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Planners scurry to move meetings and conventions

The night before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Genelle Perrin was in her office at Grand Casino Biloxi, frantically dialing meeting planners about rescheduling upcoming meetings.

“The Friday before the hurricane, we were off property and hadn’t realized the hurricane had gotten so strong,” explained Perrin, director of hotel sales for Grand Casino Biloxi. “Our general manager called an emergency meeting about our plans, and on Saturday, three of us went into work and began calling clients who had meetings scheduled in the next couple of weeks. We didn’t know if there would be any property damage, but we cancelled incoming parties, saying we’d get back to them.”

Less than 24 hours later after Perrin left her office, both Grands — in Biloxi and Gulfport — were gone. So was Perrin’s home. Her husband had narrowly escaped death by hanging from rafters in the attic as water swirled beneath him during the category 4 storm. He had insisted that Perrin flee to a friend’s home in Birmingham, where she is conducting post-hurricane business.

“I’m still not certain about plans to reopen the property and the timeline,” said Perrin. “I know that Harrah’s has said they’d like to rebuild both casinos and the hotels.”

In the meantime, meeting planners have been calling other Mississippi cities to reschedule meetings and conventions. By September 20, the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) had forwarded 24 leads to nine area casino resorts. Two confirmed displaced conventions already booked in Tunica: Southern Farm Bureau (200 attendees represent 600 room nights) and Mississippi Municipal League (1,600 attendees represent 3,687 room nights). Another dozen displaced conventions looking to relocate in Tunica represent approximately 3,000 attendees.

“We’re getting a good number of leads sending us meeting specs, but that’s only a fraction of those coming into Tunica,” said Anne Coggins, sales manager for meetings and conventions for the Tunica CVB and president of the Mississippi Tourism Association. “Many casino resorts here have sister properties on the Gulf Coast and meeting planners have gone directly to them.”

Even though Jackson received minimal storm damage, meeting planners have cancelled several large metro area events because of a lack of hotel room space. Among the cancellations:

• National Rifle Association. Scheduled for September 20-24 with 500 in attendance. Estimated impact: $425,000.

• Mega Barrel. A Youth Championship Horse Show slated to be held at the Mississippi Fairgrounds September 1-3.

• Mississippi High School Rodeo Association. The Tri-State Rodeo Finals were scheduled at the Mississippi Fairgrounds October 24-29, with an estimated participation of 400. Even though this event was scheduled nearly two months after Hurricane Katrina, the sponsors opted to cancel the event because a large number of participants were traveling from Louisiana.

“We’ve only been able to get a few meetings from the Coast, and those are meetings that needed more space than sleeping rooms,” said Mara Hartmann, spokesperson for the Metro Jackson CVB. “About 60% of our meetings through mid-October have been cancelled or postponed because we have no place to put people overnight. All of our sleeping rooms are tied up by FEMA, Entergy or evacuees for an indefinable period of time.”

The Telcom Center is scheduled to open as planned November 1, and several events for November and December remain on the calendar, but no new reservations are being taken until after the first of the year, said Hartmann.

Other markets booking displaced meetings include Tupelo, Philadelphia, Natchez and Vicksburg. Hattiesburg is not an option because the Hub City’s hotel rooms are booked until next March, said Coggins.

“A good deal of my time has been spent educating people that Mississippi is a long state north and south, and a lot of territory was not affected by the hurricane,” said Coggins. “We have a responsibility to Mississippi to keep as much tourism business coming into the state as possible.”

Chris Chapman, a certified meeting planner with the Mississippi Development Authority, said the tourism division contacted national association industry partners — American Society of Association Executives, Hospitality Sales & Marketing International and Meeting Professionals International among them — to place a banner on their Web sites to call the Mississippi tourism office for relocation services. On the visitmississippi.org Web site, cities are color-coded with availability charts and updated daily, and other cooperative efforts are in place.

“We’ve had so many people ask how they can help us,” said Chapman.

Fortunately, cancellation insurance on meetings and conventions allowed meeting planners to react quickly to the change of venue without financial repercussions, but few of them had back-up plans.

“This kind of thing is so rare,” said Chapman. “The last time we were in this position was Hurricane Camille in 1969. To say you need a back-up plan every year is probably taking it into overdrive. But in the back of their minds, I think every planner has a Plan B.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

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About Lynne W. Jeter

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