A Day in the Life

Originally published October 2006 in Successful Meetings

According to the most recent statistics on the size of the meetings industry published by the Convention Industry Council, $122 billion a year is spent on meetings.

It's a staggering number that's impossible to wrap your mind around. So the editorial staff of SM decided to put a human face on some of that activity. This summer, five of our staffers shadowed five members of the meeting planning community as they went about their daily jobs.

Here's a glimpse of what they experienced.

Capital Events

Scott White is off to a late start. He is usually at his desk by 6:30 a.m., but gets to the office today at 8. Getting in early "gives me a good hour and a half to catch up on e-mail and proposals before the craziness sets in," he says.

By 8:15 he learns he may cross paths with President Bush today—a regular occurrence, and occasional nuisance, in D.C.

Following a 9:30 sales meeting, White hits the road. First stop is a check on the biggest group in town, 3,000 attendees with MassMutual. White, who gamely takes on tasks many company presidents would consider beneath them, swings by the Renaissance Washington, one of the group's HQ hotels, to drop off a sign and inspect the kids' arcade. Then he heads over to the convention center for a quick listen to the eloquent speaker Doris Kearns Goodwin, and tries to say hello to MassMutual's planner, but she is swamped and can't talk.

Then it's over to the Grand Hyatt, the group's other HQ, to check in on GEP's staffers. The Grand Hyatt is clearly the site of the possible Presidential sighting, as the street is blocked off and security outnumbers hotel employees. But he misses George W.

White has lunch at the Hay-Adams Hotel with Doug Camp, the hotel's director of sales and marketing. White tries to have at least one business lunch a week, and today hoped to also meet two of the Hay-Adams' new staff members, but they are unable to join. It turns out that a politico (rumored to be VP Cheney) was dining upstairs, and leaving the Hay-Adams is more exciting than expected as White maneuvers through security personnel.

After lunch, he drops by the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington, VA, where GEP's repeat client GMAC (Graduate Management Admission Council) is meeting. The 68 attendees are taking a monuments-and- memorials bus tour this evening and planner Sandy Mitchell asks White if they can make an unscheduled stop at the Roosevelt Memorial. White makes a quick call and the group is a go for Roosevelt.

He's on the move again—to the Anderson House, the site of the evening's big event, a MassMutual AAX past president's dinner. GEP's Andria Aceves and Wendi Cherry are already on site and things are progressing: The Three Waiters entertainment act warms up; caterers plate salads; the harpist arrives . . . but the planners are nowhere to be found.

White had offered to drive them to the venue, but they left separately and are now lost. White jumps on the phone, gives turn-by-turn directions, and they arrive shortly before their guests. When the motor coaches arrive, White is outside (in scorching heat, high humidity, and a suit) directing guests in.

With everyone settled, White takes off. His brother is visiting for the night and his wife made dinner . . . it's time to go home. —Kinley Levack


No Detail Is Too Small

Suddenly, Harith shouts: "Stop the car!"

The driver complies and Harith Wickrema jumps out, runs about 20 yards back on the road, and starts picking flowers. It's 5 a.m. and we're on a quiet road on our way to the city of Skagway in Alaska. We've got to get to the railway station to prepare to send 125 top sales associates for Bristol, TN-based King Pharmaceuticals Inc. to Bennett Station in the Yukon for the awards ceremony of their annual incentive program. "These flowers only grow wild in this part of Alaska for a few months; they'll make a nice addition to the event today. They're something unique that the group can only see here," says Wickrema.

Wickrema has been with the group from the start of a seven-day Carnival cruise that has already taken them to four Alaskan destinations: Whittier, Sitka, Juneau, and Ketchikan. At Skagway the group will board a turn-of-the-century train and ride the narrow-gauge railroad to Bennett Station in the Yukon.

At Bennett Station, the CEO of King Pharmaceuticals will thank the group for their hard work and vision and unveil the company's new logo as a float plane circles the event with the new logo emblazoned on its side. Then the Honorable Larry Bagnell, MP, representing the Yukon in the Canadian Parliament, will address the group, followed by Kaa Shaade Hani, chief of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, the tribe that first inhabited the region. "It's those kinds of exclusive touches that turn an event into a once-in-a-lifetime experience," says Wickrema.

But before the group experiences this event, Wickrema and his team will have to work hard at Bennett Station for several hours to ensure that the tent to accommodate the group is ready, all the food has arrived, and everything is in place to not only give the group a first-rate awards ceremony, but also give them a real taste of what it is to be in the Yukon. And no detail is too small. Soon after we arrive at the event site, Wickrema meticulously arranges the flowers he picked to spruce up a staging area just outside the tent. "Some members of the group might catch a glimpse of this area," he says. "It should have something unique to the Yukon for them to look at." —Vincent Alonzo


A Meeting That's Definitely "Booked"

It's 1:00 p.m., and the librarians are dancing. The music is loud, and they're twirling around with their book carts in complicated, choreographed routines. It's the Book Cart Drill Team World Championship, and it's being appreciated by a full house at the annual conference of the Chicago-based American Library Association (ALA).

This is Day Three of the conference, and ALA Director of Conference Services Deidre Ross has been on site since 8:00 a.m., although she started working from the computer in her hotel room hours before. On site, Ross's first task is to coordinate the other members of her team—10 in all—who are helping her run this show, which includes more than 1,500 exhibit booths, six days of sessions, and transportation of the nearly 17,000 attendees to and from 28 area hotels. She also fields myriad media requests; Ross was the first planner to announce that her group would still go to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and the ALA was ultimately the first major convention to return to the city. As a result, press coverage of this event is substantial, and Ross is the one person everyone wants to interview.

