Katrina moves science conferences

Convention bureau cancels all New Orleans meetings, including at least eight in life sciences

By | September 2, 2005

Flooding from Hurricane Katrina has forced several scientific societies to relocate their annual national meetings this fall–including at least eight of interest to life scientists–away from New Orleans to other cities.

Early yesterday afternoon (Sept. 1), the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau cancelled all conventions through Dec. 1. "I think the decision to close December will be [in] a week or two, should that happen," Donna Karl, the bureau's Chicago-based vice president for client relations, told The Scientist yesterday.

Two of the planned conferences would have drawn 25,000 attendees to New Orleans: 12,000 people to the American Society for Microbiology's Sept. 21-24 Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC), and 13,000 to the American Public Health Association's (APHA) Nov. 5-9 meeting.

Earlier this week, ASM rescheduled ICAAC for Dec. 16-19 in Washington, DC. Lori Feinman, ASM's assistant director for meetings, told The Scientist yesterday that any New Orleans registrant who holds room reservations in ASM's block who doesn't want to attend in December will get a full refund, while anyone who does want to go will get a refund for hotel fees but will have to book new conference-rate rooms in Washington. In addition, she said, United Airlines, the conference's official air carrier, will wave its customary $100 fee for changing reservations.

Until yesterday, APHA officials were still hoping they could hold their meeting in New Orleans despite the catastrophic damage, saying on their Web site that the organization didn't "want to pull another economic rug out from under the city at such a critical time." After the announcement by the convention bureau, they changed the Web site to say that several alternate cities were under consideration, and that the organization hopes to make a decision in the next week or two.

Other conferences affected are next week's 3rd International Conference on Cancer on the Internet, the mid-October conferences of the National Public Health Information Coalition and the Gerontological Society of America, the late-October Science and Technology for Chem-Bio Information Systems meeting, and–for computational biologists–the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Fifth International Conference on Data Mining. The American Society of Hematology has decided to move its Dec. 3-6 conference but hasn't yet chosen a new location.

Other cities are vying fiercely for New Orleans' cancelled conventions. "We started getting calls from other convention bureaus Monday morning" while the hurricane was coming ashore, ASM's Feinman said. "To be honest with you," she said, "we were offended. This is ambulance-chasing."

Feinman said that despite the other offers, the decision to move ICAAC to Washington this year was easy, because ASM held last year's conference there, so they only have to duplicate that meeting. Based on their experience in 2001, when the 9/11 attacks forced them to postpone ICACC until December, ASM staffers expect no more than a 15% drop in attendance, but they might not make their budget.

"The reason we didn't cancel the conference outright," Feinman told The Scientist, "was to ensure the continuity of the science. ICAAC has been held every year for 45 years, so we didn't want to skip one."

Mary Power, president and CEO of the Convention Industry Council, told The Scientist yesterday that many scientific organizations can't afford to skip their annual meetings. "A lot of scientific groups are highly dependent on the revenue from the convention to operate throughout the year," she said.

One potentially hopeful sign for New Orleans' eventual financial recovery is that the areas of the city most important to tourists–the French Quarter, the Convention Center area, the central business area, and the Warehouse District–are the least hardest hit, according to the convention bureau's Karl. "These will be the first areas to return," she said, "so tourists and conventions and meetings can come back full force."

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