As major tour operators, members of the USTOA are well aware
that unforeseen events a labor strike, disease outbreak, political
unrest sometimes require quick changes in their international
programs. What could hardly be anticipated, though, was a major
natural disaster that forced the change in venue for the
organization’s own biggest annual event the 2005 Convention &
It was scheduled to be held Dec. 3-6 at Sol Melia’s luxurious
Gran Melia Cancun hotel in Cancun, Mexico. As things turned out,
the event did indeed take place on those dates only not in Mexico.
Not long before the convention was to come off, the Category 4
Hurricane Wilma struck the Yucatan Peninsula on Mexico’s east coast
causing tremendous damage and multiple fatalities in and around
The storm hit on Friday, Oct. 21, and, at that moment, USTOA
president Robert E. Whitley was across the world from Cancun,
dressed in a kilt in Scotland, attending a fund-raising event on
behalf of Tourism Cares for Tomorrow. Back in his hotel room around
midnight, he turned on CNN and saw the glass pyramid towers of the
Sol Melia hotel being battered by the furious wind and pounding
rain. Just as disturbing to Whitley were other videos of a resort
community down the coast from Cancun where he owned a home and
where, at that moment, his wife and sister-in-law were staying.
Minutes later, Whitley was on the phone to Continental Airlines and
by the next evening he was back in New York City.
Calls to the Sol Melia organization confirmed that their hotel
was so badly damaged that there was no chance that even two months
of repairs could restore the hotel enough for the convention to be
held there. In his 27 years with USTOA Whitley had never needed to
postpone a convention or change the venue. He did now.
Where to Go?
While most conferences like this one are planned and booked many
months, even years, in advance, Whitley had just days to find a new
host destination and 650 rooms. He prepared bid requests and
e-mailed them out around the country. Three cities Orlando, Las
Vegas and Palm Springs responded with nine hotels offering space.
He settled on Orlando. Getting the desired dates, however, was
Whitley was determined to keep the previously established time,
if at all possible, to minimize the inconvenience to USTOA members
and the worldwide community of suppliers and ground operators. He
was well aware that many executives had blocked out those specific
days to be away and might be hard pressed to make changes.
After negotiating back and forth over a period of another day or
two, he had confirmed space 400 rooms in the Ritz-Carlton Grande
Lakes and another 250 at the adjoining JW Marriott Grande Lakes. At
the same time, the Sol Melia organization was busy returning all
room deposits and other payments made in advance for convention
spaces and services.
On Oct. 28, just one week after Cancun had to be cancelled, all
13 members of the USTOA Board of Directors were advised via a
conference call of the recommended venue changes. Approval was
unanimous. On Dec. 3, the 2005 USTOA Conference & Marketplace
opened in Orlando as smoothly as if it had been scheduled there all
Power of Networking
The turnout was impressive, Whitley was pleased to report. All
148 active members were in attendance at the JW Marriott for the
business meeting on Dec. 3. For the workshops and the marketplace
that followed at the Ritz-Carlton there were 555 Associates. These
represented domestic and international airlines; national, state
and foreign tourist organizations; ground operators; and media
representatives. In all, representatives from 42 countries were on
While business in the tens of millions of dollars was booked,
Whitley lists “networking” as a major value of the Conference to
“Here in one place they got to meet with the top tour operators
in the U.S. who book some $8 billion worth of travel a year,” he
In his keynote address, USTOA Chairman Brian Stack took note of
that fact, too.
“Our annual conference provides an exceptional forum for us to
communicate with one another and to exchange ideas,” he said. “In
this room, we have the top suppliers and tour operators in the
world. We are all a testament to the power, the strength and the
resilience of tourism.”
Whitley was impressed in particular by the presentations made by
three countries France, Jordan and Mexico that had recently
experienced serious problems that impacted their tourism.
“Instead of pulling back, they were there out front, getting
their story out,” he said.
Over lunches and in the corridors, Whitley said he got the
impression that the members and the associates were clearly
optimistic about business for 2006 despite several conditions that
could hurt travel and tourism. But the industry has no control over
any of them, he noted. Concerns included the state of some troubled
airlines, another natural disaster and, while unlikely, a pandemic
of bird flu.
With the 2005 conference now in the history books, USTOA members
and associates can pencil into their calendars the dates Dec. 9-11
for next year’s conference. The host hotel will be the Westin
Kierland in Scottsdale, Ariz. which, happily, is a location far
removed from any danger of a hurricane next season.