The Big Lesson This Planner Learned From Hurricane Irma

The massive storm hit less than a week before Nicole Ryan’s biggest fund-raiser, creating challenges—and lessons for the future.

By Mitra Sorrells September 26, 2017, 7:15 AM EDT

The gala's entertainment was produced by Hello Destination Management and included dancers from Metropolis Productions.

Photo: Thomas Stark

Black & White Gala
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As Hurricane Irma tore through Central Florida the night of September 10 and into September 11, Nicole Ryan was taking shelter in a friend’s storm bunker. As the director of development for Give Kids the World Village, Ryan wondered what the high winds and rain would do to the nonprofit resort in Kissimmee, Florida, for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families.

But one thing she was not worried about was whether the storm would force cancellation of the organization’s biggest fund-raiser, the Black & White Gala, which was scheduled to take place just five days later on September 16 for 1,400 guests. “I had confidence before I even went into the weekend that the gala would happen,” she said.

That peace of mind came from two things. First, there were conversations she had with her venue, the Hyatt Regency Orlando, as the storm approached the state. “They were confident that even if something happened to their power at the beginning of the week that it would not disrupt anything at the end of the week,“ she said. “So that made me relax.”

And second was the fact that nearly all of the gala's work had been completed before the storm approached. “Pre-planning has always been a critical part of event planning for me,“ said Ryan, who moved to Florida in May from Illinois and had never dealt with a hurricane before. “You try to think of everything that could possibly go wrong—although a hurricane was not in my plan. But the good thing is that with the team we had in place and the timelines we had in place, I would say 99 percent of the work was done prior to the hurricane.”

That advance work paid off, because after the storm passed more than seven million homes and businesses in Florida were without power for days, including Give Kids the World. The region was also under a curfew through the evening of September 11. One of the only event elements not finished when the storm hit was the printing of a few information boards for the silent auction. When Ryan’s printer called to say its facility did not have power, she was able to find an alternate vendor to finish the work.

Having all of the gala work completed in advance also freed Ryan and her colleagues up to contribute to the clean-up effort at Give Kids the World Village so the facility could reopen to guests by September 14. “It was an amazing team effort, especially so close to our biggest event of the year,” Ryan said. 

Now Ryan is thinking about what she has learned from this experience and how that will impact plans for next year. “September in Florida is hurricane season,” she noted. “So next year I’m definitely going to build in a contingency plan with the hotel.”

“If something happens,” she continued, "[I'll ask], 'What is the alternate date? How do we let the guests know? And what would the hard costs be?' That’s something I’ll definitely do because we were very lucky this time.”

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