Travel & Lifestyle

Going Rogue: A Meeting Planners Tale


Going rogue is a term that has gotten a lot of play in recent months since the release of the Sarah Palin autobiography. The phrase suggests going against the norm, behaving in nontraditional or unexpected ways, taking risks and succeeding or failing in a spectacular fashion. I have been mulling the questions, “Can a meeting planner go rogue? And, If so how? “

We can probably all think of times in our planning of meetings when we have tried something new and had it blow up in our faces or maybe it worked and then became the norm, but did we truly go rogue? Does rogue meeting planning behavior encompass defying Robert’s Rules of Order, serving dessert before the meal, organizing badges and welcome packets by middle initial or turning attendees loose without agendas, room assignments or signage?

When it comes to planning meetings, I probably tend to play it safe more than take risks. I hesitate to plan outside events in case the weather does not cooperate. If I do, and a storm threatens, I am likely to pull the plug early on and defend the decision as wise and sensible, even if the sky ends up being clear. I NEVER offer my clients second option space – it’s too risky. If they like that space and I have to tell them we never actually had it, who’s the loser there? At this stage of the game I have a reputation that allows my clients to trust me to make the right decisions and steer them in the right direction. These suggestions are based on tried and true methods that have worked for me or other planners and a dose of common sense – nothing rogue there.
Early in my career I felt daring when I took a 3-course lunch menu and broke it up to serve dessert at the afternoon break. It made perfect logical sense to me since a salad, entrée and dessert is usually too much food at lunch, but it went against the way the hotel menus were set and it felt good to be bad. Recently I planned an entire meeting over the phone with my CSM after surgery on my hand limited my typing abilities. We reviewed and picked the menus, agreed on room sets and AV needs and she drew up and sent me BEOs to approve. Unable to travel, I ran another meeting remotely via phone and email rather than sending another staff person. It was a struggle to not be on-site, but it worked. I have a friend who, fed up with uninspired hotel banquet options, searched the internet and presented her CSM with recipes for the kitchen to prepare to spice up her reception. The food was a hit! These examples are in direct opposition to everything I have learned and practiced as a planner, but are they roguish? No, not really.

The two examples I can relay in which I could potentially be accused of going rogue are from my association days. I planned association meetings for over 10 years and loved working with committees, lending my expertise to agenda planning and squeezing every dime possible out of a budget. One of the common themes I found in association planning was the aversion to change and the power of long-standing tradition. It was difficult to shake things up but I found myself in the position to do just that with two annual meetings.

The first opportunity arose out of need – I inherited an annual meeting in the last year of a multi-year contract with a hotel it had long outgrown. We were able to book overflow sleeping rooms and additional meeting space in an adjacent hotel, but there was no space suitable to serve lunch to 1,200 hungry meeting attendees. My predecessor had relied on attendees choosing to go out to lunch instead of standing in long buffet lines. That strategy backfired at the last conference when entertainment was added to the luncheon agenda and the line for lunch extended out the door. The mission for this year’s conference was to find a way to provide lunch and entertainment to all 1,200 attendees and ensure that no one be left out, slighted or hungry. The decision was quickly made to host two lunch seatings each day (with entertainment) to accommodate everyone. Our plan had to be well thought out and perfectly orchestrated to ensure the buy-in of the change-resistant committee and we required the cooperation of the hotel staff and the meeting attendees.

In planning our attack, my team and I drew up a list of questions to be answered including:

How do we ensure that each attendee, whether in Group A or Group B has the exact same lunch experience?
It was immediately determined that we needed to provide entertainment on both days and the entertainment had to do the same performance twice in a row. Since the meeting was held in Washington DC and it was an election year, we contracted with White House correspondent Helen Thomas on Day 1 and political satire troupe, The Capitol Steps, on Day 2 and convinced them each to do shorter presentations/performances and repeat them.

Can we seat and have the hotel feed 600 people in thirty minutes, allowing the performers thirty minutes and then 15 minutes to empty and reset the room and do the whole thing over again?
We decided to preset a cold meal (salad and main course only; dessert to be explained later) for the first seating each day and then serve a hot meal for the second seating. In the interest of fairness, we swapped lunch times for Group A & Group B so that everyone would have both a hot and cold meal. To simplify the plan we chose one hot menu and one cold menu and served both each day.

How do we encourage the first group to quickly exit the room giving time to reset and refill the room for the second group?
We came up with two enticements; we arranged for Helen Thomas to do a book signing on a different floor where we also served dessert before they headed to the next session. On the second day the draw was to go upstairs and meet The Capitol Steps and buy their tapes and CDs along with the withheld dessert. For those who would not be drawn by the prospect of dessert or tapes and books, we opened the exhibit hall and served beverages.

