June 01, 2001
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio June 2001 Current Issue
June 2001 Tech filesPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:


BY Bob Walters

Some steps to take when a blackout threatens your meeting

As the first rolling blackouts hit California in January, many planners wondered, “What if that happens during my meeting?” It’s a smart question, considering some experts have warned that blackouts might occur around the country this summer as the air conditioning is turned on. But cool air is only part of the story.

As you log on to the Internet and marvel at its wealth of data, think about how many servers are needed to hold it all and make connections from one site to another.

One of the phenomena of the Internet Age is the creation of server farms buildings housing hundreds or thousands of computers dedicated to storing Web pages and processing search requests. These farms have double and sometimes triple redundancy in order to support the Web’s backbone. One of these farms can consume as much electricity as 10,000 homes. Cluster several farms in the technology hotbeds like San Jose, Los Angeles, Austin and Washington, D.C. and you overload an already taxed electrical supply. Add in office buildings with sealed windows and constant climate control, and it’s easy to see where all the power is going.

During a blackout, attempts are made to keep hospitals, airports and other critical services supplied. All other facilities fall on the B list.

A blackout can affect air and ground travel. The first repercussion for your meeting could be that some attendees and speakers won’t arrive on time, or at all. By how much will this reduce your pickup for the night? Will you meet your minimum room block, or will your organization be charged hotel attrition fees?

Now, suppose the meeting is at a large convention center and the power goes out for a couple of hours. Suppose this happens during the last hour of your trade show, right before your luncheon and keynote speaker.

Your first concern should be safety. You’ll need a contingency plan to assist attendees in wheelchairs when no elevators or escalators are running. Consider also those people who might suffer an asthma attack or shortness of breath when the air conditioning shuts down.

In our scenario, you might have exhibitors upset at losing that valuable last sales contact; your luncheon is probably in the final stages of preparation, and your speaker has no A/V to use for the presentation assuming he is even at the site.

Scouts say it best: Be prepared.

Back-up plans. First, find out in advance what emergency power-generating capabilities your facilities have. Also find out what emergency services they are prepared to provide during a blackout. If the hotel has electronic locks on guest-room doors, how will attendees get into their rooms if the power goes out? Are there emergency elevators or other means of moving people needing assistance?

Save to disk. Nothing is worse than losing power at registration time or during a technology workshop. Make backups of all registration information; bring charged extra batteries for notebook computers and cellular phones. It’s also a good idea to make sure all presenters have printed handouts so the show can go on even if a little darkened.

In the registration bag. Flashlights, glow sticks and glow-in-the-dark badge hangers or holders can be fun giveaways, and they’ll come in handy if the lights go out. Include a concise “Blackout Briefing Sheet” in the registration packet that explains what to expect, where emergency exits are, and some “dos and don’ts.”

Bob Walters, based in Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, is the founder of Phoenix Solutions and developer of MeetingTrak software.

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