Author Archives: Joan Eisenstodt

From Sages on Stages to Sages on Screens: Pivoting to Virtual Meetings

Originally published Meetings Today

From Sages on Stages to Sages on Screens: Pivoting to Virtual Meetings

Is it really July? I finally got out for a haircut. Apartment door to elevator to garage to car (my spouse drove—I don’t drive [despite what someone once said, yes, you can be successful and not drive!]—six blocks to haircut where every precaution was taken. It felt great and I was terrified being out.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases soar in many U.S. states; meetings and conventions continue to be postponed or to move to a virtual platform; and sports, theater, and most other events are on hold.

Moving From Physical to Virtual

We don’t yet have the terminology for all to use for what we had referred to as “face to face” (or f2f) meetings that I now call “physical” meetings. We are face to face virtually on many platforms. What’s your preferred nomenclature?

Reading and listening to what others say and ask about moving their conferences to virtual formats from purely physical (vs. hybrid) meetings, what I hear are issues not considered until they had to be:

  • What will draw a virtual audience?
  • Will the virtual audience be the same that would have attended the physical meeting?
  • Will more people who might not have been able to afford to attend now be able to engage virtually? People from countries where travel is restricted? Those who finances might not allow them to otherwise attend? And are we designing for inclusive meetings?

I have some questions, too:

  • Is this an opportunity to create platforms that include more people with disabilities who couldn’t as easily participate physically because of barriers? (See June’s Friday With Joan for more.)
  • How long can people tolerate sitting in front of any screen? (Given how many virtual meetings in which we’re all participating, the question weighs heavily as my tush tires from being seated at my computer!)
  • Can or should we charge a registration fee? What is reasonable for participant and organization?
  • Do we need to make money, or at least not lose money, with the cost to present a virtual event?
  • What are the ‘anchor’ elements of our meeting? Exhibits? Education? Awards?
  • For associations, governance? “State of the industry/company” CEO/president addresses?
  • In what new ways might we present the key elements to ensure recognition and participation?

Designing for Virtual Delivery

I think constantly about all those issues and what it means for the content, and design and delivery, of content for speakers/presenters/trainers/facilitators. If and when physical meetings go forward while COVID-19 is still active, will those who deliver content—whether hired professional speakers or presenters or our internal subject matter experts (SMEs)—be willing to travel and be with others? And if not, how will they present virtually?

Consider:

For physical meetings, what precautions such as stage, lectern, microphone and other “touch” surfaces will we need to sanitize, and how thoroughly and how often after/between use?

If we would usually “pass a mic” for interaction, what must we do to ensure the safety of all who touch after someone else? (Immense gratitude to the participant in a session at the Cascadia Conference in March—the last time I traveled—who made me aware of this. It was an “I-can’t-believe-I’d-not-thought-of-it” moment. If you see this or know someone who knows who it was, please contact me at FridaywithJoan@aol.com.)

In what way can we create virtual interaction such as the serendipitous interaction individuals are used to and desire at physical meetings?

Who among our usual speakers—or for many, our already-planned-program speakers—can be as or more effective virtually?

In what ways must we train and coach our content experts to engage virtually?

A Few Tips

Immense gratitude to Julian Smith and Iain Bitran who gave me time (uh huh, via Zoom) to talk about moving their physical conferences to virtual ones in very short time frames.

Here are some key tips to consider:

  • Train speakers to present virtually.
  • Show speakers how to use cameras and even the how to use lighting, microphones; how to lean forward to present that most important point. (Keith Knight, Gentleman Cartoonist, did that so well in this presentation “Red, White, Black and Blue” on racial literacy using his drawings to ensure that the points were illustrated.)
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. It does not take the spontaneity away from the actual presentation. It ensures that everyone is cued to present.
  • Ensure moderators are available to interrupt to ask questions from the chat or from the Q&A. And like at a physical meeting, make the sessions interactive by having the moderator ask pertinent questions when they are asked to a specific point.
  • Provide platforms and encourage interaction among registrants before the virtual conference begins. Build community to provide comfort so that commenting in the chat is natural.
  • Set specific goals and objectives for each area of the virtual conference just as you would a physical one.
  • Consider the size of sessions and the platform used—the more people, the potential for less engagement.

And Finally…

Don’t do what a colleague said to me: “Plop and drop” your physical conference into a virtual event. The dynamics and need to present differently will either engage or damage the outcomes and potentially your organization’s reputation. Moreover, if and when we are able to meet physically again, you want to show that your conferences take all needs into account.

Postscripts

Personal point of privilege: HAPPY 92nd BIRTHDAY (July 8) to you, Howard Feiertag! If you want to shout out to him on some area of social media do, albeit belatedly since we are publishing a week later than usual. He has taught more of us directly and thus more of all of us through the teaching of some for so long. He is the backbone of understanding and integrating good sales and marketing techniques for our industry. When I learned negotiating skills from him at MPI Institute in 1981, the lasting value of his techniques in teaching, his infectious laugh and warmth continue to be part of my life and professionalism. May you live many more good and healthy years, dear mensch!

U.S.-eligible voters: Register or check your registration. Many U.S. states and territories have “cleaned” their voter registration rolls. Check, too, to see if in fact you are registered and where you should vote.

Remember that because of COVID-19, some US states and territories are not opening as many polling places for primaries or the November election.

Vote! There are ballot issues and people running for office who will impact what we do in this industry. On Twitter at @meetingstoday, we post links to issues that impact our industry. Voting is a precious right fought for by many. It is a responsibility of us all. If your city or county or state has a ballot initiative tied to taxes or other issues impacting meetings, tourism and travel, please alert us by tweeting and tagging @meetingstoday or me, @joaneisenstodt, or email me at FridaywithJoan@aol.com

The views expressed here are those of the author or those interviewed and may not express the views of our publisher. If you would like to make comments anonymously to this blog for posting or simply to send to the author, please write to FridaywithJoan@aol.com. State if you would like your comment posted here without attribution. Your confidentiality is promised.

Read more from Joan:

Don’t Throw the ADA ‘Baby’ Out With the COVID-19 ‘Bathwater’

Originally published Meetings Today

Don’t Throw the ADA ‘Baby’ Out With the COVID-19 ‘Bathwater’

Oh, you bet I want to write about—think about—something else…even something frivolous like summer plans that might include a walk around the block; what you’ve done to manage your “crown of grey” or whether you or someone in your life grew a beard; and how tired you are of take-out food…if you are fortunate enough to have shelter and food—and toilet paper.

But as noted by the WHO and written and discussed in many arenas, this virus is likely to never go away. It will eventually be controllable, yet potentially never out of the possibility of contagion.

Thus, as I work through and around for clients I continue to write about the issues related to COVID-19, or accurately, SARS-COV2.

I began writing as the U.S. returned to work after a holiday weekend where we saw thousands of people, without masks, not physically distancing, putting their lives and ours at risk.

When The New York Times in print arrived Sunday morning, the front page and into other pages caught my breath and attention. On the day the U.S. reached 100,000 deaths, many news organizations headlined their stories about this terrifying number. I’m grateful that the healthcare workers in my life are well, especially the young ER doctor son of friends who survived COVID-19.

We won’t know for some time if antibodies or a vaccine will in fact protect us. We’re a long way off from the knowledge we need.

I can’t stop dealing with COVID-19 because though I’m fortunate to have work, I’m helping clients and colleagues wade through what we must consider to work (many from home), conduct meetings and events now and in the foreseeable future.

I’m pleased that finally, hotel brands and the AHLA and UniteHere created cleaning policies. Others are beginning to create seating and attendance guidelines, including the latest guide from the WHO for how to hold a ‘mass gathering.’

We still need to figure out the issues of potential outbreaks of the virus at an event, helping groups navigate from “we’re a hugging, hand-shaking, close” group to distancing everywhere to keep safe. And yes, it’s confusing because cities, states and countries have “until further notice” on the numbers and the methods.

This CNBC “Global Traveler” article, “What will hotel visits be like? Here’s your room-by-room look at the future” threw me for a loop. This, for Miami Beach, is not unlike other guides to cities and their hotels. All of this is now in what we must do to have meetings and events.

Please read the linked CNBC article before reading on. As you read that article, note what may, because of new policies and practices in hotels, be obstacles for you or those who attend your meetings or events.

Read? Good. Now read on…

Arrival Experience

My usual arrival experience requires an airport or train station wheelchair and attendant to get me to transportation to a hotel. Before arrival, I arrange for a mobility scooter (often through Scootaround that doesn’t discount nor is this promotion for them or others—it’s simply a resource) to be held at the bell desk and brought to the door on my arrival. The transportation provider asks the bell or door staff to bring the scooter to me.

Those who drive—whether in their own or a rental vehicle—may want assistance parking their car, especially if the parking is remote from lodging. They may have luggage or, if exhibitors, displays, to schlep from their cars.

Either no valet to park the car or no bell staff to help even guard luggage will be an impediment and perhaps a danger. I’m trying to find out what the alternatives may be. (Yes, limited service hotels do not provide bell or valet service. I also know that most of them do not have space for meetings.)

Check-In

I prefer check-in with a front desk person who knows the property and can assure me that getting to the guest room is an easy route on the scooter, and that, sans friends  or colleagues to help, there is a staff member (usually bell staff) to help me with luggage to my room.

Just for arrival this article notes: no valet, no bell staff, no front desk staff. A person with a disability traveling alone may face obstacles just arriving and checking in.

Staff may no longer escort you to—or show you around—your room, and elevators are being limited to just the people in your party.”

Anyone arriving with no knowledge of the hotel and a desire for safety may want assistance.

I like having a staff member escort me to my guest room to explain the layout, the emergency procedures and to assist me getting into my guest room. (If you’ve not had to or tried, getting into a room using a mobility device is difficult. Consider that not everyone has use of their arms or strength to hold doors open, or the ability to discern directions; others may have low vision and the lighting at the property is insufficient to see room numbers.)

[Read also: Here’s What Hotels and Resorts Are Doing to Enhance Health and Sanitation Standards]

In-room Amenities

Reading the changes in the above-noted article and in this information from Miami Beach, I am not sure what to expect. Because I have chemical sensitivities and most in-room toiletries are scented, I travel with my own soap. And because I watched Monk and the news stories showing blacklights and germs, I’m very happy with the changes in guest room cleanliness and removal of many items that make it more difficult to keep the room germ- or virus-free.