What do we do with the other half of the group during the lunch?
Knowing that a big draw for our attendees is continuing education credits, we enlisted the program committee to come up with two sessions of universal appeal in the industry to be offered back to back. They willingly complied and convinced two of our hardworking presenters to not only offer these popular sessions back to back, but also to skip lunch and the accompanying entertainment.

Would it work?
We had no way of knowing and spent hours of debate on that topic. The only conclusion we could reach was that it had to work.

The buy- in from our committee, the hotel staff, the performers came eventually, but it took many conversations and some compromises to make everyone pull together. Surprisingly, one of the biggest issues we faced was how to divide the group. After much discussion, we decided splitting the group alphabetically was the fairest way to do it, but we agonized over the decision. Could we separate friends and colleagues who always sit together? Was it fair to ask people to eat at different times than they were used to? How could we control access to the lunches? What if they didn’t leave the room as instructed? What if a riot ensued and an angry mob of attendees overpowered our staff? Our team had many long conversations on these very topics, and we tried to address every possible scenario.

On the day of the first luncheon, we all nervously crossed our fingers and exchanged pep talks. All the prep work had been done – it was up to the attendees now to embrace the change. I positioned myself in the ballroom to help with the seating and assess the situation from the front lines. I saw more hotel staff than I had ever seen assembled in one place, banquet staff, sales managers, convention service managers, audio visual technicians, front desk personnel; anyone who could be spared from other areas of the hotel. It was gratifying to see that the success of this venture was as important to the hotel as it was to our association.

As Group A filed into the room and quickly took their seats, it appeared that many of them were invested in the success of the event as well. They ate quickly and the hotel staff efficiently cleared plates as soon as they were empty. Helen Thomas was a bit controversial (as expected), but a big hit and her book signing helped to quickly clear the room as soon as her talk ended. While Group A filed out of one set of doors and upstairs to dessert and the signing, Group B was already waiting outside of the room, but they stood patiently for the 15-20 minutes it took for the room to be refreshed and prepared for the second seating. The lunch proceeded smoothly and ended in time for the afternoon sessions to begin. Our “rogue” experiment was a success with a few mishaps too minor to mention. Our team, attendees and the hotel staff were all experienced veterans for the second day and the Capitol Steps dual performance was even smoother. Of course by the following year we had graduated to a new larger hotel that accommodated all attendees for all meals so no new traditions were born.

A few years later in a new job, I tried going rogue again in planning an awards dinner for my association’s annual meeting. My partner-in- crime and, in truth, the instigator was the meeting’s committee chair who was anxious to shake things up since the meeting was being held in her hometown. We conspired to shake up the stale, traditional dinner that featured a bagpiper procession; a three-tiered white-clothed head table adorned with white-tie clad VIPs and a bland menu of green salad, red meat and white potatoes. In a nod to the Southern California locale we planned a banquet hall decorated with multi-colored tablecloths adorned with piñata centerpieces and encouraged semi-formal dress. We added a reception featuring strolling mariachis and free-flowing margaritas and for the dinner menu we settled on fajitas. Giddy with excitement over our plans, we counted down the days to the big event.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting I heard random grumbling from the old guard, but did not think much of it until I was summoned to our Executive Director’s office. He somberly closed the door and told me it was time to address the rumors. He had gotten a few phone calls and emails that suggested I was scheming to deprive the membership of their annual steak dinner and replace it with cheap Tex-Mex food. He demanded answers. I explained our plans, got him on board and we made the executive decision to “leak” the menu. I called one of our most vocal members who happened to be a friend and a foodie to boot. He, of course, had heard about the dinner plans and asked if it was true. Yes, I revealed, the planned menu included fajitas, but they were fajitas made with filet mignon and lobster tails. We discussed the presentation and the room décor and, delighted, he was off and running to reassure the disgruntled masses.

The awards dinner, after all was said and done, required some compromise. We added the stark-white three-tiered head table back into the ballroom, but the rest of the tables sported a colorful array of linens. Mariachis entertained the group at the boisterous reception, but were hushed by the somber bagpipe procession into dinner. The guests sported a variety of party wear with jackets, ties and brightly colored sun dresses mingling with white jackets, bow ties and sequined gowns. The evening seemed to please most of the attendees.

It’s hard to say if our efforts really shook things up or resulted in any permanent change and I moved on shortly after the event. I can’t say if this was truly a trail blazing moment in my career, but it was an interesting experience and a good opportunity to practice the fine arts of negotiation and compromise.

Perhaps my truly rogue moments are still to come.

Image: Jonathan W