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939 - Learning Meets Hurricane Threat: A Planning Story

Learning TRENDS by Elliott Masie - October 9, 2016.
#939 - Updates on Learning, Business & Technology.
57,594 Readers - - twitter: emasie - The MASIE Center.
Host: Learning 2016, Oct 23 to 26, Orlando - 1,579 Colleagues Registered 

When Learning and Hurricane Threats Meet: A Personal Perspective!
By Elliott Masie 

Occasionally, I share the backstory of the planning and implementation process of our learning productions.  So, for the past 10 days, we have been monitoring the pathway and possible disruption of our Learning 2016 event by Hurricane Matthew. 

First, the good ending.  Matthew’s path did not impact Orlando and everything is A-OK for Learning 2016 - hotels, parks and airports are open and it was 87 degrees and sunny on Saturday afternoon!  We will welcome over 1,600 participants two weeks from today! 

But, let me take you through the ramp up, anxieties and planning process that we and many other global conferences scheduled for Orlando went through over the past few days. 

Most of the planning process for Learning 2016 is focused on elements that we control or modify.  We have backup speakers, should one of our amazing keynoters have to drop out at the last minute.  We plan for registrations swings, from surges to dips, and have adjusted for a recent trend of participants registering just a few days before the event.  And, even content changes are part of the planning process - where I add several sessions and topics in the last month, as technology and methodology adapts quite rapidly. 

But, the possibility of a MAJOR disruption like a Hurricane, is impossible to prepare for in planning a major event.  And, we now have the added role of “Breaking News” coverage of impending storms, which amplifies the awareness of a potential storm and can impact our colleagues’ travel and registration plans. 

As Hurricane Matthew’s path towards the East Coast of Florida became clear and the news coverage spiked, we watched the daily registrations for Learning 2016 drop by almost 70%.  I took calls from colleagues around the world saying that they would wait a few days to see if Orlando was damaged by the storm.  So, I went into Hurricane Threat Reaction Mode: 

- We adjusted our room block at the hotels, knowing that there would be more registrations after the event.  This included a monetary guarantee of a block of rooms that we normally “release” around October 3rd.  In other words, we placed a financial “bet” that the weather would pass and we should have rooms open for last minute registrations. 

- Monitoring the Preparations in Orlando: We were in constant contact with our colleagues in Orlando, including team members at Disney and other production partners. It was impressive to see their safety measures, including closing the theme parks for 2 days and working with the conferences that were already starting in Orlando (including a 6,000 person conference that needed to radically alter its schedule and program). 

- Preparing for a Trip to Orlando: If the storm had hit Orlando directly, I would have found a way to get down a team down to Orlando for planning adjustments and live video feeds to update our participants.  The goal would have been to make any planning adjustments and to provide real time updates to our participants. (We even have yellow rain jackets with MASIE Center logos, just like the weather people broadcasting from the beaches during the storm.) Luckily, the jackets are still hanging in our office and I will be taking the train to Learning 2016 in about 9 days, as is my annual fun tradition of Taking the Train to Learning :) 

- Anxieties About Watching the Storm Coverage: While we could not do anything about the storm or the news coverage of the potential impact, we watched the coverage to see how a viewer might process the news.  Was the story “Florida Under Siege” or “Storm Targets East Coast”?  And, how would our colleagues predict the potential impact?  I even called out to a few participants in different parts of the world to see how they were monitoring the storm. 

- Planning for Big Impact: If the storm had turned to Orlando and there was a major loss of power or transportation, we had to prepare for everything from a slight reduction to even a complete cancel/reschedule of the event.  We knew that Disney and our production partners would work with us, but it would have been a major planning and financial disaster.  Nothing you can do to prevent the losses, but we began to explore adaptions that could happen with large dips of attendance, including live streaming of keynotes and regional follow-ups.  

- “Force Majeure Clause”: Force Majeure is a French term literally translated as “greater force”, this clause is included in contracts to remove liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes that interrupt the expected course of events and restrict participants from fulfilling obligations. It is part of every major event contract and you revisit it only when there is an impending or real disaster.  When our conference in 2001 was just 3 weeks after 9/11, the contract came out to work with our partners on adjusting our obligations. 