Not all guests will be. If people are paying premium rates, much more will be expected even if they know that it’s smarter and better for cleanliness. Planners and hotels should communicate, before arrival, changes to expect.

Some removed in-room items are not, however, “amenities” and are, rather, necessitiesRead on in Part 2 with comments from the Rev. Cricket Park and Shane Feldman about both what’s in the room and generally the experience many will face without assistance and assistive devices. (Not noted in what I’ve read is how hotels will ensure cleanliness of assistive device cases. I’m trying to find out and will update when I do. You may be more familiar with the cases like this. By posting this link we are not recommending any of these items. They are shown only for example.)

Food Service and Sustainability

I hate not having room service. For some reason—cost being one that I do understand—hotels began doing away with room service, believing that “most of us” were happy ordering via an app and going to the lobby to get our food, or preferred going out to eat. Sadly, in many cities, restaurants are closing, and not all of us have the ease of ability to get to the lobby to pick up food.

I heard on a Web event that a hotel will, to make the experience at higher-end hotels more elegant, use non-sustainable containers. It was said that for a while, we’d just have to “deal with” that. I was disappointed—especially now that we’ve cleaned the air and water by keeping cars and people off the road. I hope that either guests or hotels will see that long-term sustainability is far more important.

Conclusion

I have no idea what’s next. No one does–even those who are prognosticators for a living. It’s best to have plans “B to Zed” at this point, for 2020 and onward.

Go review all that is being written by hotels and convention centers and cities with which your meetings are contracted. Ask deeper questions: “tell me more” and “Yes, and” will serve you even more now—and then confirm changes in writing. Read the updated WHO Guide for Mass Gatherings.

We are all moving through this together, and in order to ensure we all move and participate, let’s not throw the ADA baby out with the COVID-19 bathwater. And please remember not all who have disabilities will disclose their needs, or perhaps they acquire a disability on the way to a meeting.

Regardless of what you think, we all—groups and facilities and transportation providers—must consider all those who may attend our meetings and make accommodations.

More from Joan:

Postscripts

It is impossible not to note the horrific death of Mr. George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the safety implications for all of us as diverse people. It’s time for our industry to speak up on inclusion and racism and other “isms” that are harmful to all, including the “ableism” that seems to exist in thinking about meetings during and ‘post’ COVID-19. It will be time for us all to consider the safety of residents and meeting participants when we select destinations.

If you’ve not, have the conversation with your customers, your participants and your providers of services and facilities. Let’s be safe and inclusive.

If you are a U.S.-eligible voter, register or check your registration. Many U.S. states and territories have “cleaned” their voter registration rolls. Check, too, to see if in fact you are registered and where you should vote. 

Vote in upcoming primaries and national elections. There are ballot issues and people running for office who will impact what we do in this industry. On Twitter at @meetingstoday, we post links to issues in upcoming elections that impact our industry. Voting is a precious right fought for by many. It is a responsibility of us all. Because of COVID-19, many U.S. states and territories have changed their primary dates and/or have added special elections. Please check your state’s or territory’s dates at their board of elections.

Epic Challenges Ahead: Expert Opinion on the Post-COVID-19 Meetings World

Originally published Meetings Today

Epic Challenges Ahead: Expert Opinion on the Post-COVID-19 Meetings World

On the April 27 WHO press briefing, it was stressed that it is not time for “mass gatherings.”

If you follow the link in the sentence above that provides WHO’s definition of “mass gatherings,” you may think that a meeting for 100 or 500 or 1,000, even a city-wide, might not be “mass” and perhaps it’s safe to go ahead with your meetings, conventions and events.

Most U.S. states and many countries still have guidelines that restrict how many people can gather. Even if it is permitted, physical distancing is strongly recommended by most if not by some leaders. What WHO recommends for gatherings is available to download. It’s worth your time to consider the recommendations.

I reached out to the Events Industry Council (EIC)—as recently as earlier in the week of the publication of this newsletter—in hopes it had developed guidelines for seating, changing capacities for spaces, and for issues, from the formerly convened APEX Contracts Panel, on what this means for contracts in place and those being negotiated, especially for room blocks, attrition, impossibility and cancellation. This is what I received just before we made this live. As an industry, we’re not ‘there’ yet.

The issues about which I wrote in April remain. On April 14 during Global Meetings Industry Day (GMID), virtual events and virtual components of EIC-member organizations, I wanted to hear thinking about the impact of COVID-19 on when we can gather again and how.

I heard little except the usual encouragement to meet. That’s all well and good if we have guidelines to keep people safe. We do not have more than what WHO published.

In discussions among colleagues in social media, including on ASAEs Collaborate and in the “Events Industry Friends” group on Facebook [to join, answer the three questions], there is frequent conversation about the how/why/when we can move forward. There is no consensus though all want the industry to recover.

None of this would be so critical if so many of us weren’t dealing with postponing meetings and determining the configuration for those to be held in the latter part of 2020 and into 2021.

While many groups are pivoting to entirely virtual meetings, others are moving forward planning their events to perhaps meet as contracted or to attempt to revise the content and delivery to accommodate physical distancing.

I am grateful to Paul Bergeron, IOM, a freelance reporter covering association management, for his contribution to this newsletter on thinking about pivoting to virtual meetings. Pivoting has been swift and I, like Paul, fear that too little consideration is going into the long-term implications.

The impact of COVID-19 on how we hold meetings and events impacts nearly every element of a meeting. Considerations include the following, and this list is just a start:

  • Physical distancing: a colleague with an upcoming meeting determined that a room that normally could hold 250 could hold at most 36 people with six-foot distancing; rounds would be impossible; and issues for people who need sign language interpreters more complex.
  • Exhibit load-in/load-out times and conditions
  • Rehearsals
  • Room blocks
  • Attrition
  • F&B minimums
  • Service
  • Cleanliness
  • Guest room availability between one guest’s departure and another occupying a room
  • Elevator use

Lots of Questions and Thoughts; Few Answers

Some of the following thoughts were posted on various platforms, others were solicited. Only one is attributed because the issues are all sensitive regarding whether or not groups can or will meet.

I am grateful to The Wynn and to Marriott Hotels for their input on some of what we are considering around cleanliness. I hope they expand their thinking, quickly, to meetings and that the entire industry does far more, quickly.

I wanted for myself, clients and for readers, other voices to be considered as we all determine what to do. Voices of vast experience help me; I hope they will help you as you consider where our industry goes and how.

If in editing the comments from colleagues, I’ve erred in expressing their views, my apologies. I am grateful beyond words for their time in discussing complex issues because, I, a “P” on MBTI, needs lots of input to get to “J!”

Why Meet?

One exchange in ASAE’s Collaborate with Michael LoBue, MS, CAE, president of San Francisco’s LoBue & Majdalany Management Group was one of the better ones. (A lengthy and rich discussion on Facebook in the above noted group was too much to post.) My edited response to Michael follows his questions and comments.

Michael LoBue: ”I haven’t read this anywhere, which surprises me, but doesn’t hurricane season officially start off the Atlantic Coast on June 1st and runs through the end of November? [Had he only been reading my mind, he would have discovered many internal conversations.]

“Given states like Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are re-opening their local economies by relaxing physical distancing, and the incredibly infectious nature of the coronavirus, why wouldn’t we expect the next U.S. hot spot to shift to the South… and then if a hurricane hits … the entire East Coast will shut down again.

“Even if things open up in other parts of the country at that time, everyone will correctly want to go into physically distancing again—plus no one from the infected areas will be traveling anywhere to attend meetings.

“I’ve never been in an evacuation, for a hurricane or anything else. I’ve talked to people who have. It doesn’t seem like a desirable experience—to have it happen during a pandemic doesn’t seem to improve those prospects (he writes sarcastically).

“BTW, I heard that Germany cancelled Octoberfest this year [Correct: We tweeted it for Meetings Today.]… Why any face-to-face meetings between now and the end of the year are on anyone’s calendar is a mystery to me.

“Am I alone in this view?”

My edited response to Michael’s post:

Michael, thank you for raising these issues. They are very much on my mind and in my planning for clients and in my writing for the meetings industry.

In the off-the-record conversations with hoteliers and DMO CEOs, and with colleagues who plan meetings and travel, there is a belief that many hotels may never open again. In addition, COVID-19 (now thought to exist in a greater percentage of the world’s population than originally projected) could stick around and join whatever flu strain or mutation of COVID-19 appears later this year, so add that to the existing critical issues for which to plan for if meetings/events—or any gathering of more than a few people—are to occur.

Yes, correct on hurricane “season.” We’ve already seen that in states where tornadoes have occurred, physical distancing had to be put aside in order to provide shelter for many impacted. Convention centers and like facilities, that house meetings and events, are being used for what is called temporary shelter for either COVID-19 patients and/or those who were formerly homeless.

These same spaces are needed for those impacted by tornadoes. During hurricanes or other disasters (like wildfires), these facilities are used.

Add these issues in considering whether to meet:

  • Workers who will not want to work again in hospitality (including those who work/ed in transportation) for fear of illness and/or another round of layoffs.
  • Transportation itself (air, ground) and no idea when schedules as we knew them may resume.
  • Lack of hotels’ and cities’ policies and plans for implementation for cleaning, seating or other issues (attrition is one) impacted by distancing.

The list goes on for those of us planning for contingencies.

There are many who believe that talking about these issues is “fear-mongering” designed to scare people from planning or attending meetings and doesn’t show faith in what the hospitality industry can do. (Yes, #HospitalityStrong is trending among some.) I want to believe that we can meet again as long as we are prepared to keep people safe.

Groups, forced to make decisions now based on hotel or convention center cancellation charges, are being put in very difficult positions: choosing to stay afloat by having a meeting if states and cities say the guidelines for safely gathering have been met and the go-ahead given, or paying cancellation fees, with no registration income or less income for virtual events.

I’ve not mentioned the issue of city and state infrastructures and services that will be decimated because of lack of tax income, or the ability to obtain food with so many processing plants closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks, or the farmers plowing under crops and dairy farmers dumping milk.

I say, yes, Michael, I do not think there is much hope for 2020, but there needs to be lots of energy to plan to hold meetings and for contingencies.

What About Travel?

It’s not simple to figure out the pieces that go into planning a meeting under what were normal circumstances. In an email conversation with a colleague who was in hotel catering for years and now plans events, issues were raised about what is and isn’t open and about travel. To protect this person’s identity, I have edited some of the comments.

