Special Report: Behind the Scenes in Boston

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.

Photograph by Ramsey Mohsen


“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 clients throughout the week, Rooney said, letting them know “what intelligence we had in terms of additional threats and so forth, added security procedures, and the fact that the buildings had been swept, to give them an added level of comfort.” His team also kept up a steady stream of press releases, website updates, tweets, and Facebook posts, with the latest information on the status of its buildings in general and of ASCA, Experimental Biology, and Boston Comic Con in particular.

GBCVB was also working to get the word out, especially to leisure tourists. “This was school-vacation week in Boston, so there were groups that were scheduled here,” Moscaritolo said. “We started getting calls from school administrators and parents and teachers that were bringing these groups in.”

Sometimes that involved a personal touch. On Tuesday morning, Moscaritolo got an email from a North Carolina high-school teacher who was bringing a choral group to Boston the following Thursday, April 25. Moscaritolo ended up sending him an update every day over the next week, which the teacher would read aloud in class. “[The teacher] said what happened was, ‘Our students got more fired up about “we are coming, we are gonna make a statement,” Moscaritolo said. “I was getting goosebumps reading his emails.”

Experimental Biology was posting and tweeting its own updates — including, front and center on the conference home page, a simple message: “BOSTON STRONG.” The six societies were also sending out their own updates, letting people know that the show would go on. “Communication is key with all the players,” Jackson said. “The BCEC folks, in communication with them, some of them had to go through similar challenges when Hurricane Sandy came through. It’s talking. It’s asking questions. There are no stupid questions. I asked a lot of them. I wanted to make sure if any attendees asked me, I was well prepared.”

That sentiment was not uncommon. “I wouldn’t have minded being blamed for over-communicating, is the best way to sum it up,” Rooney said. “If people are tired of hearing from me, I guess that’s a good thing.”


The Mood on the Ground

Meanwhile, the bombers hadn’t been caught, and no one knew if they were still in Boston. In the days after the marathon, there were bomb reports in and around the city — all of them false, but they had to be investigated, which sometimes led to evacuations.

The mood was unreal — anxious, unsettled, but also defiant. ASCA 2013 went off as planned, except for the added security at the Hynes, and ended up raising nearly $12,000 for The One Fund Boston, which was formed to help people who were affected by the bombings. A variety of smaller meetings in hotels around Boston also went ahead (see sidebars on pp. 17 and 18). “It became important to all of us to demonstrate that these intimidation and terrorism tactics weren’t going to work,” Rooney said. “It’s perfectly understandable for people who might have an emotional reaction to such things to stay away, but at the same time, the message needs to be sent that our way of life is not going to be impacted by this type of activity. What I witnessed, among both our workforce and the people of Boston and the participants at [ASCA], was actually a defiant attitude in which people wanted to show everyone that they weren’t going to be intimidated and that life was going to go on.”

Jackson noticed something similar among the participants at Experimental Biology, which, as the week went along, began move-in at the BCEC. “The attendees seemed proud to be there,” she said. “They were glad to be there for the science, and at the same time to support the city in their recovery. They certainly put a lot of money into the economy. They were out in restaurants, they were taking cabs…. We all felt a connection to the city.”


Sheltering in Place

And then it was Friday morning, April 19, and everyone was waking to the news that one of the bombing suspects was dead, that his brother was the subject of an intense manhunt, and that the city of Boston was in lockdown — meaning people were being asked to stay inside, to “shelter in place,” while police looked for the suspect.

“We knew what was going on and what had happened overnight,” Rooney said. “Even before the shelter-in-place [order] was extended to Boston, because we participate in intelligence-sharing with state and city law enforcement, we began to get information that there were leads and sightings [of the suspects] coming in from all over the city, and each of those needed to be treated seriously.”

Added Moscaritolo: “[GBCVB’s] communication was by email, text, cellphones from homes, because we were not allowed out and into downtown until 6 or 6:30 that Friday night. It was difficult, but thank goodness for technology. We were able to communicate with our staff and with our clients.”

ASCA 2013 was wrapping up, but lockdown couldn’t have come at a worse time for Experimental Biology, whose attendees began arriving in force on Friday, and for Boston Comic Con, which was slated to begin move-in at the Hynes that morning. As the day wore on without any clear resolution to the manhunt or the lockdown, Comic Con posted updates on its Facebook page — public transportation is “currently suspended due to police action”; move-in at the Hynes is “currently suspended till further notice”; and finally, mid-afternoon on Friday, “The Boston Comic Con will be rescheduled to a date in the not too distant future.” (As of now, it’s scheduled for Aug. 3-4 at Boston’s Seaport World Trade Center.)

Experimental Biology continued to set up at the BCEC and, as scheduled, went ahead and opened registration — but had to conduct that within the parameters of the lockdown. Meanwhile, attendees were pouring into the city, many of them from overseas. “All of the major hotels were still open and welcoming guests,” Rooney said. “The difficulty — and it became almost a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour management decision — was registration…. We made a decision consistent with the shelter-in-place that people should not be encouraged to come to the BCEC and leave their hotels. We put out the word that registration would take place at the hotels. But we weren’t going to turn people away at the building, so we took them in.”

Throughout all of this, meeting professionals worked with the full knowledge that Experimental Biology might have to be postponed or canceled. “We had several meetings throughout the day with BCEC security and the executive staff at BCEC,” Jackson said, “and it was around five o’clock [p.m.] when they came into my office and said, ‘We have to talk.’ And that was when they gave me the reality of what might happen: We had eight hours, and in eight hours we would know if we were shutting down.”

What had been unreal was now surreal. Jackson was at the BCEC, consulting with staff there, and also reporting by phone to executives from the six societies, who were sheltering in place at their hotels. She also reached out to her insurance company, to talk about Experimental Biology’s cancellation policy. “I knew I had a job to do,” Jackson said, “and I’m trying to figure out how best to do it. What were my obstacles? What could I do?… Honestly, I knew the show needed to go on. It’s probably the biggest nightmare for any meeting planner to even be approached with having to cancel an event.”

For the MCCA, it was a question of balancing the safety of its employees with a desire to be as flexible as possible for its client. Rooney talked to the head of the union representing catering workers, asking for some leeway in terms of notifying them about coming to work on Saturday. “If the shelter-in-place order was still in place [on Saturday morning], we couldn’t ask our employees to leave their homes,” Rooney said, “so we couldn’t have an event.” Not on its originally scheduled dates, anyway. “[Rooney] was very flexible,” Jackson said, “and said if we had to cancel this, ‘We’ll look at this. We’ll work with you. I’m not here to nickel-and-dime you.’… I knew if we had to go down that road, it would be something we’d try to make mutually beneficial to each other.”

But that wasn’t necessary. The immediate crisis ended about an hour after Jackson received the eight-hour notice from the BCEC, when the shelter-in-place order was lifted. Not long after that, the second suspect was captured by police. “Huge relief,” Jackson said. “I felt like I had worked a month’s worth of work in a week. It was amazingly stressful and high-tension. I was exhausted, and our meeting hadn’t even begun.”

The MCCA kept its additional security measures — the metal detectors and bag checks and bomb-sniffing dogs — in place during and after Experimental Biology, just to be sure. “The theme we’ve adopted is to provide a friendly sense of security,” Rooney said, “so that people feel comfortable being here but don’t feel they’re in a prison environment or in a police-state situation.”

As for Jackson, she’s already thinking about Experimental Biology 2014, which is scheduled for April 26-30 in San Diego. She has a site visit this month. “I’ve already arranged to meet with the leaders of the city to ask, how would you have handled this?” Jackson said. “Let’s play armchair quarterback: What would you have done? Would you have made these decisions? And, if not, who would you have turned to to do that? Just to begin a conversation.”

The One Boston Fund has been established to “help the people most affected by the tragic events that occurred in Boston on April 15, 2013.”

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.