So much has already been written about the tremendous courage, compassion, and selfless spirit demonstrated by our entire community in response to the devastating wildfires, I can only add my simple thanks to those who risked their lives to help save the lives and property of so many of us victimized by this tragedy.
I speak from personal experience. My wife and I were on our way home from Las Vegas, where I attended a board meeting of the International Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus, when I received word that my neighborhood, Scripps Ranch, had been evacuated. It was not until several days later, after watching the valiant efforts on the part of our firefighters, law enforcement, relief agencies, and emergency medical teams to save lives and property in Scripps Ranch, Tierrasanta, Crest, Julian, Harbison Canyon, Otay Mesa and other fire-ravaged communities across the county, that I was able to return to my home.
I was one of the lucky ones. My home remained standing, but so many of my friends and neighbors were not so fortunate.
Throughout this incredible ordeal, two thoughts kept going through my mind. The first is the realization of how fragile and precious our lives are, and that tragedy can change our lives dramatically at a moment's notice.
Secondly, as I personally experienced the outpouring of generosity and compassion toward the victims of this catastrophe -- of neighbors taking care of neighbors -- it became very clear to me why San Diego and San Diegans are known around the world as America's Finest.
I was particularly proud to see the outpouring of support from our visitor industry, which played an immediate and proactive role in reaching out to the fire victims. This included complimentary and deeply discounted hotel rooms provided by ConVis member hotels to assist those displaced by the fires. Many area hotels also made their rooms available to firefighters that came in from other cities and states to help fight the firestorms. To accommodate fire victims, some hotels even changed their "no pets" policy and welcomed dogs, cats, even goats and chickens, in some cases.
Similarly many local restaurants, in coordination with the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association, provided fire victims with gift certificates for complimentary meals at San Diego eateries.
And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Visitor industry businesses, no matter how small, opened their hearts and their wallets to those displaced by the fires by organizing individual fundraisers or donating a portion of their sales to various relief funds.
Marketing in the face of tragedy
In this age of instant communication, whenever a tragedy of such magnitude strikes, it is only a matter of minutes before the entire world becomes aware of the event. Scenes of burning homes and raging wildfires in San Diego and Southern California were broadcast to televisions and computer screens in every corner of the world.
Needless to say, such images immediately raised concern among would be convention delegates and vacationers who were planning a visit to San Diego, not to speak of the tour operators and travel agents from around the world who may have booked group travel to the region during the week of the wildfires.
To counteract the effects of these terrifying images, the staffs at the Convention & Visitors Bureau and the San Diego Convention Center moved quickly to implement a multi-faceted crisis communications plan (including e-mail, Web site, public relations and traditional advertising strategies) in an effort to provide factual, timely information on the wildfires and their impact on San Diego's visitor and convention industry. The plan included an aggressive series of communications to the travel trade media and thousands of meeting planners and major mainstream media outlets throughout the country.
In the ensuing days, ConVis staff handled a deluge of telephone calls and e-mails from journalists around the country calling for information about the extent of the fires and their impact on San Diego tourism. In the meantime, the staff at our International Visitor Information Center worked diligently to gather and provide accurate information concerning the operating status of San Diego area visitor attractions and visitor related services while answering concerned calls from San Diego bound leisure travelers and convention delegates.
Thankfully, San Diego did not lose any of the 15 citywide conventions (Convention Center based) that had previously booked meetings or trade shows in San Diego through Thanksgiving. And the conventions and meetings that were in town when the tragedy hit went on as scheduled, thanks to the loyalty and dedication of industry staff that went above and beyond the call of duty to service the delegates.
The San Diego Convention Center was hosting the 6,000 delegates of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons when the fires struck, and the convention went on as planned and without interruption. The center's staff of 400 all reported to work the morning of Oct. 27, together with the Bureau's convention assistants -- many of them facing extremely challenging personal situations due to the fires -- to register and assist delegates.
I am proud to be a San Diegan and a member of the local hospitality community. In the many years my family and I have chosen to call this home, we've never ceased to be amazed by the positive energy and enthusiasm many of our fellow San Diegans exhibit daily. Even in the face of a disaster of this magnitude, we pulled together as a community to overcome the odds.
Despite the tragic losses in life and property brought on by last month's wildfires, we have much to be grateful for as a community as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. On behalf of our region's visitor industry, I convey our heartfelt gratitude to San Diego County's dedicated firefighters, law enforcement personnel and relief workers. In addition, special thanks are in order to San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy, County Board of Supervisors Chairman Greg Cox and my Scripps Ranch City Councilman Brian Maienschein. Their leadership and constant presence on the front lines of this tragedy were a comfort to many and an inspiration to all.
Reinders is president and CEO of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. E-mail him at email@example.com.