The hotels [in the city in which they live] are all closed. There are a few I’m sure that have a skeleton crew and some smaller ones that have restaurants trying to still do deliveries.

“It’s so hard to know what the “new normal” will be: Which restaurants will make it? Which stores? Will people want to travel? HOW will they travel? The days of non-sanitized planes and crowded flights, at least till there’s a vaccine that works, are over.

“I think flights will have to have fewer people on each plane and will need more than 30 minutes to an hour for people to disembark and then new passengers to board and take off. 

“I think airlines are going to have to do much more cleaning of the planes between flights, which will increase “gate time” and change schedules, which means that it will be way more expensive to fly.

“Likewise, hotels are going to have to figure out that housekeepers will need more time to clean each room. Hotels may consider switching from carpeting to hardwood/laminate or tile floors. Hotels on beaches or with pools will have to disinfect to the hilt. We’ve all been amused and grossed out by those “black light” reports, but now that a hotel could be culpable of murder—this ain’t so funny! It’s not bedbugs which are gross and a “problem”— people can die from this virus. So, that’s going to have people more “heebie jeebying” than before and more inclined to “tele-meet” than ever before.

“I do hope it’s sooner rather than later, and indeed that by October it will be “normal.”  

Taking this and my own conversations with airline personnel into consideration, I asked a colleague directly in the travel segment of the industry the following questions; their answers follow.

QWhen and how do you think airlines will begin to fly even half their domestic schedules?  

AMy guess is spring of 2021, at the earliest. There is too much uncertainty for the rest of 2020. The benchmark will be how well do the winter flights sell, if there is no second wave, or fear of a second wave.

Q. What do you think will make travelers feel safe in airports? On planes?

AOffer free protective face masks on request; have line space markers; announce reminders to be respectful to your fellow passengers and crew; allow passengers to change seats if they are concerned; and continue to offer flexible flight change options

Q. What do you expect the biggest changes to be in how we travel for leisure, business and to conferences?

A. For a while, we will travel to familiar places, less crowded destinations, and on shorter trips, for leisure.

For business, we’ll meet in smaller groups, for less time. We’re less likely to extend city visits, see a show, go to a group dinner, want to meet everyone in the office, for “face time.”

For conferences, we’ll radiate to smaller meetings, with more spacing between seats, fewer breakout rooms, temperature checks, and masks. It will be awkward, and there will be smaller audiences reflecting the reluctance to participate in large group gatherings.

Pre-arranged small get-togethers will be organized online before a conference, so there can be a brief meet-and-greet on-site, and no need to attend mass networking events, or spend lots of time at big receptions or crowded evening events. [I wonder what will happen to “hosted buyer events,” where the intimacy of face-to-face cannot happen for some time.]

Small and roomy will beat large and packed-in. We will see wide-scale behavior change in venue site selection. No more small nightclubs or narrow hallway receptions. Opening events will be held at outdoor sites or large museums, with plenty of room for peace of mind. Large gardens or private parks will offer more comfort. 

The crowded tradeshow floor is also endangered and may be replaced by smaller supplier group-specific exhibitor opportunities. For example, there might be a “Middle America Small Market” room and a “West Coast Top Tier” room, with room capacity controls, and delegates will stroll between them.

Q. What else do you want to tell people about the impact of COVID-19 on the meetings industry?

AOrganizers will need to relax change and cancellation policies. There will be lots of fear and uncertainty for a while. Delegates, exhibitors and (association) members will come from different geographic locations and different personal comfort levels. Some will adjust better than others to all the changes.

Planners will need to be sensitive to these changes, some of which will be expensive. CEOs and CFOs will need to accept it will cost more to draw fewer people to meetings and events. There will be less interest in promoting meetings by the numbers they draw, but instead, by the niche they serve. Some companies will get nervous and will cancel 2020/2021 staff travel out of fear, or for budget reasons, and this should not be inferred as not being a supportive or loyal member.

What About Hotels?

As noted above, The Wynn Las Vegas and Marriott hotels have put forth guidelines about cleaning. Prior to these plans being released, I asked three respected colleagues, two of whom recently retired, one of whom is soon to do so, and all of whom were with hotels in “lofty” positions, with a combined total of nearly 100 years in the industry (though they are all still younger than I am!) for their thoughts on the current state of the meetings industry.

I am grateful to them all for years of doing business together and, with our “business hats off,” friendship, and never more than now when ideas need to be explored in uncharted territory.

I am also grateful to another colleague still working with an open hotel for their input.

Colleague 1:

“Testing is the key. Hotels will have to confirm that all of their employees have been tested (multiple times) and are negative (for COVID-19.) Hotels will also have to take extra steps to show the facility is a safe place.
“Contracts are going to have to change to give planners more leeway on attrition and cancellations since no one will know for sure who will attend even when they try to hold a meeting.

“I see a reversal of the trend of leaving the hotel for F&B functions to wanting to stay in the hotel since it’s a more controlled environment.

“Since flying is a big concern, there might be an increase in regional drive-in meetings.

“Planners may need to let attendees participate both in-person and fully online to get people more comfortable (with gathering again).

“Social distancing rules will need to be established in all meeting rooms and outlets.

“Tradeshows are big problem. I see one-way aisles, limits on the number of people in a booth, more online demonstrations. (A model groceries are using now in many cities.)

“I see smaller sessions happening in meeting rooms but spaced out for social distancing and large sessions online so could you watch from your room or at a distance.”

Colleagues 2 and 3:

These two had an email exchange prior to my contacting one and then the other. I have permission to share their edited thoughts, exchanged before the three of us spoke.

Colleague 2: “Times are crazy, but my family is all good and I hope the same with you. What are you hearing in the industry for groups having to change programs/set-ups to maintain six feet of social distancing? Seems this would turn the meetings and convention industry on its head.”

Colleague 3: “What I think is that bad times are ahead for meetings. If we think that groups are just going to reschedule and put thousands of attendees at risk…the liability is huge, and associations and companies aren’t going to do that easily.

“The only thing that will save us [and the industry and meetings] is a vaccine. Short of that, it will be a long road back. Really worried for the kids. [These colleagues have children who work in the industry.] This is not the legacy I had hoped for.”

Colleague 2: “I so agree with youThe meetings and conventions segment is so critical to the hotels. Big hotels are not going to make it, especially the ones that recently opened.

“It took three years to go from peak to trough after 9/11 and 4 1/2 years after the 2008 financial crisis. I say this is going to be worse. A vaccine is key, but I think events will change for many years.

“Programs are going to have to be adjusted; the virus impact on what we know and loved is monstrous. I love the world we lived in. As I write this I think about … being at events with friends celebrating our industry and now I think it will be years before that comes back. I hope the young people at some point will be fortunate to have the same experiences.”

Colleague 3: “It seems that our path and successes may not be the same for our children. There are so darn many hotels popping up….. Big shakeout for sure.
[About going to industry events.] We sure had a great run and I hope our kids get a shot at what we enjoyed, but I worry the entire industry is going to change and not for the better…just look at how easy virtual meetings now are. Face-to-face isn’t going to be back as fast, if at all.”

Following up this exchange, one of the two above wrote to me when I asked if we were going too fast in re-opening the industry. It is edited for space and anonymity:

You are right, Joan, that hotels and airlines are hatching plans and probably too quickly. Saw the other day the ‘new’ seating arrangement for planes. Great, except that the one MOST important thing that will keep people from flying is the issue of filtered air on planes…it’s less about the seats, much more about how to keep the air that everyone breathes virus-free.

“Hotels are right in looking at the markets which can move quickly: business travel, leisure and sadly, not large group…. I’m betting 2021 or later realistically. All the [industry] talking heads will tow a [party] line but the real direction is going to come from the travelers themselves.

“Would you fly or stay in a hotel anytime soon? Every group needs to poll their members to determine direction.”

“Personally, I think we are moving too fast in reopening. A reinfection flare-up will really push us back. Just read earlier in [paper named] a column written by three lawyers who said that the liability in opening up stores, restaurants, etc., will be staggering if people get sick again.

“Our own industry doesn’t seem to be thinking this way.”

Last, from a colleague still working in an open hotel in a major market. Again, edited for anonymity, clarity and length.

Q. What will it take for the meetings industry to reopen to anything close to what it was before COVID-19?  

ATo reopen to anything close to what we were accustomed to pre-COVID-19, three primary elements will be needed: cleaning, infrastructure and flexibility.

All suppliers will need to conform to and execute CDC-endorsed cleaning standards; suppliers and planners will need to work to execute changes in physical and customary “infrastructure.” All parties—all suppliers (even if not contracted by a planner, such as airlines), planners and attendees involved will need to be flexible and adjust policies based on what medical progress has been made,

Ultimately, all parties need to ensure that guests/meeting attendees feel that steps have been taken to ensure everyone’s health, safety and security.

Hospitality chemical suppliers, such as Ecolab, were immediately proactive in reaching out to their customers regarding chemicals and CDC guidance the first two weeks of March, as were AHLA, and in our case, our state hotel and lodging association.

Infrastructure changes are going to be a big part of our ability to operate within the next year. Hotels may need to reconfigure front desks to accommodate a plexiglass shield as grocery stores have. The formerly popular open-pod front desk design will go away. There will be installation of more self-serve check-in kiosks that also issue key cards.

In addition to physical distancing reminder signage, we may need floor markers like stores are using. We’ll add hand sanitizer stations everywhere. Physical distancing protocol may require furniture removal to allow more space in lobbies and public areas.  

For meetings, physical set-up standards will have to change to 1 per 6-foot classroom at least short-term. Depending on the rooms and audience size, theater style may have to set for space for three or four times the seating as the expected numbers.

Receptions have to be re-imagined: Buffets and action stations will disappear, and bar set-ups will need to factor physical distancing.  

Meetings will need to include a virtual component for those not able or willing to travel. Programs will need to rethink networking and other social components for the next 12 to 18 months. 

Individual and group hotel reservation cancellation and meeting registration policies will need to be as flexible as possible. As flights (“lift”) have been drastically cut and are likely to remain that way for some time, planners must plan for their potential destination before finalizing plans vs. taking for granted that one can easily get to D.C. or Chicago as they used to. National meetings may go away for a few years and become smaller regional meetings due to change in air and change in our dynamics.

