Trouble started early — as in 4 a.m. Pacific time — for the Currency Research team organizing the Americas Cash Cycle Seminar (ICCOS) last November. At that hour on Friday, Nov. 9, ICCOS’ host venue — California’s Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village — began evacuating its guests as the raging Woolsey Fire threatened the area, which is located near Malibu and Calabasas, west of Los Angeles.
Currency Research’s event for central bankers from South, Central, and North America — including the U.S. Federal Reserve System — was scheduled to start early on the following Monday. By Friday, some of the international attendees already had landed in or begun their journey to California, which was in the midst of the deadliest and most destructive wildfire season in the state’s history.
In the early morning darkness on that Friday, with flames visible in the distance, Tom Mitchell, Currency Research’s managing director for Europe, and the first event team member to have arrived in California, was rousted out of bed. Along with the other Westlake Village guests, he was moved to the Four Seasons’ Beverly Wilshire. While that hotel was safely outside of the fire’s path, it was not the place where more than 200 bankers from 30 countries were expecting to gather in just 72 hours for the four-day conference.
As Mitchell, who had flown in from Scotland, was fleeing the fire, Currency Research Conference Director Britnee Hursin, CMP, was waking up in Washington, D.C., to make her flight to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). When she heard from Mitchell, she knew she needed to hit the ground running once she landed.
“We had to change our venue [in] less than 12 hours and communicate this change [to] all of our suppliers and attendees,” she told Convene.
12 Frantic Hours
Mitchell got the communication started, messaging the event team members. They then notified Alisa Peters of Experient, Currency Research’s event management company, “who redistributed our RFP to all of the hotels in the surrounding area who would not be impacted by the fire,” Hursin said.
Peters, working the phone and computer in Chicago, found two sites that had the required general session and exhibit space, plus four breakout rooms.“As soon as I landed at LAX Airport, Tom and I rented a car, and we managed two site visits,” nearly 40 miles apart, Hursin said, “while battling LA traffic.”
The Westin Los Angeles Airport was one option and served as Currency Research’s event-relocation basecamp. But Hursin and Mitchell went with the second option, The Waterfront Beach Resort, a Hilton Hotel, in Huntington Beach, about 75 miles from the original Westlake Village venue. It was right on the beach, Hursin said, and “it was like the fire never happened.”
The Waterfront Beach Resort had planned to clean carpets that November weekend and so had only one event booked, Hursin said. The fires put the carpet-cleaning plan on hold, meaning that the Currency Research event could be accommodated.
“At 7:00 that night, we confirmed the venue and sent an email to all attendees about the change. We also posted a banner on our website’s homepage [that] directed to a page that listed the details of our decision to move the event, including why we decided to move,” Hursin said, “instead of canceling out-right. We had a great program to share and we knew that people had spent a lot of time and money to attend the conference. We wanted to do everything in our power to still deliver on that experience that we promised.”
New Day, New Contract
After a hectic Friday, the 10-person on-site event team was back to work early Saturday at the Westin basecamp.
“After we signed the contract on Saturday morning,” Hursin said, “we emailed all the attendees again about the change of hotel and the transfer of hotel reservations. We also reviewed the check-in dates for the Four Seasons Westlake Village hotel room block and made sure we got a response back from those who had checked in prior to the start of the fire or those who were checking in that day.”
If they chose not to attend, participants had the option to receive a refund or apply it toward registration for next year’s event. About 12 people, most of them from Canada, canceled, Hursin said, noting that Canada had issued an alert, warning its citizens not to travel to California because of the wildfires. But the rest arrived, as did all the presenters.
Some attendees were wary, Hursin said, as images of the California fires filled social media and dominated headlines. But she and the rest of the event team assured them via email that there was no smoke or fire at the new location. And once delegates were at the new site, the crisis “really brought everyone together,” she said. “Everyone was expecting [the event] to be canceled.”
Meanwhile, PSAV, Currency Research’s AV supplier at Westlake Village, was working with The Waterfront Beach Resort AV supplier, Encore Event Technologies (which PSAV has since purchased), to mirror the same AV setup in the new location. The fires forced thousands of Californians to flee their homes — and among them were some of the local PSAV crew members and their families, Hursin said. PSAV, faced with staff emergencies, plus having to travel farther to the new location and needing to find a place to house its team (The Waterfront Beach Resort was fully booked), did not charge Currency Research extra, proving that “your suppliers are your miracle workers,” Hursin said. “This would not have been possible if the suppliers did not work together.”
In addition to PSAV’s efforts, Interprefy, which handled interpretation for the event, recreated its setup in the new location. And the new hotel provided items such as printers and stage furniture to replace whatever items Hursin, her colleagues, and event sponsors had pre-shipped to the Four Seasons Westlake Village and were unable to collect. No one was able to get back into Westlake Village until Tuesday afternoon, nearly 100 hours after the evacuation.
“The new hotel and suppliers picked it up and ran with it,” Hursin said, ”making the event transition nearly seamless.”
“We did incur some costs due to food and beverage,” Hursin said. That was because while the new location was able to match the F&B, the rushed banquet event orders were written for the full number of 200-plus attendees. Hursin said she usually orders for 80 percent of the registration number to limit waste, and because — with so many international attendees often suffering from jet lag — “not everybody eats at the same time or eats a full plate.” But by the time they discovered the snag, it was too late to fix it.
“Not everything in the transfer was perfect,” she said, “but there was a fire impacting thousands of lives and particularly the staff at the Four Seasons itself. We were all very sensitive to that fact and reiterated it often to our delegates, who were appreciative and gracious during this entire process.”
Likewise, Currency Research President Marci Chavez “was over the moon” that the event went on without a hitch, Hursin added, and treated the events team to massages at the hotel.
Hursin, who plans Currency Research events all over the world, has attended several courses on disaster planning. But she could never have imagined that her event would be impacted by a wildfire. “It was definitely a learning lesson,” she said, “and a crazy ride. But it was all worth it in the end.”
Cristi Kempf is Convene’s executive editor.
Next Stop, Sri Lanka
Having successfully navigated the California wildfire emergency, Currency Research is headed tin September to another destination that recently has undergone its own crisis, of a completely different kind. Currency Research’s Asia Cash Cycle Seminar will be held in Sri Lanka, at Colombo’s Shangri-La Hotel. The hotel is one of three luxury venues that was targeted by suicide bombers in the deadly Easter Sunday attacks this year, which included strikes at three nearby churches.
The Associated Press reported in July that, in the wake of the attacks, tourism is down significantly in Sri Lanka. Currency Research is currently doing its due diligence, Hursin said, meeting with tourism and government officials for discussions on safety precautions for attendees. But, she said, “we truly do go all over the world” and central bankers are experienced global travelers. Plus, Hursin added, tourism and business events are what help destinations scarred by terrorists to rebound and rebuild.