By Jennifer N. Dienst, Contributing Editor
New Orleans has seen — and survived — its fair share of disasters. Which helps explain why not only did the city recently host the first-ever international, industry-wide conference on disaster and emergency preparedness, its convention center co-owns the show.
Louisiana has never been a state to go by the book. Instead(bold) of common law, it practices civil law. Instead of counties, Louisiana has parishes. And its politics are colorful, to say the least.
In spite of that unorthodox sensibility (or maybe because of it), the Bayou State is also extremely resilient, surviving and recovering from two disasters of epic proportions —Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill — in just the last seven years. So when the team at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans joined forces with Cumming, Ga.–based Imago Productions to produce the first International Disaster Conference & Expo (IDCE) this past January, it was something of a perfect storm.
Jimmy Mouton, Imago’s president, had tried launching a similar conference at the convention center —the National Disaster Reconstruction Expo (NDRE)—in June 2009, without success. “Though the goal was to present an event that would bring all sectors of the disaster cycle together in one show (preparation, response, recovery, mitigation), it didn’t materialize in NDRE,” he said. With the show hampered by a lack of government support as well as the economic downturn, Mouton notified the convention center of his intent to cancel all future show dates.
Tim Hemphill, Ernest N. Morial’s vice president of sales and marketing, however, wasn’t ready to call it quits. “The [center] believed in the idea of the event as I did,” Mouton said. “We realized there was no show in the industry that covered the entire disaster cycle—from emergency management and homeland security to first response, business continuity, and resiliency—all factors that come into play during the disaster cycle. As we talked to people in the industry, we realized that all of these touch points were basically related, but they all had individual, silo shows. There really wasn’t a show for what we were trying to do.”
A Partnership Is Born
Hemphill had a plan, as well as the resources, that would overcome the public-sector hurdle. He and Mouton explored a different model for the show: co-ownership.
“The idea was born out of the center’s interest in better controlling its destiny in an ultra-competitive market,” Hemphill said. “We were looking for an opportunity to create a show with a permanent home in a need period, and the subject matter was a perfect fit for New Orleans.”
The IDCE partnership would become the first of its kind in the United States. “The convention center didn’t want to just go out and build a show that could be just anywhere,” Hemphill said. “There’s relevance of the subject matter to New Orleans, to Louisiana, so it makes sense.”
Although the details of the partnership are proprietary, both sides maintain that by combining forces to produce the conference, the result is greater than the sum of its parts. “The difference between our model and the European model is that [under the European model] the center outright owns the show, [while we are] a partnership,” Hemphill said. “Both parties bring their expertise and services to the table, the idea being, in doing so, costs typically associated with the show are reduced and we share a little bit more risk. As a result, we both enjoy bigger rewards in the long run.”
How exactly does the partnership cut costs? By sharing resources to operate more efficiently. Instead of hiring its own food-and-beverage director, for example, IDCE would use the center’s F&B director. Beyond budgetary concerns, the partnership serves a political role in helping forge relationships and bringing in big-name speakers. “When we tried to do the show in 2009, we weren’t in a position to build some of the partnerships that the facility [has helped us] bring in,” Mouton said. “The political relationships that played such a big part of the success of IDCE2012 were due to the relationships the facility had with the lieutenant governor. That went a long way in helping us build the alliances we had to make this work.” A Conference Is Born
On Jan. 17–19, IDCE2012 opened its doors to more than 1,600 emergency-management professionals from 27 countries. Beyond a trade show with more than 169 companies taking two of the center’s cavernous exhibit halls — displaying everything from portable housing units to emergency command vehicles — IDCE2012 offered an educational conference portion with 58 sessions, networking events, a Mardi Gras Recovery Gala, and general sessions helmed by big-name speakers who would appeal even to the general public.
The opening keynoter was W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Other speakers included Tom Ridge, the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Meir Elran, director of the Homeland Security Program at the Tel Aviv University Institute for National Security Studies; and Russel L. Honoré, a now-retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who served as commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, coordinating military relief efforts in the aftermath of the devastating hurricane.
Even though the conference lined up a large number of local speakers, a multitude of international participants brought their experiences and perspectives to the table, broadening the show’s reach. “There were a number of discussions about the Japan earthquake, the response to Haiti, and other topics that spanned a much broader range than just Louisiana-centric disasters,” said Jeb Brian Lacey, CEM, emergency management coordinator for the Victoria (Texas) Office of Emergency Management, who spoke on a panel about public/private partnerships. “One day I sat down at lunch and had a 30-minute conversation with an emergency manager from Amsterdam. ... I got [the] perspective of someone that I otherwise would have never had the opportunity to interface with. That’s one of the major benefits of having a conference that draws from not only all over the country, but all over the world.”
That’s not to say that New Orleans’ experience with catastrophic events — Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 BP oil spill being the most recent and memorable — didn’t play a prominent role at IDCE2012. Often during the show, Katrina served as a case study, with attendees focusing on the lessons that experience offered other destinations when dealing with tornados, snowstorms, floods, and other natural disasters. “The topics weren’t necessarily about the oil spill or Katrina, ”Mouton said, “they were about how those lessons are applied globally.”
For example, a group from Australia spoke about their experience shadowing officials with Louisiana’s Governor’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness, and how they implemented what they learned during the flooding that struck Queensland in late 2010 and early 2011. “When the floods hit last year, they had a remarkable mitigation in the loss of life because of what they implemented,” Mouton said. “This is one of the reasons why New Orleans is such a great hub for this show.”
Looking to the Future
Show organizers estimate that the number of exhibitors at IDCE will grow by 10 to 15 percent next year, and that international attendance will jump by 10 to 12 percent. Tweaks to IDCE2013 include the possibility of adding pre- and post-con tours of local areas affected by Katrina and the oil spill, as well