When the Texas Society of Association Executives gathered in Houston earlier this month for the New Ideas Annual Conference, it was the first major event to take place in the city after Hurricane Harvey devastated Southern Texas with historic flooding.
However, the message from Visit Houston and other city hospitality leaders throughout the three days was clear: Houston is back in business and stronger than ever.
For TSAE, holding its annual conference in Houston after Harvey was a way to show support and solidarity with their members and friends in the area. However, safety and security were a concern.
Communication before, during and after Harvey was critical. Visit Houston and the Marriott Marquis Houston, which hosted the event, were able to provide TSAE with updates even while the storm was still passing through the city. They shared photos and Facebook Live videos of staff and the property, which TSAE was then able to post to its own social media to keep member and attendees informed.
“One of the benefits (and perhaps curses) of Facebook Live is that you can’t Photoshop or alter broadcasts,” said TSAE Executive Director Steven Stout, CAE. “When I watched a video that interviewed the Marriott Marquis staff and then did a true walk through of our space – I breathed a huge sigh of relief.”
After learning that downtown Houston was essentially untouched by the storm and with encouraging feedback from those on the ground in Houston, association staff and board leadership made the decision almost immediately to keep the event on as scheduled.
“We knew the impact that having an industry group like TSAE be the first group after Hurricane Harvey would have on future business in the city,” said Stout. “We knew that our friends at Visit Houston and the Marriott Marquis would be dealing with groups who may not wish to move forward with their events based on news reports. We wanted to rally around our friends in the city.”
And rally they did. More than 540 attendees – a conference record – were welcomed at the Marriott Marquis, located across the street from the George R. Brown Convention Center, which at its peak housed more than 10,000 evacuees.
TSAE did offer full refunds to any attendees who needed to cancel after the storm. In the two weeks prior to New Ideas however, not a single attendee canceled their registration because of Hurricane Harvey.
During the opening session, TSAE Board Chairman and Executive Vice President of the Independent Bankers Association of Texas Christopher Williston IV, CAE, told attendees, “You did not call to cancel. You did not call to cancel your hotel rooms. You did call to ask how you could help. This is an example of an association who stepped up to answer the call. We’re Texans and that’s what we do.”
In addition to attending, Stout said, many TSAE members have mobilized their own organizations and the members within their organizations to spearhead volunteer efforts to help Houston move forward.
“I have never seen anything like it, and it made me very proud to be an association professional,” Stout said.
Visit Houston President Mike Waterman also joined TSAE leadership on stage the first day of the conference. He described the domino effect that would have taken place had TSAE canceled its conference. But because TSAE kept its commitment to Houston, other events did as well, including 11 major events that are estimated to bring nearly $50 million into the city before the end of the year.
“Because TSAE had the courage and believed in us, and trusted us, others are coming because TSAE came. We have not had a single cancellation,” Waterman said.
While the conference schedule remained nearly intact, TSAE did make a couple last-minute changes to the line-up as a result of the hurricane. Afternoon excursions to must-see locations in the host city are always an attendee favorite at New Ideas, and this year TSAE added two excursions for members to volunteer at one of the remaining shelters and package meals for animals displaced by the storm.
TSAE also donated $2,000 to the Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Hurricane Relief Fund and another $2,000 to the Texas Coastal Bend Community Foundation, since those affected by Hurricane Harvey extend well beyond the Houston area.
Finally, after an education session had to be canceled at the last minute, TSAE scheduled a post-Hurricane Harvey Q&A session with representatives from the Marriott Marquis, Visit Houston and NRG Park, an event venue and home of the Houston Texans that served as an emergency shelter in the storm’s aftermath.
Each of the speakers shared how they prepared for Hurricane Harvey in the days leading up to the storm, how they mobilized staff and resources during the worst flooding the city has ever seen and what they’re still doing today to help local citizens in need. The session was a unique education opportunity for attendees.
Kaylee Colón, education and programs coordinator with the Texas Land Title Association, said: “The theme that resonated with me overall was disaster – but in the best way. I learned so much information about disaster preparedness that I can take back to both my personal and professional life.”
In the end, TSAE received positive feedback from its post-conference survey of attendees, many in support of the association’s decision and the hospitality shown by the city of Houston.
“There was a great energy throughout the event,” said Bob Jameson, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau. “TSAE leadership was available, approachable and engaged. Houston did a great job in support of the event, and it felt great to be there. The messages of appreciation from Houstonians was touching and inspiring.”
Many associations are stepping up in the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria to help those in need in their own communities and around the country. We’d like to know what your association is doing. Share your story about what you’re doing for relief efforts in the comments below.