Mother Nature was raging on both ends of my flight.
As I left my hometown of Portland, Oregon, uncontained fires were chewing up huge swaths of our Columbia River Gorge. The radio in the car to the airport provided updates on the fires and the efforts to contain them. That telltale “campfire” smell even managed to waft through the cabin of my Alaska Airlines plane for a few minutes after we took off from PDX. It was unsettling.
Mid-day sky in Portland in September 2017
Six hours later, I landed in Orlando as Hurricane Irma was bearing down on the Caribbean. Driving to the hotel, my rental car radio provided updates on the hurricane’s projected path.
This was September 6, 2017 — less than a month after TLCC2017 (Tessitura Learning and Community Conference), our annual global conference. The 2017 conference was in San Diego, and now I was joining the Conference Planning Team at our next location, the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort on the Disney campus in Orlando, Florida. TLCC is a year-round effort, and we were losing no time in planning for July 2018. Even with Irma in the Atlantic, we considered the odds, looked at the Hurricane Cone of Uncertainty, and made the call to continue the trip to Orlando. We only had eleven months rather than the usual twelve to pull off TLCC2018, so we really did need to get started. We also made alternate flight arrangements in case we needed to get out of Dodge.
These first TLCC planning meetings are joyful affairs. The conference team is re-energized and over the sheer exhaustion of the prior conference, and we have a new show to put on. What’s not to love? It is that halcyon, creative time before we start coming down to earth and making a thousand decisions.
Don, Heidi, Jessica, Meredith, Bobbi, and Chayse — the TLCC Conference Planning Team
On the surface, this meetup was like any other start to a new TLCC planning year. Our meetings went well. We were touring the spaces, discussing logistics, consulting with hotel staff, trying out the restaurants. We even road-tested the EPCOT rides planned for the big TLCC2018 shindig. Still, Irma was there, behind each sentence and thought. The hotel was full when we arrived, but within a day, things got quiet. A major conference cancelled at the last minute due to the potential of the storm’s effect. The TVs in restaurants and bars switched from sports to news, and everywhere you looked, you saw that “cone” projecting Irma's path.
As our meetings continued, the news got worse. The projection cone started shifting toward central Florida. Sitting at the bar, we saw the first images of the decimated Virgin Islands. The Governor of Florida declared a state of emergency. Irma hit Category 5. Finally, the hotel advised us to make arrangements to fly home if we could. At breakfast the next morning, my server, a long-time Florida resident, looked at me ruefully: “Honey, you don’t want to be here when it hits.”
The “Swan and Dolphin” is not just a cute name that sounds like an English pub. It is actually two hotels — the Swan and the Dolphin — connected by a breezeway. TLCC2018 would use the entirety of both hotels for our 1,800 projected attendees. Our planning meetings were happening in the Dolphin. We were about the only people in the Dolphin. Meanwhile, on the other side of the breezeway, the Swan existed in a separate, crowded, universe. If the Dolphin was Kansas, then the Swan was Oz.
The Swan was home to a major, televised international ballroom dancing competition, and all the associated bling. Given the timing of the competition and TV schedules, they weren’t going anywhere. Their show had to go on. The corridors positively buzzed with lithe young dancers, crisp tuxedos, brilliant gowns and oh the sequins. Gallons of sequins. Hectares of sequins.
At breakfast on my last morning there, I struck up a conversation with a young couple who were there for the competition. They had come over from Europe and already knew they were going to have to wait it out. The flights home were already cancelled and they didn’t have any options but to stay. Still, their spirits were high. Regardless of Mother Nature, this was their favorite week of the year. I understood where they were coming from. “Que Sera Sera,” Doris Day sings in that staple heard in many a ballroom.
On our last morning at the Dolphin, the atmosphere was “Disney friendly” but tense. Overnight, we had all received a letter under our doors about emergency preparations and contingency for power outages. We continued our meetings, but kept things short. We were all now leaving that afternoon, and Orlando had announced that the airport would close in less than 24 hours.
At our mid-morning break, I noticed something curious. A long line of folded wheelchairs along the wall outside our meeting room. In the restroom, there were boxes of toilet seat risers stacked next to the sinks.
When Michael, our Dolphin account rep stopped by later, I asked what was going on. He explained it succinctly. By that point, the Governor had ordered the mandatory evacuation of much of southern Florida in advance of the storm (Orlando is in central Florida). It would become the largest evacuation in the state’s history – 6.5 million people. The north/south highways were jammed. With the Dolphin emptied and being a facility rated to handle a Cat 5 storm, the management felt an obligation to help however they could.
They made some calls and arranged to house 600 residents and 100 staff from an assisted living facility in South Florida. They also housed the families of the staff and (in a break from policy) dozens of pets. By lunchtime, the assisted living staff advance team was there in matching green scrubs, rolling in all manner of supplies on luggage carts. A few hours later, as we were, ourselves, evacuating to the airport, the buses arrived with hundreds of residents. The last thing I saw was the “Northern Hemisphere” ballroom, set with table rounds, filled with hundreds of assisted living residents. It would become their cafeteria for the next several days.
Meanwhile, at the Swan, the dancers twirled and the sequins sparkled.
The Swan and Dolphin staff — despite all that must have been happening in their lives at that moment — continued to bring it. I watched as they worked with the assisted living staff and guests in the same way they would assist any other group. While it wasn’t the TLCC planning visit we had expected, the most important thing this experience did for us was to reinforce that Tessitura Network had picked the right partner for our 2018 conference. A partner that holds the same values of Tessitura and our many arts and cultural organizations: empathy, professionalism, and steadfastness in the face of adversity.
Don, Andrew, and Heidi with Michael Mueller, our account lead at the Swan and Dolphin
I ended up on the last Alaska Airlines flight to leave the Orlando airport before it closed, and the rest of the team made it out as well. Ultimately, Irma wreaked havoc in the Caribbean. It was the third most expensive storm in history, though it caused far less damage in Florida than expected.
A few days after returning home to Portland, I learned that hours after we left, the world-famous actor Kristen Bell arrived at The Swan and Dolphin. She was in Orlando on a film shoot and unable to leave Orlando, so she hunkered down at the hotel. Bell ended up spending a lot of her time with the seniors, including a World War II veteran named John, who she referred to as “my new side piece in Orlando.” Jimmy Kimmel got wind of this and featured them all on his show.
WWII Vet John and Kristen Bell appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live
Calling all playwrights or composers looking for your next idea. The story of an assisted living facility, an international ballroom dance competition, and Kristen Bell stranded in a Disney Hotel during a hurricane has all the makings of a hit. “Come From Away” in the Sunshine State. Be sure to thank me when you accept the Tony.