Weathering the Storm

Hurricane Wilma nearly derailed the USTOA’s annual convention

By: Norman Sklarewitz

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 & Marketplace.

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 Cancun.

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 another issue.

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 the time.

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 hand.

While business in the tens of millions of dollars was booked, Whitley lists “networking” as a major value of the Conference to Associates.

“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 said.

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.