Shelters From the Storm

How convention centers help communities recover in a crisis.

Author: Michelle Russell       

Hawaiʻi Convention Center aerial

The Hawaiʻi Convention Center set up an assistance center for survivors of the Maui wildfires. (Cameron Brooks)

Michelle Russell headshot

Michelle Russell
Editor in Chief

Six years ago, during the World Congress of Neurology in Kyoto, Japan, local authorities warned of flash floods and landslides as a typhoon swept towards Japan’s Northeast.

In the evening, the storm hit the host city, knocking out windows at the Kyoto International Conference Center (ICC) where the event, organized by Kenes Group, was taking place. The next morning, delegates returned to the center, unaware that the venue had been affected — the ICC Kyoto staff had repaired the damage overnight.

Convene Digital Media Editor Magdalina Atanassova shared that story on one of our editorial team calls as I started working on the Sept./Oct. issue’s cover story on safety at convention centers. I had mentioned that I had seen a severe weather workshop on the International Association of Venue Managers’ (IAVM) VenueConnect 2023 program, held this summer in Pittsburgh. I thought I would explore how climate change is leading convention centers to plan for severe weather as part of our story. But my article, as often happens, took a different direction once I started interviewing people — the conversations became more about preparing for disruptions of the human behavioral sort rather than weather.

That doesn’t mean climate change isn’t a safety priority. When I spoke with IAVM President/CEO Brad Mayne, he told me that while the workshop, which brought in National Weather Service experts among others, was incorporated into the educational program at their annual event for the first time this year, it has been offered as a workshop for more than a decade. With many IAVM members managing outdoor venues, “weather has always been a concern,” Mayne told me. “Now, with climate change, even more so.”

While severe weather conditions can affect convention centers themselves, as in the Kyoto example, what has become more common is how these facilities have stepped into the role of sheltering those displaced by hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and other climate-related natural disasters. IAVM’s Mega Shelter Program “really takes a lot of coordination between all the different entities,” including the American Red Cross and FEMA, he said, “to take care of these individuals.” Most recently, the Hawai‘i Convention Center set up an assistance center for survivors of the Maui wildfires — “a lifeline for nearly 300 evacuees on O‘ahu,” according to a news story.

During the pandemic, convention centers supported their communities in other ways, turning into hospitals and vaccination sites. “We even had venues that were turned into municipal courts, because they had the ability to space people six feet apart,” he said.

What Mayne said he loves about IAVM members “is we’re already servant leaders, and we want to take care of other people. That’s who venue managers are. We serve the communities that we already serve with the events that we host. In a real time of need, our members step up in a big way. They really do care about the community above and beyond the they are always about when operating as a regular venue.”

Being Present

At first glance, Senior Editor Jennifer N. Dienst’s story about the American College of Chest Physicians’ (CHEST) program, the First 5 Minutes®, may not seem like it belongs in our Social Impact department, where we usually spotlight sustainability and legacy efforts. But the initiative, which helps physicians establish trust with patients in the crucial first few minutes of their visit, has its roots in helping to provide health care in marginalized communities — where patients have reported feeling a lack of empathy from and a general distrust of clinicians, as well as the health-care system itself.

Hopefully, this training will have a ripple effect, and help physicians across all disciplines to be in a better position to put their patients at ease — to be “a little more present in the room with them,” according to CHEST — for improved outcomes.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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