by Jonathan T. Howe, esq. | October 01, 2005

As this issue of M&C goes to press, Hurricane Rita threatens to outdo Hurricane Katrina, which till now holds a perhaps fleeting record as having caused more damage than any other natural disaster in the history of the United States. To require the total evacuation of a metropolitan population in excess of one million people is truly shocking. But it is with admiration and awe that I have seen how the hospitality industry has responded to the severe devastation of the Gulf Coast.
    Like with any disruption, there are ripples. Meeting professionals everywhere, however, are breaking the mold when it comes to bracing for and facing the challenges as hundreds of meetings are being moved to new locations across the country.
    In the past several weeks, our clients who had Gulf Coast programs scheduled during the next 12 months have successfully negotiated mutual terminations of agreement in some cases made possible by a consideration to return to places like New Orleans at a later date with a similar-size meeting.

The Legalities
Legal issues will continue to arise related to events in the affected areas as well as the municipalities to which evacuees were relocated.
    In New Orleans as well as other areas in the Gulf Coast, force majeure clauses will need to be enforced. Hurricanes truly are an act of God, and even without such a clause in the contract, organizations should be able to cancel their events because the hotels and facilities are unable to perform.
    Cities welcoming evacuees into convention centers and hotels have done so without regard for the length of time the housing will be needed. Indeed, several cities flatly have informed meeting professionals that convention facilities are unavailable.
    Depending on other details in their contracts, organizations forced to cancel or postpone events either in New Orleans (i.e., the AARP, which canceled its 20,000-attendee Life at 50-Plus National Event and Expo that was scheduled for the city Sept. 29-Oct. 1) or in Texas due to hurricane damage might be entitled to compensation from the facilities they were expecting to occupy.
    Such organizations also should review their cancellation insurance policies (if they had one) to see whether they can file a claim. Do this promptly to protect your organization, as many policies specify a short time frame in which to act.

Open Dialogue
The dilemma for future meetings scheduled for the Gulf Coast: Will those cities and areas be prepared to take on their obligations? Will there be adequate transportation into and out of the city? Will meetings be subject to ongoing construction? Will there be enough trained staff (not to mention housing for hospitality employees) to adequately take care of meeting attendees?
    There needs to be steady communication between planners and hotels, convention centers and other supplier representatives. Many of these contacts have relocated their offices; get connected and explore possible issues that might affect your event.
    For those with meetings scheduled for 2006, be prepared to do another site inspection and to go forward with contractual obligations if the venue demonstrates readiness.

    Keeping communication ongoing and showing an ability to understand the respective needs of the parties is the surest way to minimize or eliminate disputes. In all cases, make certain agreements or exceptions to your group’s contracts are made in writing and signed by individuals authorized to make such decisions.