Austin, TX – The Austin Convention Center was able to squeeze in about 1,200 unexpected guests who were evacuated from the path of Hurricane Ike at the same time two trade shows were getting under way.
The center put all five of its exhibit halls to use for more than a week in mid-September when it was put into service as an emergency shelter for folks from the Houston area and at the same time hosted both the Austin Game Developers Conference and the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual NAB Radio Show.
The NAB Radio Show occupied 17,900 net square feet in the convention center’s Exhibit Hall 5 as well as ballroom and meeting room space and hosted nearly 3,000 attendees. The game developers used Exhibit Hall 1 and other meeting and ballroom spaces. The Ike evacuees, including about 300 children, cooled their heels in Exhibit Halls 2, 3 and 4.
“Every effort was made to make the evacuees as comfortable as possible,” said Mark Tester, director of the Austin Convention Center Department. “We kept groups cordoned off from one another, giving the evacuees as much privacy as possible.”
Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the NAB, said the shelter operation fit into the convention center so seamlessly that many of the attendees and exhibitors at the NAB Radio Show were not even aware that the evacuees were on the premises. “They were literally right next door,” he told Trade Show Executive. “You would go through the door and there would be hundreds of cots set up for people to sleep in, portable restrooms, showers and play areas for children.”
The two shows also pitched in to help make the impromptu stay as comfortable as possible for their unexpected neighbors. Exhibitors at the Austin Game Developers Conference displayed donation jars at their booths while the broadcasters rustled up $1,000 worth of toys for the evacuee children. “As a father, I can tell you that the last thing you want is kids with nothing to do,” Wharton said.
NAB show management was told the weekend before the show that it was likely that hurricane evacuees would be housed in the convention center and worked closely with the venue and with the American Red Cross. “We told them, ‘Whatever we can do to make this work; we want to help out as much as we can,’” Wharton said. “They did a splendid job navigating around a challenging situation.”
“We also asked every radio station in the U.S. to air a public relations announcement asking for donations to hurricane relief through the Red Cross,” he added.
No other events were affected by the situation. The convention center shelter closed September 25 but two other shelters remained open in Austin for people who were still unable to return to their homes.
A September 26-29 upgrade of the center’s electrical system was expected to be completed in time for the September 30 move-in of the Armstrong McCall Annual International Hair, Skin, Nail, Salon & Spa Equipment Show, which will occupy the entire center October 5-6.