Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

October 13 2016

After The Storm: Visit Savannah’s Heroic Post-Matthew Preparations

David McMillin


As residents in the Southeast returned to their homes in the days following the tragic destruction of Hurricane Matthew, the Visit Savannah team faced an overwhelming question: could the city be ready to welcome 1,400 conference attendees in less than a week? The International Association of Emergency Managers Annual Conference was scheduled to begin on October 14, and Matthew’s strength had pummeled the Atlantic Coast.

“We were in a serious crunch to make the call,” Jeff Hewitt, Senior Vice President, Marketing, Visit Savannah, says. “Would we be ready to welcome this group in a manner that would be a positive experience for their attendees, or would we be forced to cancel the event?”

When Hewitt first returned to the city on Sunday afternoon, he and his team had plenty of concerns. The convention center had been turned into a shelter for evacuees, and the primary loading dock door for exhibitions had been ripped to shreds. In addition to challenges at the center, one of the docks used to ferry attendees — the city’s convention package is located on the scenic Savannah River — to and from the convention had been destroyed.

Despite these potential challenges, the Visit Savannah team had plenty of reasons to be optimistic. CEMA, the county’s emergency management organization, assured them that evacuees would be out of the building by Wednesday at 5 PM. The IAEM team determined that a smaller loading dock door could adequately accommodate the move-in and move-out processes, and in terms of transportation, they were able to add more ground shuttles. On Monday, as soon as Joseph Marinelli, President, Visit Savannah, arrived home from a business trip to Ireland, he and Hewitt hit the ground running to tour a crucial piece of the conference: the downtown hotel properties.

“We went to each of the hotels that were involved with the convention to assess the situation,” Hewitt says. “How many rooms had water damage? What was their expectation to be ready for the group? But it’s not just about having the hotel open. We needed to know that the hotels could deliver service, too. We had to make sure that staff members would be able to get to work, and we needed to determine if laundry facilities for linens would be up and running.”

Now, as IAEM attendees begin arriving, all the hard work has paid off. Hewitt says that most of the evacuees have been able to return to their homes, and the ones who weren’t have been able to go to another shelter. Once everyone left the center, the team had the ability to go in and clean. By Thursday morning, the facility was ready to go. “Everybody pulled together,” Hewitt says. “We were all dedicated to finding a solution. I’m so impressed with the selflessness of everyone involved to make this happen.”

“How lucky are we that a group that is coming now couldn’t be more understanding and empathetic with what we’re going through,” Hewitt adds. “The IAEM team has been such an incredible partner. They were so understanding and so dedicated to keeping their program on schedule so they could help provide some immediate relief to the city. We are thrilled to welcome these attendees to Savannah.”

Make A Difference

While there is good news for the IAEM Conference, many victims in the path of Hurricane Matthew need help. To make a contribution to cleanup efforts and assistance, click here and join the Salvation Army’s efforts.

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