Q. What are the potential hazards for hotel workers and guests in returning to hotels?

AI believe it was Dr. Fauci who said, “We don’t make the timetablethe virus does.” That means we have to address a workplace/facility hazard that cannot be seen and one scientists/medical community is still learning about. [We are only four months into research.]

Until there is a vaccine, assume everyone could be asymptomatic and/or a carrier, and execute cleaning and infrastructure changes accordingly to create optimal conditions for both guests and employees.

To face the potential hazards, provide the recommended protective equipment to employees and the optimal safe layout to provide physical distancing, and supplies and services to support guests. If we put many safeguards in place and go beyond required cleaning protocols, our guests—and employees—will be shielded from hazards to the best of our ability.

Q. What has been your experience during COVID-19 with an open hotel and what guests want to know?

AHotels in our state are considered an “essential business,” but under the state of emergency/shelter at home order, we are authorized to turn away guests whose stay is not due to essential work. We have turned away guests who say they are there to simply “get away” from their house.

Most of our guests the last few weeks have been police and fire personnel working extra shifts and want to be close to their stations. We have been hosting nurses on temporary assignment at one of the three nearby “specialty” hospitals that do not have COVID-19 units.

I have been working with a domestic violence organization needing additional temporary shelter for their clients and also the American Red Cross seeking to secure a designated hotel for their normal course of business of providing families shelter in case of fires.

Business travelers right now are traveling medical professionals and other first responders. We are participating in a “day rate” promotion for locals to use rooms for a workspace during the workday—we have seen day guests for this. [On behalf of all of us, THANK YOU!]

We are running between 8% and 15% occupancy. We’ve kept guests informed by posting information regarding the shelter in-place order, changes in service and our current housekeeping protocols. We are primarily in a residential area that borders a medical campus, so we do have a great deal of options for food service—either carry out or delivery. We keep as updated as possible list regarding options.

On May 1, so far, we’ve been told hospitals are able to start non-emergency procedures (joint replacement, colonoscopies, etc), so we may see guests who want to be close to family members. Clearly this, too, may change.

I’m still wrapping my head around everything. I do not think we will return to business levels we saw in 2019 for many, many years.  

There you have it: different voices of experience. If my crystal ball, still not working the way it used to, were better, I’d have easy answers.

What we need is great collective discussions among many, including medical and scientific, emergency and other personnel, to help us figure out what to do. And we need patience as the world contends with this horrific illness.

We need to look at the inequities made more visible by this. We need to give what we can to help those who are in great need. I recommend your local food bank, World Central Kitchen, founded by the amazing chef Jose Andres, that now in addition to feeding people in disaster areas around the U.S. and world is feeding first responders and those in need in many cities, including mine (Washington, D.C.), and to Unite Here to help the many hospitality workers who are out of work and who we need to be healthy and safe so they can return to support us and our meetings.

Postscript

If you are a U.S.-eligible voterregister or check your registration. Many U.S. states and territories have “cleaned” their voter registration rolls. Check, too, to see if in fact you are registered and where you should vote.

Vote in upcoming primaries and national electionsThere are ballot issues and people running for office who will impact what we do in this industry. On Twitter at @meetingstoday, we post links to issues in upcoming elections that impact our industry. Voting is a precious right fought for by many. It is a responsibility of us all.

Because of COVID-19, many US states and territories have changed their primary dates and/or have added special elections. Please check your state’s or territory’s dates at their board of elections.

COVID-19: Trust, Information, Solidarity and Change

Originally Published Meetings Today

COVID-19: Trust, Information, Solidarity and Change

One of my favorites was posted by my friend, and sometimes quoted source for Meetings Today, Bob Witeck, on Facebook:

Overheard in someone’s kitchen: “My husband purchased a world map and gave me a dart. ‘Throw this and wherever it lands, I’m taking you for a holiday when this pandemic is over.'”

“Turns out we’re spending two weeks behind the fridge.”

If only that were the most difficult choice to make….

Some topics about which I write are easy and joyful. Last month’s praise of CSMs/Event Managers was pure joy. Even writing about the option for sabbaticals was interesting research and those now on “forced sabbaticals” (aka furloughs) may find ideas to use.

I’ve delayed writing this blog as long as possible. My notes from WHO press briefings and articles and emails fill pages. By the time you read this, the information that changes hourly on who is impacted, where COVID-19 has reached new levels, and what is being done to protect healthcare providers, emergency responders and the public will have changed dramatically. [I updated the blog draft on Monday, March 30, after the governor of Virginia, issued a Stay at Home Order until June 10. Maryland and Washington, D.C., are doing similarly. CapitalPRIDE in DC has been postponed. Nothing is what or when it was.]

This is far worse in scope than anything most of us have experienced, even our on and post-9/11 time when many of us were away from home and others, like I, couldn’t get home for a week. COVID-19 remains under study and while it is, it is spreading.

Most importantly: Stay informed from your local government and trusted sources like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or agencies in your country or in the countries to which you would like to travel, have family or may hold meetings.

I like knowing what WHO says because we live in a global society, connected by business, travel, trade and interests. We depend on each other, and in a crisis, stopping COVID-19 in one place helps stop it in another.

Many friends and acquaintances, colleagues and strangers who populate our industry are furloughed with “indefinite” dates of return. When I saw the March 26 PBS NewsHour segment (at about 12:21—though watching the entire show is edifying and critical, including a segment on potential family and other abuse while people are staying at home), I gasped: I had talked with one of those whose story appears not long ago when hopes were high. Then, learning friends’ mother-in-law and aunt had died, one in Jamaica and one in England, and of course no one can travel, hurt me more.

There are the “crystal ball predictions” clients and others want me to make—and which, again, on WHO’s press briefing, the doctors reiterated they do not know when this will end or when even the curve will flatten and not rise again. I can’t predict.

When Did We Know and How Did We Know It?

On January 12 of this year, WHO first reported information about this virus, now referred to as “novel [meaning new] coronavirus,” or COVID-19.

At the time, it was thought to be confined to one area of China.

In an early WHO press briefing, in which I participate regularly for Meetings TodayDr. Michael Ryan, WHO’s executive director of health emergencies, was asked if the smart phone tradeshow scheduled in Barcelona should be held. He said groups should add this new virus to contingency plans as we would an outbreak of food poisoning, etc. I smiled, sadly, thinking, “If only all events had contingency plans.”

That show? It was canceled on February 12, the first of many meeting and show cancellations around the U.S. and world.

It was then I began posting on social media about the risk this virus posed. It was then I was countered by those who said, “Still meet,” “It’s confined,” “It only hits people older than 80,” which was then revised by posters to “over 65.”

Now we know that as this has moved around the world, those who are younger than 40, even teens and children, are contracting COVID-19—some cases are mild, others require hospitalization. This virus doesn’t seem to understand it’s not to discriminate based on age and borders, income or circumstances.

Even earlier than January 12, and quoted from the Charleston, SC, Post & Courier: “Mike Schmidt, an epidemiologist in Charleston, had seen it coming. On New Year’s Day, he was at home, going through emails when a report caught his eye: an outbreak in China. Probably a new coronavirus. That could be bad, he thought.”

With such easy access to news, many more could have been aware. Those who create contingency plans would have looked for what might impact them or their events.

Facts = Knowledge; Our Responses Are Tested

As I posted facts, I was accused by some of “causing fear”. Some who said “keep meeting” were praised for their posts of encouragement. I am a fact-based person and someone who looks broadly at the “what-ifs.” Others seemed to want to say, as my sweet maternal grandmother (z”l) in a saying oft quoted, “See the pretty birdie,” meaning: “Let’s not look at what is painful or bad; just smile and move on”.

How can we responsibly plan without information and forward-thinking?

I posted data gleaned from pages of notes taken during the press briefings and from websites and articles read. It was scientific and medical data presented by those who are in the middle of fighting this new, and currently unreliably treatable, virus.

We know trials on treatments and vaccines are being tested around the world. Scientists and doctors are cooperating to try to find how to stop this. We as an industry are hit horribly—in every single country—and want to stop this. We can’t if we ignore data.

Strangely, in an industry that relies on data for how hotels make money, how those in revenue management determine the value of meetings and how ROI is measured for meetings, this was a cause to put one’s fingers in one’s ears and say, “Nah-nah-nah.”

A Personal/Professional Decision

I was long-ago contracted to fly to Oregon on March 7 to speak at an industry conference. In consultation with many, and discouragement by family, I still chose to honor my commitment.

I knew the facts: Four airports, one for a total of 16 hours on the roundtrip because of layovers; four planes; time at a conference with people from a state that at the time was hardest hit. I knew how to physically distance (social connections are encouraged through safe means) and I knew that groups had not yet decided to put room between participants in sessions.

With a compromised immune system, I weighed my risk. If I’d been advising a client, I’d have said, “Don’t go.” I chose to go.

Was I afraid? I don’t know. I was cautious with hospital-grade wipes, latex gloves and distancing. I came home and self-quarantined for 14 days. So far, kinehora—the Yiddish equivalent of “knock wood”—I’m ok. I am grateful that ExhibitorLive, a show at which I’ve spoken for years, postponed from late March to August although I am guessing that too may be in flux.

The choice to fear came because so many were countering facts and echoing some that were bogus from heads of state. In a number of recent WHO press briefings came questions from Brazil about their country’s leader’s calling for mass demonstrations—that is, not physically distancing. WHO is careful not to take positions that appear political. Instead on this and like gatherings, they “just say no”.

When I first drafted this, the U.S. president wanted to partially reopen the U.S. economy by April 12. That changed, before this will be live, to April 30, and by the time you read this, it may have changed again.

The D.C. Metro area (which includes the states of Virginia and Maryland) where I live is on stay-at-home until June 10. The curve is not flattening and the numbers of confirmed cases in the U.S. and around most of the world are rising. We don’t know how many cases there are or were; too many can’t be tested because there are not enough test kits nor labs to process them.

We’re not ready to reopen. Even in China’s Wuhan province the government is prohibiting outside people from coming in and reinfecting the population.

Industry’s Mixed Messages

Somewhere, the industry organizations must be having conversations about a concerted effort to rethink how we do business and meet.  I’ve tried to find more words of caution and all I can find are words reflecting a positive outcome—that we’ll come through this, that we are resilient.

We are and we will. We just don’t know when. Until then, we must make contingency plans for meeting and for trade shows.

One of the worst emails sent was this one: “As safe as riding a bus,” because riding a bus apparently wasn’t and isn’t safe, let alone meeting in groups of more than…well, the numbers kept changing: in D.C., first 1,000, then 250, then 10. I like Germany’s 2.

On March 20, I was glad MPI published this article from The Atlantic. It was much more clear about what should be done.

I’m Ok. Our Industry Could Do Better

Here’s what we need and can’t seem to find. I thank the colleague who first suggested some of these on ASAE’s Collaborate, to which I added: “Let’s come up with more. We now have time, working at home, or sadly furloughed.” [In the comments please share your stories, and if you know of organizations to which we can donate to help colleagues, please post the information.]

From DMOs, on your web pages we need accurate information on the policies for “stay at home” business operations (especially for hotels and food service, updated as changes are made). (I did find that the US National Governor’s Association has a great matrix.) We still need DMOs’ help on their sites.

For example: (date, time, cause/claim/grounds and references the source):

  • March 12, 1:00 p.m.: The mayor claimed a state of emergency.
  • March 14, 1:00 p.m.: Governor declares no gathering of people larger than 1,000.
  • March 16, 1:00 p.m.: Governor declares no gathering of people larger than 25.
  • April 27, 1:00 p.m.: Governor declares you can now gather up to 1,000 people.
  • Dates when the orders were first issued by states, cities and countries, and changed as updated.
  • Hotels open and hotels closed, with their current projected reopening dates, again, updated as changes occur.
  • Plans for convention centers and hotels that are being or may be used to house those who are either housing insecure, first responders, medical personnel and mild or quarantined COVID-19 cases.
  • Capacity of local hospitals and health care to test, quarantine/isolate and treat the local population and an influx of visitors. (I think Austin, Texas, made a great decision to cancel SXSW. Sure, it’s a pain in the tush. What if an outbreak of COVID-19 occurred?)

From hotel owners, management companies and brands, we need:

  • How owners, management companies and brands are determining which hotels to close and for how long.
  • Hotel closings and current projected reopening dates or permanent closures.
  • The process to notify clients with meetings between closing and their events, especially for those to be held between now and August 31, 2020.
  • Which staff positions are furloughed and expected date of return.
  • Staff positions eliminated and process to refill.
  • Process to reopen hotels and timing including bringing staffing back to contracted or site-inspection levels.
  • How are you factoring physical distancing for staffing? Room sets? F&B? Trade shows—booths and foot traffic?
  • If renovations were in progress, what the new projections are for completion.

These are my starter lists. I’ve not even posted questions for AV, production, decorating, exhibit design, etc., companies. Add your questions in the comments. I’d like the industry to speak to us and us to join in with a voice of concern for our colleagues who are, like many planners, furloughed, and some who will lose everything during this time.

In researching more for this, I am also grateful to David Eisenstadt, of Jerusalem, Israel, a tour executive, who provided insights, though not written here, about the state of tourism in their country at a time – Passover, Easter, and the beginning of Ramadan – when it would be flooded with tourists.

5 Ways We All Can Help

1. Stay at home if you are able. Community transmission is the greatest danger. You may be or think you are healthy, but you may also carry COVID-19 to others.

2. Read even if you feel afraid of what you will learn. Information is power and until we know more about COVID-19 and what our industry partners are doing, it is tough for us to make decisions.

3. DONATE to help others. A list follows with a few suggestions. Add your own in the comments. The more we can help others, the better we will all be.

4. Call it what it is: COVID-19 or Novel Coronavirus. It is not Chinese flu. Period. This is stressed by WHO and others. Please read what my friend, and frequent Meetings Today contributor, John Chen, of Geoteaming has provided in part 2 of this blog. For all the industry organizations that have stressed inclusion and diversity, we need your help in being explicit about this virus and taking away the hate some have inserted in naming it or blaming the spread of it. Note that Italy and now the U.S. have more cases than China did. Viruses know no borders. Stop the hate.

5. Relook at sponsorships for national, international and chapter industry meetings. Hotels have furloughed people who need jobs. Asking for money for booze and food or to sponsor entertainment or to provide rebates for anything by our own industry seems incredibly selfish. Let’s learn to have self-reliant industry meetings and help our partners recover.

I close with thoughts first of wellness and safety for each of you, for all who are part of our broad industry including restaurants, and entertainment venues, and all around the world. We are interconnected and must remain so, selflessly and safely. This is to help you via the UNWTO and its Global Crisis Committee:

#TRAVELTOMORROW: By staying home today, we can travel tomorrow.

“Coordination is paramount. Tourism has proven in the past to be a reliable partner to lead recovery for societies and communities, but only if the economic policies of governments and the support packages of donor and financing agencies reflect how the sector touches on every part of society.”

Postscript

If you are a U.S.-eligible votergo to this link and register or check your registration. Many U.S. states and territories have “cleaned” their voter registration rolls. Check, too, to see if in fact you are registered and where you should vote.

Vote in upcoming primaries and national electionsThere are ballot issues and people running for office who will impact what we do in this industry. On Twitter at @meetingstoday, we post links to issues in upcoming elections that impact our industry. Voting is a precious right fought for by many. It is a responsibility of us all. Because of COVID-19, many US states and territories have changed their primary dates and/or have added special elections. Please check your state’s or territory’s dates at their board of elections.

Sales May Sell But It’s Event Services That Brings Repeat Biz

Originally published Meetings Today

Sales May Sell But It’s Event Services That Brings Repeat Biz

When meeting planners express frustration with the CSMs (convention services managers) (aka ESPs, event service professionals) who don’t call or email in a time frame that is acceptable to the planners, or who suggest that the CSMs don’t know enough about properties, I bristle.

Many of us who’ve been in the industry for some time know that sales will sell the world and that those in service must make it happen, regardless of the realities of what has been sold.

That’s not just an opinion, it’s the reality of the current and former CSMs I interviewed.

My First Professional Experience with CS and Sales

I moved to Washington, D.C., where I still live, in 1978. My first job here was as an association planner for the association’s 10th anniversary meeting. Although I had planned meetings and events around the U.S. prior to my move, I wasn’t schooled or trained in the profession.

On my first visit to the already-contracted hotel, I met with the sales manager and convention services manager and said, “Tell me everything.” They did and it was the beginning of my “love affair” with convention services and all they brought to the process and execution of meetings.

This convention services manager and all those who worked the back—or heart (Thank you, Mark Andrew, for the better term.)—of the house to set and service meeting and event space ensured my employer’s 10th anniversary meeting, celebration and related events were flawless.

I could not have done it without them.

I’m guessing that you planners could not manage without them. And I know that those of you in sales depend on them to deliver the magic you sell.

Who Plays What Role

Those in sales and marketing do lots to woo planners and groups to come to their properties. They are given budgets to entertain and attend industry events to schmooze planners. CSMs must produce what sales sells and it is not always easy. And in the end, they do it, sorta like the analogy of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire—backwards and in heels. Well, not exactly—rather, they do it working very long hours and days for much less money and far less respect than those in sales receive. In fact, I’d compare their role with ours as planners; we make it look easy even when it’s not, and get far too little credit.

Many planners will understand when I say that too often the salesperson shows up on day four of a five-day meeting to see when you’ll book the next meeting at their property. The CSM is there with you from the start of the pre-con(vention meeting) and through the post-con, and every day and evening of the event. And if they can’t be there that late, they ensure someone who knows the meeting will be.

If it goes well and the group rebooks, the CSM, unless we planners specifically say it, won’t get the credit for the return booking. If it goes badly, and it can, the CSM is blamed (sometimes fairly as in the one with whom I worked who showed up at 9 a.m. for the 7 a.m. general session rehearsal and left by 3 in the afternoon) even if they executed their role magnificently.

Relationship of Planner and CSM

Like some of you, I, too, have been frustrated when a phone call is not returned “promptly” (which some believe is within 10 minutes!) or an email is not answered with the information urgently requested for a meeting in a few months or later. When a CSM is working with an in-house group, their “desk-time” (as noted in the interviews I did) is limited. They are giving their attention to those in-house. We’ve all seen the domino effect of one planner late with their meeting specifications (“specs”) on upcoming meetings: No one gets what they need on time.

In 2019, when I spoke at a conference, the CSM was the person who, with the client, helped me the most. The CSM managed a complex in-house meeting with many demands while begging the next groups to please send their very late specs. It was all done with a smile and kindness.

I know and you do, too, that we get very cranky when our employers or clients or volunteers with whom we work don’t tell us what they need or do it very late or make changes—frequently! We all depend on each other.

CSMs must be part of site inspection.

Intuitively, I knew that. Experience confirmed that too often those in sales, who usually conduct site inspections, don’t know the intricacies of the space and its use. They are not exposed in too many circumstances to the intricacies of set-ups and flow that a CSM has that can then benefit the planning of our meetings. And if the CSM is also responsible for all or aspects of catering, they can add their knowledge at the time we are still considering which property to use

Wait…are you bashing sales?

Nope. I wish all hotel, convention center, conference center and other venue salespeople had convention services and operational backgrounds. In fact, I think it should be mandatory for anyone selling space and its use to have first been part of a service team. The industry doesn’t understand or work to ensure complementary roles and training.

Salaries and incentives, too, may be part of the issue. Salespeople are tasked with booking quotas that can push them to book more without explaining all that a planner needs to know. Too often those who plan are not trained, and we need to have partners who understand all aspects of their properties and how our meetings and events will work. You’ll read in the interviews of situations where CSMs saved everyone by their attention to detail.

When it’s not working

An experience with a client meeting at a major convention hotel taught me to ask many more questions in the RFP about the CSMs’ experience, including whether they are members of ESPA. On a site visit with just the CSM, I was surprised when they—a director—who had been with the hotel many years never, as we walked through, addressed any of the set-up people by name. I want to see teamwork from the first experience.

About 15 minutes into the inspection, and with other hotel options from which to choose, I stopped and asked why they were not addressing the staff by name. I was told, “They work for me. I don’t need to know their names.” My response? Buh-bye—I want to see a team that respects each other and works with respect to make meetings happen.

The relationship starts with the first call or visit and asking about experience and how they work with the entire staff. If there is not knowledge and cooperation, the meeting can suffer.

Training is available

I served on the customer advisory boards of a number of hotel companies, and on the (then) CIC (now EIC) Board as one of MPI’s delegates.

During service on the hotels’ advisory boards, I repeatedly asked why CSMs were not sent to industry meetings to meet and learn with planners and with salespeople, and why CSMs weren’t part of the tradeshow team. It made sense since I knew they were the reason groups rebook.

When I served on that Board, I got to know both Keith Sexton-Patrick and the now-late Bill Just, he the founder of ACOM, now called ESPA. Spending time with them was invaluable. They worked hard, as do all now on the ESPA Board, to persuade hotels, convention centers and conference centers to support their CSMs with ESPA membership and for attendance at industry meetings to learn and build relationships.

Alas, too many service departments are understaffed and those who do the work are too often stretched too thin by the planners who don’t provide their specs on time, and so getting away is difficult. See what Deidre Reid, ESPA Treasurer has to say about the support she receives.

Hmmm… a vicious circle?

What can be done

  • Salespeople and planners must promote—even insist—that the CSMs in the properties in which they work be made members of ESPA. (I gain nothing for this promotion.)
  • The industry must elevate the standing of CSMs. Thankfully, of those inducted into the EIC Hall of Leaders (I’m a proud 2004 inductee.) are some from convention services. I was thrilled that Keith Sexton-Patrick was honored, with Jim Daggett, the late Doris Sklar, and me, by HSMAI, with the Pacesetter Award in the 1990s.
  • We all need to establish and meet deadlines to help each other shine.
  • Meeting planners can help train CSMs just as they have helped train us. Help them learn more about adult learning and the work we do.
  • Planners must write specific praise of CSMs in real letters to GMs and owners.

This blog and edition of Friday With Joan is dedicated to a number of people, all in convention/conference services, some who have passed away, and all of whom made clients’ meetings and events great and made my life richer and my work smarter: Alvin A. Brazile, Jr., Michael Conod, Bill Just, all of blessed memory; and Devon Sloan, Kim Peterson and Linda Tudor.

Postscript

  1. Keep up to date on novel coronavirus/COVID-19 and the repercussions around the world. We are trying to tweet from @meetingstoday as often as information is available. Wash your handsDon’t touch your face. Cover your coughs and sneezes. Read information at CDC and WHO. Assume nothing about the spread and impact of this virus. We are seeing more cases in the U.S. now that testing is available, and more deaths. As I finish this, more deaths have been reported in Washington state.
  2. If you are a U.S.-eligible voter, go to this link and register or check your registration. Many U.S. states and territories have “cleaned” their voter registration rolls. Check, too, to see if in fact you are registered and where you should vote. Vote in upcoming primaries and national electionsThere are ballot issues and people running for office who will impact what we do in this industry. On Twitter at @meetingstoday, we post links to issues in upcoming elections that impact our industry. Voting is a precious right fought for by many. It is a responsibility of us all.

Instead of Job Burnout, Try This

Originally published Meetings Today

Instead of Job Burnout, Try This

All who work in any part of the meetings/hospitality/tourism industry experience face often unrealistic deadlines and people and events outside of their control that pull in competing directions.

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • Competition between quality meetings and service versus budgets.
  • Long and irregular hours.
  • Failed attempts at work-life balance.
  • Commuting.
  • Technology, that while helpful, keeps us always available.
  • The exhaustion of travel and onsite meeting and event management.

It’s nearly impossible not to feel burnout!

Meeting planning—or as defined by studies as “event coordinator”—has been listed as one of the most high-stress professions.

Other jobs in hospitality must suffer a similar level of stress and burnout, such as hotel and venue sales, with constant revenue goals and wrangling contracts, plus evenings entertaining clients; and convention services, because there are too few people working in these positions, which take on the stress of facilitating what salespeople sell.

Burnout results in not just the need for time off. It results in a dearth of new ideas because we can’t see, well, the trees for the forest! (Yes, I intentionally reversed the adage.) With that comes meetings that look and feel way too alike.

We are overworked, overwhelmed and in need of being refreshed in body, mind and spirit. We want to bring back the energy we felt with a new job or new concept with fresh insights. When people talk about managing burnout, they speak of time away from work…time away from all responsibility.

Is a Vacation Actually Enough Time Away?

I’ve long said I want to find a way, like what I want in my next reincarnation (a super-fan of the film Defending Your Life, I believe the possibility), to enjoy days with zero responsibility to clients, the industry, learning, my spouse and family, my beloved cats, home, etc.

Then again, I love learning, so maybe it’s that I want time to learn without other responsibilities.

I do not believe that vacations alone can renew and refresh. They are too short or not taken at all. This Travel + Leisure story cites statistics that reveal one-third of all Americans haven’t taken a vacation in more than two years.

When people do take vacation, the planning alone, especially for those in our industry, feels like work!

You probably saw US Travel’s National Plan for Vacation Day and, like I, chuckled that there are now guidelines to plan a vacation. Sheesh, most of us are asked to do so by others.

In the last months, the number of industry professionals I know who retired was mind-boggling. The numbers plus the aging of meetings and hospitality industry professionals led me to write the December “Friday with Joan” about those who are feeling “aged-out” of the industry.

Not one of those who had or were planning to retire soon expressed regret. Suzette Eaddy expressed it well—not having to be somewhere and do something specific every day. Sandi Lynn said she “rewired” instead of entirely retiring, which has elements of the alternative you’ll read about below.

This op-ed about the so-called “Megxit” decision by the Sussexes was a big AH-HA. The first line reads, “Step back is the new Lean in, and I am here for it.

It went on to describe what the writer, Michele L. Norris, believed it meant: “I am going to assess the landscape and figure out how to move forward on my own terms—or figure out whether the prescribed path is even the best fit.”

It screamed “SABBATICAL!” to me.

Colleagues Share Their Sabbatical Stories

Jean Boyle, whom I met through MPI years ago, was someone I remembered had taken a sabbatical. When I asked her, I learned that she had taken two sabbaticals in her work history.

I reached out in various industry groups via social media and to specific colleagues to find out if others had taken sabbaticals or if they were an offered or negotiated option.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Shelley Sanner, M.A., CAE, senior vice president industry relations at McKinley Advisors, about how associations can easily align their missions with a sabbatical, she said she took a sabbatical in 2017 and alas, said that no one at their company has since. A shame, we both agreed.

Sanner said all the pieces must be in place, including who will pick up one’s work while away and if that means hiring others or providing training to staff currently in-house, before someone goes on sabbatical. As others, and in particular, Amanda Cecil, said, one must step totally away from one’s job in order to use time on a sabbatical well.

Mike Gamble, president and CEO of SearchWideGlobal, said one of its employees was on the verge of quitting. Instead, they negotiated time to travel, about which you can read here. It was clearly a sabbatical that benefitted the person and company, broadening their scope of knowledge.

As sabbaticals are more common in academia, I reached out to Professor Deborah Breiter, PhD, CEM, at The Rosen School of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida (UCF), also profiled in the December “Friday With Joan,” remembering that she had taken one.

During hers, she wrote:

I used the time to edit a book of event case studies with Amanda Cecil, earn my CEM, and create a series of videos for one of my online classes. I took two semesters off at three-quarter pay. I could have taken one semester at full pay.”

Deborah told me that Amanda Cecil, PhD, CMP, professor, Department of Tourism, Events and Sports Management, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) had also taken a sabbatical, about which you can read in the next part of this edition of “Friday with Joan.”

It made sense and fit with what I’d wanted to do years ago: Have a select number of senior D.C.-area planners rotate jobs for a period of up to six months to learn what other organizations do in order to refresh and renew thinking, to bring new ideas back to their employers and work.

Many of us believe we are indispensable. We’ve fed that assumption by keeping much of what we do and know “in our heads.” We talk about what would happen if any of us were “hit by a bus,” believing that no one could ever manage without us. (Okay, yeah, they probably couldn’t, but if we burn out and can’t function, isn’t that almost as bad as being hit by a bus?)

In my conversations and reading, I learned of all the potential sabbaticals offer to any profession. Sadly, what I also learned is that many so-called “sabbaticals” are really extended vacations without a specific purpose.

Even more sadly, I know how little money is set aside for industry colleagues for professional development and fear paying someone to learn for longer than a few days will be pooh-poohed. If we can incorporate different thinking, we can change this.

I asked those with whom I spoke if they thought sabbaticals were feasible for those who work in our industry.

Deborah Breiter Terry wrote:

“I think sabbaticals are feasible for any professional employees (as opposed to hourly) who have been with an employer for a certain number of years (probably seven). They would have to go through some sort of application process and show how they would use the time and what the eventual benefit to the company would be. Perhaps somebody wants to take six months to go to school or maybe they want to be a visiting lecturer or executive in residence at a college or university.”

From Mike Gamble:

Work life balance is now a competitive advantage, and companies who truly ‘walk the talk’, will recruit and retain the best talent. Sabbaticals are one way to reward tenured employees and show them that you care about their health and well-being.”

Jim Zaniello, FASAE, president of Vetted Solutions, told me that he’s seeing more associations offering sabbaticals in their hiring of senior level positions:

Associations should offer all staff—not just the CEO—a sabbatical for a significant tenure, say, their 10-year anniversary. It’s a great employee retention incentive as well as an investment in employee wellness.”

This 2017 article makes the case for associations to provide sabbaticals. In emails with Ernie Smith, the author, I learned he’d not heard from any associations that had implemented sabbaticals.

This article from Inc. details companies that offer sabbaticals. In checking with someone with the parent company of Kimpton Hotels, I was unable to learn if they in fact still offer them and what the guidelines are. Stand by—once learned, I’ll add to the comments to the blog.

Ask yourself the following questions when considering any kind of sabbatical:

  • How then do you decide if you want a structured sabbatical v. more vacation time?
  • What guidelines could and your employer develop to justify sabbatical, with pay?
  • What benefits would you ascribe to you and to your employer?
  • What are you willing to do in order to avoid (greater) burnout and instead focus on new learning to enhance your thinking and energy?

Rosen College of Hospitality’s Sabbatical Guidelines

How can you structure the sabbatical application and process?

With permission, linked here are the full guidelines from Rosen College of Hospitality Management University of Central Florida SABBATICAL POLICY. [Note that numbers and letters are not in order. We left them as they are in the policies to maintain the integrity of the document.] Where it refers to “this college,” translate that to “organization” or “company” for the purposes of thinking about what your organization could do. I’ve captured a few sections of the entire body here to add to the questions above.

”Based on the University of Central Florida Sabbaticals and Professional Development Programs as stated in Article 22 of the most recent version of Collective Bargaining Agreement, the following sabbatical policy has been developed for the Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

A. Purpose

Policy. Sabbaticals are granted to increase an employee’s value to the University through opportunities for research, writing, professional renewal, further education or other experiences of professional value. While such leaves may be provided in relation to an employee’s years of service, they are not primarily a reward for service.

B. Types of Sabbaticals

  • (1) Type I Sabbaticals: Each year, each college shall make available at least one [Type IA] sabbatical, either at full pay for one semester or one [Type IB] at three-fourths pay for one academic year, for each 20 tenured and tenure-earning employees, subject to the conditions of this Article.

C. Eligibility for Sabbaticals

  • 1. Full-time tenured and tenure earning in-unit employees with at least six (6) years of full-time continuous service with UCF shall be eligible for sabbaticals.
  • 2. No paid leave(s) or family and medical, parental, administrative or military leave(s) will be considered a break in continuous employment.

D. Application and selection [See full policies for more.]

a. Faculty must have served in the college for at least six continuous years since the year of hire and shall be eligible for a subsequent sabbatical six years from the completion of a sabbatical. Previous sabbaticals will be taken into account when ranking sabbatical proposals.

b. Proposed sabbatical projects shall show connection to the UCF mission as well as the Rosen College of Hospitality Management’s mission, goals and strategic directives.

c. If seeking an affiliation with an organization, faculty should include the project description and a letter indicating acceptance by the organization.

d. Faculty projects that designate measurable outcomes will be given priority in selection.

e. Upon completion of the sabbatical, the faculty member must submit a report of the project within 30 days. The report is subject to review by the College Sabbatical committee, the department chairperson and the Dean of the College.

f. Successful completion of the sabbatical shall be taken into account for the faculty member’s annual evaluation.

(8) In ranking the applications worthy of a sabbatical, committee members shall consider the merits of the proposal and the benefits of the proposed program to the employee, the University, the college and the profession; and the length of service since previous sabbatical. Committee members shall not disadvantage an applicant due to his/her academic discipline.

(10) In the event of an exceptional opportunity for an employee to participate in a prestigious academic award/activity for which deadlines prevent application during the normal application process, the dean may award a sabbatical outside of the above defined process. All employee eligibility requirements must be met and all sabbatical terms defined below apply.

E. Terms of Sabbatical Program

  • (1) The employee must return to the University for at least one academic year following participation in the program. If the employee fails to return to the University for at least two consecutive semesters (excluding summer) following participation in the program, all salary and fringe benefits received during his/her participation in the program must be repaid to the University within 30 days of resignation or job abandonment. If the employee makes little to no effort to complete the project described in the application, the employee shall receive an “Unsatisfactory” overall annual evaluation and will be ineligible to apply for a sabbatical for ten years.
  • (4) Employees shall be eligible to apply for another sabbatical after six years of continuous service at UCF are completed following the end date of the previous sabbatical.
  • (5) University contributions normally made to retirement and Social Security programs shall be continued during the sabbatical leave on a basis proportional to the salary received.
  • (6) University contributions normally made to employee insurance programs and any other employee benefit programs shall be continued during the sabbatical.
  • (7) Eligible employees on sabbatical shall continue to accrue leave on a full-time basis.
  • (8) While on leave, an employee shall be permitted to receive funds for travel and living expenses, and other sabbatical-related expenses, from sources other than the University, such as fellowships, grants-in-aid, and contracts and grants, to assist in accomplishing the purposes of the sabbatical. Receipt of funds for such purposes shall not result in reduction of the employee’s University salary.”

What’s Your Take on Sabbaticals?

If you’ve taken a sabbatical, want to put together a proposal for one, or if you think, “No way will this work,” tell me about it! You can write to me at FridaywithJoan@aol.comI’m glad to publish your comments anonymously.

And finally, a special note:

I’ve voted since the very first time I was eligible to do so which was, then, 21 years of age. If you are a U.S.-eligible voter, go to this link and register. Many U.S. states and territories have “cleaned” their voter registration rolls. Check, too, to see if in fact you are registered and where you should vote.

Vote in upcoming primaries and national elections. There are ballot issues and people running for office who will impact what we do in this industry. On Twitter at @meetingstoday we post links to issues in upcoming elections that impact our industry. Voting is a precious right fought for by many. It is a responsibility of us all.

The views expressed here are those of the author or those interviewed and may not express the views of our publisher.

Related content from the February 2020 edition of Friday with Joan:

20-20 Hindsight Becomes 2020 Vision

Originally Posted Meetings Today

20-20 Hindsight Becomes 2020 Vision

You know what? Even though I’ve said “2020” repeatedly in conversations and in correspondence, I didn’t actually hear it. Or, I didn’t hear it as “20-20” in how that term relates to vision.

A colleague in a social media post asked how many among the group were, even though it was “punny,” using the term “2020 vision” as a theme for their conferences next year. Oh, you bet I “SMHed” (which means “smacked my head,” in one of the truncated parlance usages of the day)!

Evidently, “the vision thing” will be in for the coming year. I am surprised that I’ve not yet heard a candidate for office or a product ad campaign play on it as we end one year—and one decade—and start the next.

In the December Friday With Joan, I wrote about age and what we who continue to work past a “certain age” bring to the table in the way of knowledge of industry and history.

We all move so quickly and with such urgency that we too often do not stop to review what has been and how past actions or inactions, past purposes, goals and outcomes impact us and our work. What is often called “hindsight”—or for sports fans, “armchair quarterbacking”—is necessary before rushing ahead, especially headlong into a new year.

I’ve written Friday With Joan since 2015 as well as other articles for Meetings Today. Prior to that, for many years I wrote for another meetings industry magazine. (Alas, none of those are digitally available and all my copies are in storage.) I see so many of the same issues resurface without new solutions offered.

Take time to read or reread these 2019 Friday With Joan highlighted blogs for some insights into your vision for you and the industry for 2020:

See what strikes you as still relevant and what the industry has done to operate smarter or differently. You might even, as I did, go all the way back to 2015 and find this blog, A Proposals Is Not a Contract, as relevant now as it was then—especially in another December of year-end contracts.

Still relevant are webinars others and I have presented or co-presented for Meetings Today. This one on site selection with accommodation and ADA as a focus continues to be an issue. Take from it hints for your next site inspection and remind your hotel partners, too.

Another very relevant issue is our responsibility as meetings and hospitality professionals to advocate for our industry. I teamed up with Voices in Advocacy’s Roger Rickard for this SOS! Industry Advocacy Needs Your Help! Meetings Today Podcast that explores the important issues that impact our industry and how all of us can affect change.

By highlighting some of what I thought were the most impactful 2019 blogs for the first Friday With Joan of this new year and new decade, I ask you to:

  1. Read or re-read past blogs or listen to the linked podcast above.
  2. Reflect on the impact the issues addressed had on you and how they may impact you in 2020.
  3. Consider what actions you and those with whom you work or interact might have taken differently in 2019.
  4. Register to vote, become informed on issues that impact you personally, impact our industry and our world, and then vote.
  5. Determine actions you can take moving into this “vision” year and new decade to strengthen the perception and reality of hospitality and meetings.

We begin this new year remembering those we lost in the past year, whose vision and knowledge will, we hope, live on in our actions. May this new year and decade be one of peace and good health for us all.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed by contributing bloggers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Meetings Today or its parent company.

Do You Feel “Aged-Out” of the Meetings Industry?

Originally Posted Meetings Today

Do You Feel “Aged-Out” of the Meetings Industry?

20 in their 20s. 30 in their 30s. Even 40 in their 40s. And then the lists recognizing those who are doing good work in the meetings and hospitality industry seem to stop.

Where, I wonder, are the 60 in their 60s, for those who were still working at 60 or even 65-plus?

Howard Feiertag is among the oldest and most active in our industry. He astounds me with his energy and willingness to continue to learn, strengthen our industry with up-to-date knowledge and with historic knowledge on which we all continue to build.

Patti Shock was among those who, though officially retired from UNLV, continued to teach virtually and through the International School of Hospitality (TISOH), and also via her contributions to industry publications such as this one and on social media.

Patti, who died November 22 at just barely 78, was an example of those of us who continue to learn and contribute. I have no doubt that she’d have kept going much longer had her death from surgery not occurred.

I was grateful to another industry publication that recently named me a “legend” among influential industry people. The legends? Three men and me. The men are all still working, and at least two of whom are older than I. Those three are, I am pretty sure, much wealthier than I and could afford to retire quite comfortably.

Since I’m often still asked to work for “the exposure,” and because I love learning, applying that learning to work with clients and helping others learn, I continue to work into my 70s.

In the era in which I grew up, I remember stories of the “gold watch” given at retirement to those in white collar jobs who worked for companies for many decades. Yet there was little recognition of those who toiled long into their post-60s at blue collar jobs, often working because their income had not been enough to sustain them in retirement.

In my family, many of those, of blessed memory and including my grandfathers, father, uncles and some cousins, worked until they literally died on the job. My dad, just short of his 65th birthday, would have, I am sure, continued working in sales much longer had cancer not killed him. His dad, my “Papa Billy,” with no college education, retired from a long career in the insurance industry to work elsewhere. He died on his lunch hour. We think he was about 85 years old.

My dad’s brother, a doctor, would have still worked had he not gotten sick. In fact, he continued to practice at least three days a week until shortly before his death at almost 86.

I have no role models for retirement.

Why do some continue working while others retire? Would more people retire, generally and in our industry, if they could afford to do so? Are some forced to retire because their value is not seen and instead companies hire two lesser experienced and lesser paid workers to “take the place” of the senior worker? Would people continue working If they and their talent were valued in their companies and in the hospitality and meetings industry?

A dear friend, a CPA and attorney, was forced to retire at 62 by the firm for which they worked as a partner. One can imagine at the founding of many companies when the lifespan in the U.S. was much lower than 62 might have been ancient. Compare it to today and wonder why anyone is forced to retire if one is still productive. There are many years left in which to provide one’s knowledge.

A recent, though I hear fading, “cool” putdown is “OK Boomer” used against those of us who are in fact of the Boomer generation. How then does that differ from the ageism and discrimination leveled at Gen Y, considered by some for being slackers when it comes to their work ethic? Is forced retirement a form of ageism?

