An excerpt from Meetings Mayhem! -A humorous but factual look at the serious business of making meetings happen
I had been waiting for this day for 8 long months. It was finally here. All the planning, innovating, tastings, design, training, detail work, and let’s face it, HEART was about to be exposed to our 2,300 VIP guests. Nothing could go wrong, until it did, on day 1.
Let me rewind, so you can understand how I got here. Sweating and shaking profusely on the convention floor is what I mean by “here.”
As the Assistant Director of Events for a big box convention property, I would be taking the lead on managing and executing the food and beverage events for our hotel companies' General Manager and All Leaders conference. This conference is like the “super bowl” of programs for any hotel to take on. The pressure to perform individually, and as a team, while representing your property to the entire company leadership team is intense. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a true honor to host this conference, however quite the beast to execute.
It was important to me and our team to ensure that every single F/B function truly felt like an experience, deliver a message, and have a purpose. This included the often overlooked AM/PM breaks. We could have taken the easy route and put all of our energy and focus into the big specialty evening events, however, we considered this a “legacy” project due to the scale and scope of the program.
You DON’T settle or half-ass a legacy project.
Unlike many programs that open with a Welcome Reception, we had a unique flow to work with as our first actual F/B event was a PM break. BORING! However, this was a VVIP pre-meeting of a select group of 350 company leaders attending an opening session lead by none other but the President of the America’s for our MAJOR Hotel brand. The rest of the 2,000 attendees would be trickling in and would get their big wow experience at the welcome event that evening, but these 350…. well, I could not forget them or their extremely valued and often critical opinions of their first impression.
The theme we finally landed on was called the “Welcome Home” break. We decided to connect a corporate initiative that the company President was deeply passionate about (employing military veterans) with our F/B experience by showcasing our OWN property vets. We had them each submit the one snack item they missed the most while deployed, and then we artfully designed a menu around those responses to serve at this break.
Our veterans would also be there, standing at attention in two rows, with company-branded camouflage hats, ready to greet the attendees as they all would break at ONCE from the general session room. A giant 8’x9’ custom menu chalkboard would anchor the foyer space, featuring quotes from the vet’s response sheets, bringing their collaboration right into the food display. Powerful.
We designed the entire foyer space to have a retro/vintage feel, with a few modern techy twists, We wanted it to be perfect for the attendees, but also for the veterans that deserved a polished presentation.
One of the “modern techy twists” were 6 LED 6ft tall vertical signboards. I was obsessed with these boards. The boards are usually used for way-finding or displaying general content such as program agendas, however, I saw an opportunity to integrate them into our F/B design plan for the full program week. For the most part, I would be using them as 6 individual boards, (as shown here) however for the “Welcome Home” break, I was going to have them all in a row with the content synced together to create one wavering flag that overlays across the group of panels. Stunning and has such a super cool effect.
Event day arrives, we are ready to go. Setup begins and I am balancing my time between the extensive outdoor welcome reception set up for later that night, and this opening PM break. There are vendors everywhere, 3 camera crews following us, corporate execs checking in on us, and an army-size operations team marching like ants, dividing and conquering, and blowing up my phone every other second.
In the midst of all the organized chaos, I headed back of the house to the AV war room to check out my beloved LED screens, as I hadn’t seen them yet and was excited to see this flag effect in action.
They were everything I had hoped for, and I knew they would be an impressive wow factor aligning with the conference theme of “the next 100 years” and a centennial/futuristic vibe.
The techs set up the screens to show me the animation effect and all was looking perfect. However, as I started to chat with a colleague, something kept catching my attention about the screens in the corner of my eye. One of the panels was glitching. Like an obvious glitch.
I started to panic, as I knew something was wrong and I would need to have these fixed ASAP because a technical glitch like this would not look professional. Remember that part about not settling?
I got a team on the problem right away, however, after much troubleshooting, the LED screens would NOT sync with one another properly and the more they messed with it the worse it got. It went from half a flag to no flag, to a quarter of a flag, on and on.
