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June 2013

Special Report: Behind the Scenes in Boston

By Christopher Durso, Executive Editor
Photograph by Ramsey Mohsen
 

In the minutes after the second bomb went off at the Boston Marathon, James Rooney was not concerned with being the executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority (MCCA). He and his wife were standing at the finish line on Boylston Street, waiting for their niece, who was running in the marathon, and in the immediate aftermath of the blasts, he was just another Bostonian trying to make sure his family was safe.


“I saw the explosions and then I was in the middle of the chaos,” Rooney said in an interview with Convene two weeks later. “We weren't all together.... Most of the next 20 to 30 minutes were just frantically [spent] trying to find people, because all the cell phones were shut down immediately. Just finding each other and making sure each other was okay.”

Three of his wife's sisters were close to the first bomb and got knocked down when it went off, but everyone was all right. Then it was time to think about the MCCA. Voice service was down but texting still worked, and soon Rooney was receiving messages from staff at the MCCA's buildings — including the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC) and, just a half-block from the second bomb, the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center. “Immediately during the chaos, the Hynes, like all of those buildings [around the finish line], began evacuating,” Rooney said. “I knew that had started and wasn't surprised.

“The first reaction and question on people's minds is, are there more bombs? The two of them went off 12 seconds apart, but public-safety officials, law enforcement were trying to clear the area. We all didn't know, is it just these two bombs, or are there more to follow?”

A 'Law & Order Moment'

That was the first of many questions that Boston's meetings and hospitality community would ask, and be asked, during a very long week in which three major conventions were coming to town — even as the city mourned the three people who were killed in the bombings, cared for the hundreds injured, stepped up security in public facilities and other prominent spaces, and hunted for the bombers.


The bombings happened on Monday, April 15. At the Hynes that afternoon, even as the John Hancock Sports & Fitness Expo was moving out, ASCA 2013 - the 2,000-attendee annual meeting of the Ambulatory Surgery Center Association (ASCA), scheduled for Wednesday to Saturday, April 17-20 — was moving in. Boston Comic Con would follow on Saturday and Sunday, April 20-21. It was a busy week, and the MCCA couldn't take any chances. Once the Hynes was evacuated, it was swept by bomb-sniffing dogs and declared clear.

The MCCA also manages the 1,300-car parking garage underneath Boston Common, less than a half-mile from the explosions, and it had that swept, too. “We needed to make sure that facility was clear as well,” Rooney said. “We weren't allowing people to come in. We were allowing people to leave.”

The BCEC was relatively quiet — it sits about two miles from the marathon finish line, and was expecting to begin move-in for Experimental Biology 2013 on Wednesday — but the MCCA had it swept just in case. A joint conference sponsored by six scientific societies, Experimental Biology was planning on upward of 14,000 attendees from Saturday to Wednesday, April 20-24, and its advance team was just beginning to arrive in Boston — including Marcella Jackson, CMP, director of the office of scientific meetings and conferences for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), which manages Experimental Biology. She had just checked into her hotel when she got a message from someone with one of the participating societies and turned on the TV. “Thinkingback on it now, I feel like it was one of those ‘Law & Order’ moments, where you hear that dun-dun,” Jackson said. “I had to become very quickly the voice to [the six societies], to let them know what was happening in town vs. what they're seeing in the media and on the news and such.”

Information quickly became the most valuable commodity in Boston — especially among the city's meeting and hospitality professionals, who needed to figure out how bad things were and what they could realistically promise their groups. “Of course you go through this range of emotions,” said Patrick Moscaritolo, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau (GBCVB), who had just walked back to his office after a marathon-day brunch reception hosted by the general manager of the Mandarin Oriental, Boston, when he heard about the bombings. “How serious is this, how horrible is this, why would anybody attack an event like this — to then, okay, now we have to make sure our clients and customers are taken care of.”

The Day After

The Hynes remained in the thick of things. That first night after the bombings, Boston police used the facility to store and process evidence as they collected it, until the FBI took over the investigation, Rooney said, and “all that evidence was moved to an undisclosed location the next morning.” The FBI also reviewed footage from the Hynes’ security cameras, looking at street activity surrounding the bombings.


ASCA's move-in continued on Tuesday, with some adjustments. The Hynes fronts onto Boylston Street, which was still locked down, meaning no one could enter the building through those doors. So ASCA's move-in proceeded on the south side — through the Hynes’ loading dock and the adjacent Shops at Prudential Center, which is connected to the building on its first floor.

“Given all the uncertainty around things, we quickly put in a series of heightened security measures,” Rooney said. “We actually moved some metal-detector equipment into the Hynes. We set up areas for any bags or anything being carried in to be checked — backpacks, pocketbooks, that sort of thing. We already have some pretty solid security precautions at it relates to badges, but we were more strict in the enforcement of those things.”

The MCCA also had bomb-sniffing dogs patrol both the Hynes and the BCEC during ASCA and Experimental Biology. “The first priority was public safety, among participants in the shows and our own employees,” Rooney said. “Had there been any credible threats or concerns, we would not have allowed them in the buildings.”

Over at the BCEC, Experimental Biology convened a pre-con meeting on Tuesday morning with show organizers and representatives from the BCEC, GBCVB, and the hotels in its room block. “It was incredibly helpful to hear, in connection with what the local authorities were communicating, what additional safety factors they were adding to their hotels,” Jackson said. “Because, as you can imagine, we were getting tons of emails [from attendees and other participants] saying, ‘Should I still come? Is it still safe?’ And I was able to say, here's what the hotels are doing for the benefit of your safety.”

Getting the Word Out

Throughout all of this, the MCCA, GBCVB, and the meeting organizers themselves were using a variety of communication channels to keep their employees, partners, attendees, and other stakeholders in the loop. The MCCA has an emergency-notification system for its employees that “most of the time here in Boston gets used for snow-type situations,” Rooney said, “but in this case we relied heavily on it to let people know what was going on, including whether or not to come to work and how to behave the next day in particular.”


The MCCA was also in “constant-communication mode” with the world at large. Event managers went “face-to-face on the phone” with

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