Calling an Audible Onsite – A Meeting Planning Tale

This is a post by our regular contributor Trish Rafferty, CMP. Trish is the Senior Meeting Manager with Meetings in Medicine in NYC. Follow her on Twitter @theFunctionista.

Calling an Audible Onsite

Planning meetings is not about being the most popular person in the room; it’s about running the best meeting possible. This is the mantra I repeated to myself when I arrived at a restaurant three hours prior to a dinner program realizing I had to make significant changes in a short time to pull off a successful event.

I was unpleasantly surprised to see the room set up completely backwards, or, rather, completely the opposite of what I had envisioned and planned.

Questions collided in my mind.  Had I provided a diagram?  No.  Given strict instructions on my expectations? No.  I had made assumptions and recalled a site visit conversation on room layout that may or may not have happened.  To complicate matters, my restaurant contact was not to corroborate my story.  Instead, I was faced with a room full of strangers who had already done the setup and would not be happy making a change at this late stage.

Describing the Scene

Allow me to justify my position and describe the scene.  The room could comfortably seat 80 and we were expecting over 120 attendees so it was crowded.  Tables of 8 led up to within inches of the screen leaving the presenters little room to move.  Any attendee movements could potentially show on the screen if they leaned toward the projector placed in the middle of the room.

In addition, the doors for attendee entry and egress and food service were situated at what was currently the front of the room and set on both sides of the screen.  Every door opening would draw attention away from the speaker and the agenda dictated that food service would occur throughout the presentations.

Late arrivals would also draw unwanted attention hunting for available seats.  The data being presented was far too important to sacrifice to distractions.

The configuration made no logical sense to me, but the banquet captain insisted this is the way the room is always set for large dinner programs.  The AV team was already two hours into set up and equipment testing and not anxious to start over.

What to Do

I hesitated for a minute, pondering the questions at hand.  Do I leave the room as is and hope for the best?  After all, I was coming late to the party. Did it make sense to take the restaurant’s recommendation?  It would certainly make my afternoon much easier and maybe earn me a few new friends in the restaurant.  But – was this the best solution for the program and was my popularity the important factor?

I had clients, speakers and attendees to please and an obligation to put on the best meeting possible.  These considerations outweighed all others.  I chose to go with my instincts, honed by almost two decades in the business learning what works and how to meet client expectations.  I apologized for my late arrival and the inconvenience; offered any help I could provide, but insisted that the room be reset to my specifications.

We compromised and off-set the tech table in a corner of the front of the room.  Fortunately everyone quickly got on board with the new plan and the change was accomplished.  I am happy to declare the meeting a success.

Lessons learned (or re-learned) for me – always arrive even earlier than seems necessary and always, no exceptions, have a room diagram. It’s hard to dispute the set when it’s in black and white and… with a diagram in hand. I can let Lesson #1 slide.

I Didn’t Do It

Making changes for the good of the meeting becomes a bit more challenging when I am not the planner in charge. This was my dilemma when handling a client-sponsored breakfast at an association meeting.

The association handled the logistics for all sessions; including the breakfast.  Unfortunately, I was dealing with an overworked planner (is there any other kind?) who was not focused on this one session and my client’s goals and expectations.

I had planned association meetings for 10 years so I am very familiar with the demands imposed on the planner and was hesitant to add to her burden.  Still, prior to going to the meeting, I had expressed concerns regarding the size of the assigned room and the decision to do a classroom set for a breakfast program.

The room, I was informed, needed to be set for sessions throughout the day so I wasn’t given an option.  On-site I made several attempts to reach the planner and re-confirm the arrangements, but of course she was extremely busy and we never connected.

Getting it Done for the Meeting

On the day of the breakfast, my team arrived at the meeting room before 6 AM ready to set up.  To my dismay, there was no registration table; no pre-ordered signage; no breakfast set up, no AV equipment and no association planner in sight.

The meeting room was arranged for 70 in a tight (3 per 6 foot) classroom set with no room for growth and I had a pre-registration list for breakfast of 121.  The banquet captain and set up crew were willing to help, but their approved BEOs had different details from what I was describing.

I stood at the house phone uncertain who to call or who would take my call.  I opted to call the planner on her cell phone and within minutes she arrived with all of the necessary paperwork.    The breakfast buffet had been ordered, but the hotel staff placed it in the exhibit hall since it had been there the previous day.  It was quickly moved, signage appeared, the AV tech arrived and the only obstacle remained the meeting room set.

The Clock was Ticking.

My association counterpart had set the room and ordered food with the assumption of a great deal of attrition.  Even though it was her group and planners know their groups, I was not comfortable with these decisions and hated the thought of anyone arriving and not having a seat.  I can understand under ordering the food, but I ALWAYS over-set the room.

Our very prompt speaker and some early risers were already standing outside the meeting room while we discussed our options.  In my early morning pacing I had seen the general session room set for 200 in crescent rounds.  When that room was reluctantly offered as a back-up, I immediately jumped on it.

I showered the hotel staff and association staff with profuse thanks and reminded myself to pick my battles when the planner insisted breakfast could not be moved closer to the meeting room.  The rationale for that directive– the hotel had already moved it once and shouldn’t be expected to move it again.  I reluctantly conceded that point with no time to puzzle over the flawed logic.

We proceeded with a successful breakfast program in the larger space.  Ironically we had exactly 70 attendees (the planner did know her group) and I let her have her moment when she commented that moving the room was an unnecessary exercise.  I disagreed and know the attendees were much more comfortable in the larger room.

Kindness Counts

This meeting experience was a refresher in negotiation and yet another reminder that you can accomplish more by saying lots of please and thanks.  That reminder is one we can all use – with apologies in advance for sounding preachy – it’s bigger than meeting planning.

Trish Rafferty, CMP, Meetings in Medicine

Image by Monica’s Dad

Keith Johnston

Keith Johnston

Keith is the Managing Partner of i3 Events but is most widely known as the outspoken publisher of the event industry blog PlannerWire. In addition to co-hosting the Bullet List and Event Tech Pull Up Podcasts, he has been featured in Plan Your Meetings, Associations Now, Convene, Event Solutions, and has appeared on the cover of Midwest Meetings Magazine.

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