The “glamorous” life of a meeting planner
War stories, tales from the #roadwarriers #meetingplannerlife #thinkonyourfeet
War Story #1
WHERE IS VARENNA? When I took the job to plan and manage my very first international event in Varenna, #Italy, I figured, “A meeting is a meeting—right?” My first challenge was finding Varenna, which turns out to be a tiny village on the edge of Lake Como and a ferry ride to #Bellagio. I had been contracted a mere 10 weeks prior to manage a group of 45 professors and their guests for an advisory board meeting, excursions and touring. And, no, I do not speak Italian, nor did I have even a basic understanding of the language.
My second challenge was trying to set up the meeting room in the boutique hotel. Think 50 people in a very long, very narrow u-shape space. (The hotel came already sourced, selected and with a signed contract.)
LECTERN (noun) –that thing a speaker presents from and a serious language barrier.
Challenge #3: I kept asking for a #lectern for the president of the board. The conversation did NOT go well. I was presented with a menu stand from the cafe, then a music stand from some back office. Throughout, I struggled with not speaking the language and my contact did not speak English. (Why should I have assumed they would?) SO, we walked across the courtyard to a quaint, ornate church, where at the front of the pulpit was a lectern. I pointed to it in an attempt to convey that was what I wanted, but without all the jewels and such. Turns out I couldn’t take it from the church. Not that I intended to (OMG I WOULD NEVER), but that is how it was interpreted. It appeared I would not get what I needed. So with less than two hours until the president of the board was to speak, it was time to seriously improve on things.
SOLUTION: We used a makeshift crate from the loading dock, wrapped it in black linen and stacked it onto a height-adjusted, linen-draped cocktail round. Work with what ya got!
War Story #2
DOGGONE EXHIBITORS. As a show manager, your goal is to make sure all exhibitors are happy—happy with the ROI, attendee traffic and caliber of attendees. Not to mention exhibitor location and surrounding exhibitors. Our hall included 125 booths of varied sizes for a law enforcement industry trade show, including one exhibitor from a SWAT Dog Training Program. Show management thought this was a fabulous idea since the exhibitor presented a few interactive training demos throughout the day. The demos would drive traffic back to the large exhibit (which we strategically placed toward the back) and draw traffic for the surrounding exhibitors. It seemed to work out well … until the dogs began barking uncontrollably and the other exhibitors began to complain. What was a great idea turned into an unexpected situation that stemmed from a new dog in the training program. At this point, we had to keep the surrounding exhibitors smiling without irritating our SWAT folks, who were drawing quite a crowd (= good marks from the attendees) with their complementary demos.
SOLUTION: To appease the surrounding exhibitors, we requested that the newbie dog be taken off the exhibit hall floor between demos. This would restore things to the standard noise level and allow for normal conversation. We hoped that the increased traffic to that area of the hall would make up for the earlier distractions. We also removed the microphone that was originally used for the demos.
To appease the SWAT exhibitor (who was tolerating the periodic removal of part of his booth), we allowed the other dogs to remain in the booth to assist with their marketing efforts. We also provided a space inside and outside the convention hall that would allow the dogs to relax and settle down. A discount to next year’s conference helped a little too!
War Story #3
LASAGNA FOR LUNCH? WHAT A GREAT IDEA! (I’ve quit counting the challenges.)
My first job in the meetings industry was as registration and housing coordinator for a hardware store owners’ cooperative. We did three shows a year with approximately 2,000 attendees per show, and 95% of the attendees were men. One of my additional onsite show responsibilities was to manage the food buffets on the show floor. The attendees were mostly from the construction supply business, which meant early-risers looking for their first cup of coffee and breakfast well before the rest of us hit snooze for the first time.
For one particular show, everything had been going great for the first couple of days. Day three started out the same as the others. Our attendees were hitting our hotel lobby coffee stations bright and early (open at 5 a.m.!) before heading to the convention center for breakfast and a morning of wheeling and dealing on the show floor. As the morning shifted toward midday, the banquet staff began setting up for the noon lunch service. And that is when the sharks—I mean attendees—started circling. You KNOW what I mean. On their first pass, they walk by at a distance to casually glance in the direction of the buffet area. On the next “swim by” they get a little closer to try and see what is being served. By the third time they are asking the banquet staff what time lunch is being served (clearly at noon like it says in the agenda, but that is another story altogether). And finally, on their fourth pass, those brazen enough to go for it snatch a cookie off the dessert table.
By 11:45 a.m. the service staff is pretty much ready to go at our buffet lines. It was Italian Day and we were waiting for lasagna, the last dish to be brought up from the kitchen. I was told it would be there in 5 minutes. Five minutes comes and goes; no lasagna. I ask again, and the answer is always 5 minutes. At this point, my attendees are gathering off to the side so they can be the first in line (remember, breakfast was HOURS ago). I inquire again with the banquet manager, a little more forcibly, “Where is the lasagna?” I need it now or I am going to have some seriously HANGRY people on my hands. The banquet manager assures me the lasagna is in the elevator. By now, the attendees have formed a line at each station even though we told them things were going to be a few minutes. To which they responded, “No worries, we’ll just wait.” I radioed the rest of the team to get creative and start entertaining their lines. Tell jokes, introduce people to each other, hand out cookies if you need to. Just distract them until the buffet opens. Fortunately, we averaged 80% repeat attendance for these shows. It was a nice group and a lot of people knew one another, so they had someone to network with while standing in the buffet line.
After what seemed like a year of back and forth, I finally pry out of the banquet manager the reason for the delay. It was because the chef never turned on the ovens. You read that right, the chef NEVER TURNED ON the ovens to cook the FROZEN lasagnas! I’m pretty sure I stood with a look of utter disbelief for a good 5 seconds before reacting. Then I went into plan B mode (possibly plan D at this point). I radioed the rest of the team and told them to open the buffets no matter what the banquet captain in their area said about waiting for the lasagnas. We arranged for the banquet staff to tray pass the lasagna to diners so they could at least get started on the rest of their lunch. The staff also brought out extra cookies and desserts since we’d depleted the final course trying to keep everyone happy while they waited.
Eventually, when the lasagna made it to the show floor, everyone cheered! The Lasagna Incident became to running joke for shows to come, “Hey Steph, did the chef turn on the oven this time?”
WHAT WAR STORIES CAN YOU SHARE?