- Personal Obsession: To be fully honest with my Learning TRENDS readers, I went into an obsession mode for the past few days. We spend a year planning our Learning event and the thought that it would be impacted is rattling. While my planning could not prevent the storm, I watched storm coverage and media stories endlessly.  And, changed my schedule to be able to fly down to Orlando early, if needed. 

- Orlando Spared Impact: As my colleagues in Orlando related, Central Florida was spared impact - as the storm veered to the east and the city only experienced rain and wind. Our thoughts went out to people living closer to the ocean, who lost power or had to relocate.  But, Orlando bounced right back, after buckling down for the worst, which did not happen.  Disney had team members stay on cots at our hotel, to be part of the response team for guests who had to stay indoors for 2 days.  The only physical damage at the Coronado Springs hotel was two small trees that were blown down, which often happens during a normal storm. 

- Media Coverage of Storm Changed by Campaign News: The almost non-stop weather coverage from TV reporters outside along the Atlantic Coast stopped suddenly, not because of the flow of the storm.  The moment the news of Donald Trump’s video was broadcast, it was almost as though the Hurricane vanished from the coverage. I actually felt bad for the TV reporters, wearing their raincoats, who were on wind swept beaches but ignored by the control room back at TV headquarters as the news shifted from weather storm to campaign storms. 

- Getting the Word Out: Many years ago, we had a storm hit one of our events and we had to send out update Faxes to 1,200 participants. That was before wide use of email and before the internet.  Now, I was able to leverage social media to alert both our participants and not-yet-registered colleagues.  We used a blast through our Engage App, which appears on attendees’ conference App, a note on our Design Blog, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn notes.  And, an email to all participants on Monday.  Here is a copy of our blog entry: 

- Registration Curve Reacts: As soon as the news of the storm bypassing Orlando was clear, our website lit up with new registrations. And, as we blocked more rooms, most of our last wave of registrations in the next 13 days will be able to stay at the hotel. 

Personal Reflections: 

* Don’t plan a large event unless you are willing to deal with disruptions. I had an email exchange with someone hosting an event in Orlando next week and they were just numb. Planning always requires looking at the extremes of good and disruptive news. 

* Cities and Hotels are Prepared! I was impressed with how the State of Florida, city of Orlando and Disney Theme Parks had preparation and emergency plans in place for both guests and also meeting planners. In this age of disruption, planning requires disruption readiness, which we hope we never have to use. 

* Don’t Focus on the Finances!  Sure, the thought of losing over $1,000,000 if a conference were cancelled is mind-boggling, but that can’t be your driver for dealing with an event threat. First, focus on safety. Next, focus on alternatives. Then, communicate with production partners, attendees, speakers and your inner self.  Some of the financial losses would have been covered by the contract clauses and others through negotiation, but you can’t be a good planner if you are freaking out financially.  And, insurance for this type of loss is almost 25% of the coverage, so most events don’t have storm related loss coverage. 

* Be a Learner. I was intrigued at how much I learned as we went through this process. I found new apps that showed upcoming flight status at airports, read details of the emergency recovery processes in place and dialogued with other meeting planners facing even larger disruption.  For example, there is a tech conference the week before ours with over 10,000 attendees. 

* Humor is Essential: The yellow MASIE Center rain jacket was our way of coping with the stress in our office. On Thursday, I wore the jacket throughout the day, to add some humor to the impending possible crisis. Planning for the worst requires some humor and laughter - without giving up the serious attention to impacts and disruptions. 

So, the good news is that Learning 2016 is ready to open on October 23rd in warm and sunny Orlando! More people are doing our predicted last minute registration and we are grateful to our partners in Orlando.  If you would like to attend, go to for details.  And, please add some disruption planning to your prep for future large events you are producing. 

Thanks for letting me tell this story. 

Yours in Learning, 

Elliott Masie 

Twitter: emasie 

MASIE Center Seminars, Events and Services:

- Membership in The Learning CONSORTIUM.
- Learning 2016 - October 23 to 26 - Orlando, Florida. 

Info and Registration: