Deluge didn’t stop Atlanta Boat Show

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Event manager mobilized a rapid, effective cleanup effort after 90,000 gallons of water spilled onto the exhibit floor

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Larry Berryman was eagerly looking forward to creating what he called the “largest indoor wake park in the country” as a focal point for the Jan. 12-15 Atlanta Boat Show.

The park, consisting of two 50-by-100-foot 100,000-gallon pools with ramps and transition obstacles allowing professional wakeboarders to jump from one pool to the other, looked like a big hit during test runs — and then one of the pools dumped about 90,000 gallons of water across the show floor just 90 minutes before the doors were to open on the first day. “I was about 50 feet away and heard this collapsing sound, followed by the sound of rushing water,” says Berryman, manager of the show.

Within minutes, 30 to 40 percent of the 330,000-square-foot show floor was covered with water as much as 2 inches deep. About a dozen dealers had moderate to severe damage to their displays, Berryman says, mostly carpeting and brochures and other promotional items, but a few boats closest to the deluge were knocked from their stands. “My first thought was, We can’t panic,” Berryman says. “This was a huge disappointment, but there were absolutely no injuries, which is the most important point. Someone nearby asked, ‘Will the show have to be cancelled?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely not. We’ll have this show open in three to four hours.’ ”

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Berryman called his team and members of the Georgia World Congress Center staff to the center of the floor. Within five minutes of the accident, they were busy “pushing and pumping, blowing and sucking” up the water. Local water cleanup specialty companies were on the scene in a half-hour with industrial equipment. Staff from the neighboring Georgia Dome came to help out. More than 400 able bodies were working to clean up the mess, Berryman says. “All without personal agendas or ego — it really was a Herculean effort,” he says.

As the water was cleared and the saturated carpeting removed, dozens of “wet floor” signs were set up, and at least 200 stationary fans ran for 36 hours to speed the evaporation. The pool collapsed at about 9:30 a.m., and the scheduled 11 a.m. opening was pushed back. When the doors opened at 2:30 p.m., 300 to 400 people were patiently waiting to get inside. “The patrons were very gracious about it, and for the most part the dealers and vendors understood that we did the best we could under the circumstances,” Berryman says.

When the opening day closed at 9 p.m., Berryman brought back the cleanup crews for a second wave of work. He estimates that 40 percent of the show’s carpeting was replaced overnight and that work continued until 10:30 the next morning. “By Friday morning the show looked good, and by Saturday morning the show looked almost brand-new,” he says.

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The cost of the damage was still being determined as claims came in and the insurance carrier processed them. Berryman estimates a “five- to six-figure” total cost for the accident.

He says show officials may never know the cause of the pool failure. The pools — stainless steel and aluminum structures with liners — were provided by a specialty pool company with experience with these displays, Berryman says. Both were assembled and filled to the manufacturer’s specifications, yet the side of one pool “folded onto itself like a shoebox,” he says.

In the end, the show was saved. Reported attendance was 22,482, but Berryman suspects that some early turnout data lost in the flood skewed the true attendance, which he thinks was in line with the 24,000-plus figure from the previous year. He says several dealers had good to excellent sales.

Whether another attempt at the largest indoor wake park is in store for the 2013 show is on hold for now, Berryman says, adding that he doesn’t want to give up on the idea “if we can make it work with changes.”

The veteran show manager says the ordeal was an enormous test of professionalism and willpower for all involved. “A lot of people worked diligently together and it was an amazing turnaround,” he says. “But it’s not a process I ever want to go through again.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.

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