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Man holding candle in the dark

The Night the Lights Went Out in Boston

How one association struggled with whether or not to cancel its convention and expo when disaster struck.

Imagine you’re sitting down to dinner with one of your keynote speakers on the first day of your convention at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. Just as you’re about to take that first taste of clam chowder, the lights go out. And stay out.

That’s what happened to Paul Roetert, PhD, chief executive officer, Society of Health and Physical Educators, in March 2012 when a transformer at a parking garage across the street from the Hynes blew, taking out the power at the center, the SHAPE National Convention and Expo headquarters hotel, and everything else for 27 blocks. 

“This was our 127th convention, and this was a first,” Roetert told attendees at a session held during the 2016 American Society of Association Executives Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City this summer. Oh, well, he thought, it’s just a blown transformer and a little fire—how bad could it possibly be?

Dealing with Disaster

With only limited electricity from an emergency generator, the night sessions that were scheduled weren’t going to happen, so SHAPE staff informed the convention’s 6,000-plus attendees to check back in the morning for an update. With only one elevator working on generator power, attendees grabbed glow sticks and made their way back to their rooms, or to the bar—“there was a healthy amount of drinking going on,” said Roetert. That was Tuesday, the first day of the event, which was scheduled to run until Saturday.

The next morning found Roetert taking photos of the parking garage where the transformer fire happened, pausing to tell speakers as their taxis drove up that they should just head back to the airport. They were not happy, but with no juice, there was only one room that had enough natural light available to make holding a session feasible. SHAPE did hold a session there Wednesday morning, using a generator-powered microphone, but by 10 a.m. Roetert told everyone to go out and enjoy the city for the rest of the day.

“The insurance company kept telling us to keep going, that once the power came back up we’d be fine,” he said. By the time SHAPE attendees returned to the hotel, the lights were still out, but some exhibitors brought equipment to the hotel and engaged people in some games. “Though in retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best idea to have people running around and jumping in the dark,” he said, as his legal representative and co-presenter, Eileen Johnson, Esq., CAE, partner, Whitford, Taylor, Preston LLP, nodded vigorously. “I’m glad I didn’t know about that until now,” she said.

The next morning, the area was still out of electricity and hot water. SHAPE leadership met with the directors of the convention center, the host hotel, and staff, and then with the communications director of the convention authority for the Hynes to determine the health and safety concerns in the exhibit hall, where the show’s 240 exhibitors were already set up. “We wanted to have one synchronized message to send out from all of us,” said Roetert.

The convention center, which was filled with diesel fumes and exhaust from the generator, was too hazardous to allow anyone to enter, so the expo and a product showcase was canceled. Organizers were able to hold a general session using the one mic, but the conference was barely able to limp along. Organizers kept being told that the power would be back soon, to hold on and not cancel. Given the hopeful messages, the insurance company was loathe to give the green light to taking down the remainder of the convention, but by 6:30 that night, with the power still out, SHAPE was finally able to officially cancel the convention.

What Went Right

Johnson outlined some of the things that SHAPE did that helped to mitigate the risk.

• SHAPE had a disaster plan in place that covered what to do in case of fire, outlined available emergency services, and established a chain of command and a communication plan. While it didn’t cover the power outage specifically, there was enough structure in the plan to take care of most of the main contingencies.

• The organization had a good cancellation insurance policy in place.

• While on site, they kept good attendance records so they knew who they had in house. They also based all decisions on what would be the best for the health, safety, and comfort of attendees.

• SHAPE organizers worked closely with everyone involved to make sure they had a consistent message and approach. Being told that the power was going to come on hour by hour made it hard to balance giving people accurate information without leading them on, but organizers communicated frequently with attendees, exhibitors, staff, and the board, using multiple communication channels. It was the first year SHAPE offered a conference app, and that came in handy for messaging. They also sent messages via social media and their own website, but, says Roetert, it was the boards on easels that were posted around the property that were the most effective.

• Roetert and his staff documented everything, starting from the initial blackout, which helped to smooth the insurance claims process. Having a third party verify that it wasn’t safe to continue also helped to convince the insurance company to OK the cancellation.

• Organizers kept up their sense of humor. Roetert said that, since the show would be coming back to Boston in 2017, SHAPE staffers asked attendees to come up with a slogan for the future meeting. Among the suggestions: BYOB (with “B” standing for batteries), Generators R Us, and SHAPE 2017: It Will Transform You.

• “The real work started after we got back to the office,” said Roetert. Despite the paperwork nightmare of reimbursing registration fees and dealing with people who wanted reimbursement for things that weren’t covered by insurance, he said the insurance claims rep was great at getting the claims covered quickly.

Lesson Learned

While exhibitors are told in their exhibitor agreements that they assume liability for getting their own cancellation insurance, there was not a clearly stated cancellation policy for attendees. And that caused a few problems.

The association reimbursed attendees for their registration fees, but could not cover airfare, hotel, food and beverage, taxi service, etc. “We just couldn’t afford to do that,” said Roetert. They also gave attendees the option of rolling the 2012 registration fees forward to 2013, which caused a lot of extra work on the part of staffers after they got back to the office. “It really slowed down the reimbursement process,” he said.

SHAPE has since added language to its attendee policy to spell out that the organization will refund only registration fees in the incidence of a cancellation. “We advise them to purchase their own trip insurance,” added Johnson.

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