In our industry, those who are older than 40 have a difficult time getting jobs, or worse, maintaining jobs as they age regardless of their knowledge and abilities. Do we value the knowledge of those who are older than even 40, let alone those of us in our 60s or 70s or older? Does history matter, in that we can bring to the table information no one else possesses?

Athletes are forced to retire from their initial endeavors often due to injuries sustained during their careers. Many go on to careers in broadcasting. Older actors and performers, on the other hand, are valued more today than they have been in a long time. (If you’ve not read or heard 83-year-old Glenda Jackson’s successes on Broadway in the last years, do so here.) Then there’s Mick Jagger, after illnesses that have scuttled the careers of many, he’s still performing!

This article from Fast Company is one of many articles and papers I have read about the value of retaining older workers. Is the hospitality and meetings industry not aware of our value?

It was interesting reading what those still working and those retired had to say. I wonder how many more of you are out there and willing to “out” yourselves as being 65-plus and still actively working in the industry. And of those of you retired, what do you miss, if anything, about working? Or did you, like Sandi Lynn, “rewire” after you retired from another job? Or like Keith Sexton-Patrick, take on a part-time job at which he still uses the skills spent in his many years in convention services?

Long ago, a friend, then in hotel sales, said that if I should ever retire, I should call my final column “Life Without Amenities.” I don’t see that happening: one, because I’m not planning to retire, and two, because I’ve turned down amenities regularly. That said, others I think miss the attention and perks that our industry gives to those who continue to work.

Will you tell us why or if you feel valued for your knowledge or dismissed because of your age, whether it’s 40 and younger or 60 and older? You can do so via the poll or in the comments.

If you’d prefer to have me post what you have to say without identifying you, email me at FridaywithJoan@aol.com and I’ll post in the comments without your name or identifiers. And yes, I will understand, as will others, why you do not want to be identified.

Thanks for reading—whether you are doing this while still working or in retirement or contemplating retirement. As we wind down the year, some of us frantically working on year-end contracts, I am grateful to still be part of this industry, working to make meetings and hospitality better.

We have been asked by many about donations in Patti’s honor. Two suggestions:

1. PCMA, which is how I first met Patti, will continue to help students. Visit here, put in the amount and then click where it says “Dedicate my donation in honor of or in memory of someone” and add the name “Patti Shock,” it will be to help students.

2. Or you may donate here, through NACE, which will go to the TISOH scholarship.

THANK you. It will mean so much to family and friends to help others in honor of Patti’s life of educating others.

Related content from the December 2019 edition of Friday With Joan:

[Read more content in the 12.06.19 Friday With Joan newsletter]

From Volunteer to Meeting Professional

Originally Published Meetings Today

From Volunteer to Meeting Professional

I’ve been in the meetings and hospitality industry for more than 50 years—and if you count my very early volunteer experience, more than 66 years, 38 of those with my own company.

I would not be who I am or have the skills I’ve developed had I not been a volunteer beginning early in my life.

Prior to working formally in the industry, I was a volunteer for an art museum in my native Ohio, where I helped create and manage citywide events in the museum and on its grounds; organized U.S.-wide conferences for an organization for which I was a spokesperson; and volunteered for public television, coordinating on-air auctions.

In fact, as I thought about the subject of volunteerism, I realized how so much volunteer experience prepared me for the work I do now and added to the skills I have used throughout my career.

My Volunteer-to-Meeting-Professional Path

Long before I was honored for my work and giving back by volunteering in the industry by induction into the EIC Hall of Leaders, recognized by PCMA’s Foundation with a lifetime achievement honor as an educator; by IACC, HSMAI and NSA (speakers not spies!) for contributions to education; by MPI as International Planner; and often being included as one of the 25 most influential by an industry publication, recently as an influencer “legend,” I volunteered.

I began volunteering around age 6, campaigning to teachers for a U.S. presidential candidate on my grade school playground using the information my parents discussed and I learned from watching the news.

Around the same time, I created street fairs to raise money for polio research, a result of my next-door neighbor and friend, Alan, contracting polio. (We were among the test cases for the new vaccine. Alan, unlike I, received the placebo and contracted polio. He did live, overcame the illness, and was a star-wrestler in high school.)

These weren’t fancy street fairs—we had marble-shooting games, bobbing for apples and other simple games and prizes—and it meant creating, marketing and running events from which I gained experience.

In grade school, I also served as student council president. In high school, I was an active Y-Teen volunteer, which allowed me to attend statewide gatherings at which I gained leadership skills. I was also part of a city-wide teen human rights council and a high school service club.

During each of these opportunities, I gained skills and connections in areas that were then and are still my passions: social  justice and education.

Though I attended college for just one year, that year was a banner one. I was elected as our dorm’s freshman representative to the inter-dorm council where again my leadership skills were enhanced.

Unable to afford more-formal education, and having learned I was not good at learning in structured settings that were unlike my the experiential high school learning I’d enjoyed, I returned to Ohio where, in addition to working a variety of jobs, I sought new volunteer opportunities including working at the local art museum, while also working at a paid, full-time job.

At the art museum, I helped coordinate volunteers for the gift shop and for exhibition openings. My proudest achievement was helping create and then coordinate citywide events where there were visual and performing arts in each gallery, changing every hour, open to the public, over weekends. Public television seemed a natural, too: I helped with fundraising events including on-air auctions.

I joined a new national organization and found myself not only a spokesperson on national and local radio and television programs, I also helped plan national conventions. Laughing as I write, I don’t know how I did it—finding the hotels, booking speakers, and helping create logistics guidelines—I had no idea it was a profession.

Then What?

Before deciding to move to Washington, D.C., from Ohio, I interviewed for a job as a volunteer coordinator for a D.C.-based national association. The D.C. job I so thought I wanted was to coordinate the association’s volunteers throughout the U.S. I flew back and forth numerous times to interview. Alas, I wasn’t hired.

Not being hired for that position was a good thing! To deal with the disappointment, I moved to D.C. without a job, stayed with a friend for a few weeks until I found an apartment, and volunteered for the organization that didn’t hire me, and for another one, while I interviewed for jobs. Through all the volunteering, I gained valuable contacts and experience.

This was in the summer of 1978. MPI was new and PCMA was unknown to me.

While volunteering (I stuffed envelopes—ah the glamour!), the executive director of the association that didn’t initially hire me referred to my past experience—much of which had been volunteer aside from working in an elementary school, selling poultry and books (not in the same store!), and writing ad copy at a newspaper—and said they wanted to hire me to be their first meeting planner to plan their 10th anniversary meeting and events. (In my head, I thought “Call me anything—just hire me!”)

I began work almost immediately, and through a contact from the U.S.-wide conferences I’d help organize, found the Potomac Chapter of MPI. At my first PMPI meeting, the wonderful, now late, Bill Myles, saw me, the Introvert, standing against a wall. He introduced himself and upon learning I was new, asked me to be on the membership committee. Like now, I was not good at saying “no.”

That lead to so many opportunities: serving on committees, on the PMPI Board and as chapter president two years in a row. Through all of this, I learned meeting and program skills that I’d employ in my job and later as a consultant in the meetings industry.

One of my first experiences as a professional planner taught me about contingency planning.

For this 10th anniversary celebration took place in the winter in D.C., the keyunote speaker, was who was to travel from New York to DC by train fell and broke her leg on the way to the train in New York. We had to find a like-stature speaker, and we did.

We planned a live auction to raise funds. For that, I used my public television fundraising experiences to solicit items for donation.

The association couldn’t keep me on full time, so during the months I wasn’t working for them, I found contract work that lead to more experiences and contacts.

I commuted to and from New York to work and learned much more about how to negotiate hotel contracts.

One interesting learning experience was when I dealt with a member of the U.S. Senate who was to be honored and speak at a meeting in Texas and who, at the last minute, had to stay in D.C. for a critical vote.

This was all before Skype and other electronic means of presentations—even before FedEx! By working with others, we made it happen to have a tape (Yeah, I know—long ago!) to play of the acceptance and of the senator’s speech.

I’ve often wondered where I’d be were it not for all my volunteer experiences, through which I gained skills and contacts that all lead to other opportunities.

Skills Gained as a Volunteer

In each volunteer position, I gained skills that I used to enhance other volunteer and paid-work experiences. Examples include:

  • People management
  • Logistics
  • Budgeting and financial management
  • Persuasion
  • Creativity
  • Risk and contingency management and planning
  • Education design

Through volunteering with our MPI chapter, I was able to hone my ability to create educational programming that was not the usual “sage on the stage” program. The people I met became friends who helped me learn with them.

Since then, my energies as a volunteer have been directed to community, educational and environmental organizations, in politics, and for our industry. In our industry, I’ve served on and chaired chapter and international boards and committees.

Of all these, those from which I gained the most notable experience were:

  • serving on PMPI’s (then) Program Committee allowing me to create and deliver different education models;
  • as a member and then chair of  ASAE’s Ethics Committee where my understanding of ethics lead to a greater passion for how our industry and business can operate ethically and still enhance the bottom line;
  • and as MPI’s representative to the (then) Convention Liaison Council (now the EIC) Board, and to the industry-wide Unity Team that researched best practices in diversity and inclusion. During all of these experiences I learned more that I could bring to my work and thus enhance what clients experienced.

As you’ll read here, I did use my volunteer experiences on my resume to show what I’d done. The experiences were all relevant and have led me, as it has others interviewed, to what they do today and how they give back.

Please, in the comments, add the experiences you’ve gained as a volunteer and how you have put them to work in our industry to provide other examples from which we can all learn.

Finally: With this blog, I honor chef José Andrés and World Central Kitchen (WCK). If ever someone in our industry deserves to be honored for giving back, it is chef Andrés and those who volunteer with WCK. We all would do well to emulate, as best we can, the generosity of chef Andrés, and many other chefs, restaurant owners, cooks and others in disaster areas who have given so much to help those who have suffered.

Related content from the November 2019 edition of Friday With Joan:

[Read more content in the 11.01.19 Friday With Joan newsletter]

And a personal note: My long-time, amazing editor, Eric Andersen, has moved on. I miss him lots. He “got” me! If we have a few glitches along the way as we adjust to new systems and people, forgive us. We’ll get back to the Friday With Joan from which we hope you learn.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed by contributing bloggers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Meetings Today or its parent company.