Pre-Planning and Heroic Efforts Enabled the Trade Show Industry to Bounce Back from Hurricane Sandy

HIL ANDERSON, SENIOR EDITOR
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A handful of cancellations and postponements were unavoidable; however, the convention centers in the storm’s path quickly shook off the damage caused by Sandy and opened their doors for move-in within a few days.

In the same post-storm period, show managers were busy helping exhibitors and getting the word out to attendees about the status of their events. “Our show team spent a lot of time on the phone reassuring our customers,” said Phil Robinson, senior vice president of GLM, which opened the International Hotel, Motel + Restaurant Show (IHMRS) on schedule November 10 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York.

Javits Center was able to open in a matter of a few days after Sandy blew through. The busy Manhattan facility experienced some flooding on the first floor and loading docks from the Hudson River storm surge, but the building itself, which is in the final phase of a major renovation, remained snug and dry.

With the venue safe and the GLM show offices re-opened, Robinson’s team focused its attention on getting the logistics of the show back on schedule and keeping exhibitors and attendees up to date. “Most of the outbound and inbound communications occurred immediately after the storm,” Robinson told Trade Show Executive (TSE). “Everyone became focused on things like where their shipments were.”

Attendees were kept up to speed through updates on the show website. For exhibitors, GLM turned to B-to-B media and the various industry associations to help spread the word the show would go on.

The associations that own the IHMRS were also given a lead role in GLM’s efforts to get the show opened on time. Robinson said a four-person group formed to take command of the show included GLM’s show manager and the heads of marketing and operations for the event as well as a representative from each association.

The other communications priority for GLM was with the show’s contractors. Freeman was general services contractor and was responsible not only for exhibitor freight, but also custom booths and graphics, standard pipe and drape, and carpeting for the show. “There were some customers that had shipped only a box of brochures and others who had sent full custom displays,” Robinson said.

Something Fishy Going On

Contractors also had to button up their own offices and warehouses and create contingency plans for their customers, equipment and employees. “We took on about two feet of water in one warehouse to the point we have pictures of dead fish on the floor,” said Marty Glynn, president and CEO of New Jersey-based Metropolitan Exposition Services, Inc. “All told, it could have been worse.”

One of the more difficult tasks was restoring contact with exhibitors in the New York region. Some suffered damage to their own facilities or simply had no way to get in touch with GLM due to loss of power. Robinson said one sizable exhibitor was out of reach for eight days.

Shuttle Service – For Employees

There were also attendees from the New York area who had no way to get into the city due to lack of public transportation. GLM put together a shuttle service that picked up attendees at commuter park-and-ride lots in the suburbs. “We tried to simplify things as much as we could in the impacted areas,” Robinson said.

Transportation woes for cities and trade shows outside Sandy’s reach also subsided quickly. Despite the cancellation of about 12,000 flights, shows outside the Northeast, including The SEMA Show in Las Vegas, reported little effect on attendance.

“The northeast represents less than 10% of our registration,” said Peter MacGillivray, vice president of events & communications for the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA). “And the airlines were accommodating. They rebooked passengers for free and that was a big help.”

PACK EXPO International in Chicago lost some attendees due to the travel disruption, but not to a significant degree. “The storm’s impact on the East Coast prohibited many attendees from making it to the show; however we still finished with the largest PACK EXPO International since 2006,” said Charles Yuska, president and CEO of the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute.

Protecting Venues

Shows like IHMRS were able to rearrange their schedules because Javits Center, like other convention facilities in the area, had their own action plans in place that allowed them to reopen with minimal downtime.

“We went through Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, so we know these storms can be a challenge,” said Bob McClintock, senior vice president of SMG convention centers who is based at the Atlantic City Convention Center. “But SMG has a great deal of experience working through these types of situations.”

SMG also became part of Atlantic City’s emergency response plan. The Atlantic City Convention Center was turned into the headquarters for disaster management personnel. It also served as a depot for buses evacuating residents and temporary shelter for some 500 folks who couldn’t get out of town.

“It all began the Wednesday before the storm with meetings between the SMG team and city officials,” said Greg Tesone, general manager of the center.

Having the convention center “open for business” at the height of Sandy was actually a blessing because SMG did not have to rely on employees making their way to work after the storm passed. “We had the whole city operations effort going on at that time so we had more people in the building,” Tesone said. “At the same time, many of our staff would have had to evacuate anyway so this gave them a place to stay.”

The result was the ability to quickly pounce on problems such as water intrusion and roof damage. Tesone told TSE  the process of getting the building ready to re-open was underway while the storm was still going on. “And there wasn’t really that much that had to back in shape,” he said.

Javits Center in New York City also benefited from having a cadre of skilled trade workers in the building during the storm.  With the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy forecast to be as high as 14 feet in the Hudson River, it was inevitable that the Javits Center, located in a Zone A area, should take in some water. By 8:00 pm on Monday October 29, the loading docks filled up with five feet of water which then spilled over and entered the building. Level 1 exhibit halls and meeting rooms were inundated with as much as four to six inches of water.

Having a previously established Crisis Management Plan, the Javits team was able to begin planning for recovery efforts even as the storm was raging. General Manager Alan Steel said that when the storm surge from the Hudson River began pouring into the loading dock and flowing into the first floor, people were on hand to throw up barriers in the hallways and then quickly get to work pulling out soaked carpeting and drying out electrical outlets and boxes.

“It wasn’t as scary as much as it was a sense that it was inevitable,” Steel said. “There was nothing you could do about it.”

When the storm subsided, Javits Center began cleaning up in earnest. The building was also pressed into service as a venue for media updates from city officials and as an arrival point for big rigs loaded with donated supplies, which were then transferred to National Guard trucks for delivery to stricken neighborhoods.

The first event to take place at Javits Center was the ING Fitness Expo, which usually also serves as a registration center for the New York Marathon. The marathon was canceled but the expo opened for a day on November 3. Fortunately, the exhibits were on the upper floors that had remained high and dry. The show was also well attended because so many runners were already in town and wanted to pick up their race numbers and few T-shirts as souvenirs of their adventure. “We opened on a Saturday, which gave the runners a destination,” said Steel.

And after the show closed, Metro Expo, the event’s general services contractor, rolled up the carpet and took it downstairs where it was installed in meeting rooms that had been flooded.

“It was truly a miracle that the event got in and open on time,” said Metro Expo’s Glynn.

Reach Phil Robinson at (914) 421-3215 or probinson@glmshows.com; Charles Yuska at (703) 243-8555) or cyuska@pmmi.org; Bob McClintock at (609) 449-2010 or bobmclintock@smgworld.com; Greg Tesone at (609) 348-7061 or gtesone@accenter.com; Marty Glynn at (201) 994-1300 or martyg@metro-expo.com; Alan Steel at (212) 216-2000 or asteel@javitscenter.com; Peter MacGillivray at (909) 396-0289, x6686 or peterm@sema.org