved to a different facility (La Cumbre, a trade show for travel professionals from the Americas, took place at nearby Minute Maid Park over its contracted dates), and one was postponed to next year (the biennial U.S.-Arab Economic Forum is tentatively scheduled to come to Houston in June).
    Only the Texas Association of School Boards and Administrators Convention left town, taking with it about $10.7 million worth of business originally slated for Houston. That event was held Oct. 28-30 at the Dallas Convention Center.
    All other, smaller meetings and events either were accommodated or postponed.
    “Houston, in every way, benefited,” said John M. Keeling, senior vice president of PKF Consulting, who is based in the city. “When people realized the utter devastation of Katrina, nobody wanted to stand in the way of the recovery. There was a real strong spirit of cooperation across the board.
“While the Astrodome and the convention center certainly got the lion’s share of publicity,” Keeling added, “there were thousands more evacuees who came in and occupied the hotels and paid their bills.”
    Indeed, even as recently as the middle of October, the city still had 52,000 evacuees in 18,000 hotel rooms, according to Jordy Tollett, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. Monday through Wednesday, he said, occupancy was running at about 90 percent. “I don’t see that going away any time soon,” he added.
    Meanwhile, Hurricane Rita, which hit land on Sept. 24, hardly had any effect on meetings, as the city’s convention facilities weren’t scheduled
to be reopened for business until October. Any evacuees who remained in the convention center and the Reliant Astrodome were taken to Arkansas for safety.
    At press time, Tollett had the happy challenge of worrying about available hotel rooms when baseball’s Houston Astros made it to the World Series at the end of October. He said a plan was being developed to move some of the remaining evacuees from Houston’s hotels to properties in Corpus Christi and South Padre Island, both in Texas, where occupancy is sparse in late fall/early winter.