As such, Ross is spending her day juggling press interviews and photo shoots while still running the conference and taking the appropriate meetings, including several with the advance team of the First Lady of the United States. Laura Bush, herself a former librarian, will be speaking at the Town Hall meeting the following day.

To traverse the nearly one-million-square-foot Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Ross drives her personally-assigned go-cart through the back hallways and loading areas. And that's how she gets to the auditorium holding the Book Cart Drill Team World Championship, after a quick lunch in the conference services office (eaten standing, with her staff). Ross, who is credited with having created, organized, and popularized this annual contest, welcomes each squad individually and coordinates their entrances. During the event, she watches as much as she can, while conferring with representatives from the New Orleans CVB, takings several calls on her cell phone, and giving an interview to a reporter from the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

The rest of the afternoon is spent back in the conference services office, fielding more phone calls, writing reports, managing staff, and giving still more interviews. Ross has another meeting with the White House advance team before it's time for dinner—which is actually a meeting with one of her vendors. Ross gets back to her hotel just in time to get a few hours of sleep, and then start all over again for Day Four. —Suzie Amer


Crafting a Fine Conference

It's a Tuesday morning in August, and James Craft, senior conference manager at the Doral Arrowwood Conference Resort in Rye Brook, NY, is giving a visitor a hurried tour of the property. As he zips past the tennis courts, his Kenwood walkie-talkie squawks a greeting from a colleague, saying his client just called.

Craft makes a beeline for the break area outside one of the 32 conference rooms, where about 20 MBA students from New York University are sipping coffee and chatting. He walks up to a woman in a pink blazer and black slacks— MaryJane Boland, director of executive programs at NYU. She's buttonholed one of Craft's colleagues and is asking for more vegetarian dishes for her Indian attendees. After a brief tête-à-tête, the matter is resolved, and Craft returns to his office, where 10 new e-mails await him.

Craft has only two groups in house today, but in the coming weeks he'll be busy with attendees from Heineken, Ogilvy & Mather, and Revlon. (Forty minutes from midtown Manhattan, the Doral draws 85 percent of its business from corporate groups.) He spent two years managing Doral's AV and catering before switching to this department. In his BD (before Doral) days, he was a sound technician for musicians from Mariah Carey to the Ramones, then did a stint at his uncle's translation firm, handling tech support for simultaneous interpreters at gatherings featuring Bill Clinton, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, and others.

Craft works through lunch—he typically doesn't eat until dinnertime—catching up on paperwork and fielding phone calls (a client disputing an F&B charge, another requesting an extra room). His mastery of detail is superb: In a 2:30 p.m. phone conference about an upcoming recognition event for Guardsmark, a high-level security firm, he tells his client he's ordered bottles of Purell hand sanitizer for the ballroom as well as Coca-Cola BlaK (a new Coke-and-coffee mix I'd barely heard of at the time). Not that anyone asked—he'd simply noticed that certain people liked them.

"I like to treat each meeting that I'm planning as being like a blank canvas," says Craft. "I start from the intro, meeting the clients, and we start to put together the whole picture. It remains interesting, something different every time. Rarely do you see a case where it's the same thing over and over again, even with the repeat clients." —Sara J. Welch


Care to Connect

It's June 29th at 8:00 a.m. The "check engine" light in JoAnn Chmura's car flashes. Panic grips her. Her company's event—hosting a luxury hospitality skybox at the 2006 Buick Open, a PGA golf event in Cromwell, CT—starts that day at 12:30. Fifteen minutes later, calm prevails. Her car is functioning well and she is cruising down the highway toward ConnectiCare's fourth annual luxury skybox event. "I've been so busy," says Chmura, relationship marketing manager at ConnectiCare, Inc. & Affiliates, "that I have neglected getting an oil change for some time. But luckily, my car is fine."

At 10:00 a.m., Chmura arrives at the site's Will Call center to drop off some press materials and extra tickets for clients. She makes her way to the luxury suite and finds that the suppliers providing her registration table and chairs are late—one hour late! At this point it is 12:00 noon and her table and chairs are still missing. They finally arrive, allowing just 20 minutes to set up. As her staff quickly arranges everything, the food arrives. Within minutes, registration begins and things are in order.

By 1:30 p.m. Chmura is cool as a cucumber. Clients are trickling in and people are eating and networking while watching golf. According to Chmura, ConnectiCare entertains 400 brokers, clients, providers, and doctors each year. "We get a skybox to show our clients that we appreciate their business. It's an opportunity for our sales team to build relationships in a relaxed environment," says Chmura. The event lasts for four days, and 100 people arrive per day. Chmura started the planning in January, arranged the menu in April, and sent out the invitations in May.

Chmura continues to make her rounds in the upper and lower sections of the skybox. She makes sure the Ben & Jerry's ice cream will be delivered by 2:30, the bartender has enough plastic cups and ice, and the bathroom is stocked with toilet paper and paper towels. She is constantly aware of three other worries: F&B, the noise level, and the number of people in the skybox—only 40 to 50 are allowed at a time.

One thing she did differently from last year was to get an electrical hot box for the food. Last year, the F&B team used Sterno solid fuel, and the food pans were tilted, which allowed grease to leak onto the Sterno cans. This caused a little fire and a lot of chaos. Channel 8 came by the box to televise what was going on. "It was a bit embarrassing," recalls Chmura, "because our president was there. But then again, any press is good press."

Alas, it's 6:00 p.m. and the clients are leaving. Chmura smiles. She anxiously awaits her two-week hiatus in three days, a much-needed break to decompress and get her car an oil change. —April I. Torrisi