Of course, I had planned for them to be positioned DIRECTLY outside of the doors on the perfect angle so each guest would no doubt get that wow moment of the crisp, clear, technology in front of them. As it was, they would be shielding their eyes or seizing from the sporadic pops of light coming at them.
As we neared closer to event time, mind you at this point attendees are inside the ballroom in session, I realized a backup plan was needed. The AV team rolled out a large plasma tv on wheels. Gross. Old-school. This is not at ALL a representation of the “future,” nope, we are now going BACK in time! Nevertheless, it was a contingency plan to have in place while the tech team continued to troubleshoot the LED screens.
Various vendors started jumping in after seeing me pacing around the foyer. I just started sending anyone in a black AV outfit to the AV war room to look at these things and put their techy heads together regardless of what company they were with. They kept giving me all kinds of updates about what the problem was, hoping I would tell them to just give up and we will proceed with the ugly plasma on wheels. Unfortunately for them, they were dealing with the most stubborn perfectionist possible in this scenario, who was personally holding the weight of the success of this entire week on her shoulders (not recommended BTW). When I have a vision, and my mind is made up on something, it is pretty much pointless even attempting to talk me out of it. Keep troubleshooting guys!
I guess you could say the addict inside me loves the adrenaline rush of the hustle and scramble of getting everything perfect down to the very last second… let’s not act like “set and ready 15 minutes prior” is actually a reality for a program like this. Every minute, and every second, that you have until those doors open to fine-tuning the details is what can end up making or breaking the experience.
My phone rings, “We fixed it!” the lead tech exclaims. Hallelujah!
And then I realize there are only 5 minutes until doors open. Could we make the swap so quickly? What if the attendees break early? DOOO IT.
I closed my eyes and thought, “did I really just make that call?”
The poor techs came running through the halls, each carrying an LED screen. I remember watching them lugging the screens with such commitment. They had never even met me until hours prior and could have several times told me to go pound sand. For some reason though, they were in it with me.
The crowd had now officially built in the foyer (remember there were 20-30 veterans ready to stand at attention), and a plethora of other staff. I think half the property was now as emotionally invested in this LED screen initiative as I was. We all watched in suspense as the ugly plasma was rolled away, and they scrambled to set the beauties.
Then, we start to hear the applause inside. NO, the screens were not on yet! Now I’ve just put us in a position where we could have a big black BLANK screen… even worse than the old clankety plasma! At least that thing had content on it.
I am dying inside, and about to pee my pants while everyone is looking back and forth between ME and the LED screens. The applause continues, and then eureka! The screens turn on. YAY!!!
Except then, glitch, glitch glitchity glitch...here we go again, DARK. My heart sank. I could literally now hear the guests getting up from their chairs. What was I thinking pushing everyone to this level?
And at that moment, I heard a POP from the screens, followed by a KABOOOOM of the ballroom doors busting open. And then GASPS from the guests taking in the most glorious digitally animated waving American flag they had ever seen. (In my mind that is what they were thinking.)
Someone above was watching over us at that moment. Those screens literally popped back into action the very second the doors busted open. No one from inside the ballroom knew the wiser. I hugged the wall, and cried, laughed, cried, you know that ugly combination where you are so confused about what has just happened to you?
I never did get the chance to snap a picture of the flag in action, but it's certainly an image imprinted in my brain for life.
So, was it worth it? YES. Especially considering the rest of the week followed suit to the same tune of “down to the wire” fine-tuning and making tweaks to take each experience 1 step further. That is what we do for our guests. When we KNOW it could be better, then shouldn’t it be?
This experience solidified my mindset about never settling. It is important to push yourself, push your team, and live a little dangerously because that feeling of getting it RIGHT sticks with you forever.
No risk, no reward, no Glory.
From Glitch, to Glory is from a collection of stories published in Meetings Mayhem! by Terry Matthews-Lombardo, CMP. To learn more about the book and to follow more of Terry's amusing detours, visit Terry at terrysworldtravels.com.