Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

June 2013

Special Report: Behind the Scenes in Boston

By Christopher Durso, Executive Editor

clients throughout the week, Rooney said, letting them know “what intelligence we had in terms of additional threats and so forth, added security procedures, and the fact that the buildings had been swept, to give them an added level of comfort.” His team also kept up a steady stream of press releases, website updates, tweets, and Facebook posts, with the latest information on the status of its buildings in general and of ASCA, Experimental Biology, and Boston Comic Con in particular.

GBCVB was also working to get the word out, especially to leisure tourists. “This was school-vacation week in Boston, so there were groups that were scheduled here,” Moscaritolo said. “We started getting calls from school administrators and parents and teachers that were bringing these groups in.”

Sometimes that involved a personal touch. On Tuesday morning, Moscaritolo got an email from a North Carolina high-school teacher who was bringing a choral group to Boston the following Thursday, April 25. Moscaritolo ended up sending him an update every day over the next week, which the teacher would read aloud in class. “[The teacher] said what happened was, ‘Our students got more fired up about “we are coming, we are gonna make a statement,” Moscaritolo said. “I was getting goosebumps reading his emails.”

Experimental Biology was posting and tweeting its own updates — including, front and center on the conference home page, a simple message: “BOSTON STRONG.” The six societies were also sending out their own updates, letting people know that the show would go on. “Communication is key with all the players,” Jackson said. “The BCEC folks, in communication with them, some of them had to go through similar challenges when Hurricane Sandy came through. It's talking. It's asking questions. There are no stupid questions. I asked a lot of them. I wanted to make sure if any attendees asked me, I was well prepared.”

That sentiment was not uncommon. “I wouldn't have minded being blamed for over-communicating, is the best way to sum it up,” Rooney said. “If people are tired of hearing from me, I guess that's a good thing.”

The Mood on the Ground

Meanwhile, the bombers hadn't been caught, and no one knew if they were still in Boston. In the days after the marathon, there were bomb reports in and around the city — all of them false, but they had to be investigated, which sometimes led to evacuations.

The mood was unreal — anxious, unsettled, but also defiant. ASCA 2013 went off as planned, except for the added security at the Hynes, and ended up raising nearly $12,000 for The One Fund Boston, which was formed to help people who were affected by the bombings. A variety of smaller meetings in hotels around Boston also went ahead (see sidebars on pp. 17 and 18). “It became important to all of us to demonstrate that these intimidation and terrorism tactics weren't going to work,” Rooney said. “It's perfectly understandable for people who might have an emotional reaction to such things to stay away, but at the same time, the message needs to be sent that our way of life is not going to be impacted by this type of activity. What I witnessed, among both our workforce and the people of Boston and the participants at [ASCA], was actually a defiant attitude in which people wanted to show everyone that they weren't going to be intimidated and that life was going to go on.”

Jackson noticed something similar among the participants at Experimental Biology, which, as the week went along, began move-in at the BCEC. “The attendees seemed proud to be there,” she said. “They were glad to be there for the science, and at the same time to support the city in their recovery. They certainly put a lot of money into the economy. They were out in restaurants, they were taking cabs.... We all felt a connection to the city.”

Sheltering in Place

And then it was Friday morning, April 19, and everyone was waking to the news that one of the bombing suspects was dead, that his brother was the subject of an intense manhunt, and that the city of Boston was in lockdown — meaning people were being asked to stay inside, to “shelter in place,” while police looked for the suspect.

“We knew what was going on and what had happened overnight,” Rooney said. “Even before the shelter-in-place [order] was extended to Boston, because we participate in intelligence-sharing with state and city law enforcement, we began to get information that there were leads and sightings [of the suspects] coming in from all over the city, and each of those needed to be treated seriously.”

Added Moscaritolo: “[GBCVB's] communication was by email, text, cellphones from homes, because we were not allowed out and into downtown until 6 or 6:30 that Friday night. It was difficult, but thank goodness for technology. We were able to communicate with our staff and with our clients.”

ASCA 2013 was wrapping up, but lockdown couldn't have come at a worse time for Experimental Biology, whose attendees began arriving in force on Friday, and for Boston Comic Con, which was slated to begin move-in at the Hynes that morning. As the day wore on without any clear resolution to the manhunt or the lockdown, Comic Con posted updates on its Facebook page — public transportation is “currently suspended due to police action”; move-in at the Hynes is “currently suspended till further notice”; and finally, mid-afternoon on Friday, “The Boston Comic Con will be rescheduled to a date in the not too distant future.” (As of now, it's scheduled for Aug. 3-4 at Boston's Seaport World Trade Center.)

Experimental Biology continued to set up at the BCEC and, as scheduled, went ahead and opened registration — but had to conduct that within the parameters of the lockdown. Meanwhile, attendees were pouring into the city, many of them from overseas. “All of the major hotels were still open and welcoming guests,” Rooney said. “The difficulty — and it became almost a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour management decision — was registration.... We made a decision consistent with the shelter-in-place that people should not be encouraged to come to the BCEC and leave their hotels. We put out the word that registration would take place at the hotels. But we weren't going to turn people away at the building, so we took them in.”

Throughout all of this, meeting professionals worked with the full knowledge that Experimental Biology might have to be postponed or canceled. “We had several meetings throughout the day with BCEC security and the executive staff at BCEC,” Jackson said, “and it was around five o'clock [p.m.] when they came into my office and said, ‘We have to talk.’ And that was when they gave me the reality of what might happen: We had eight hours, and in eight hours we would know if we were shutting down.”

What had been unreal was now surreal. Jackson was at the BCEC, consulting with staff there, and also reporting by phone to executives from the six societies, who were sheltering in place at their hotels. She also reached out to her insurance company, to talk about Experimental Biology's cancellation policy. “I knew I had a job to do,” Jackson said, “and I'm trying to figure out how best to do it. What were my obstacles? What could I do?... Honestly, I knew the show needed to go on. It's probably the biggest nightmare for any meeting planner to even be approached with having to cancel an event.”

For the MCCA, it was a question of balancing the safety of its employees with a desire to be as flexible as possible for its client. Rooney talked to the head of the union representing catering workers,

Please log in to post comments.


Connect with Convene
on Facebook & Twitter