Chicago or Bust – A Meeting Planner Tale

The day started early – too early for me.  I strongly believe it is inhumane to get up before 5 am.  As a meeting planner, however, I have other convictions that supersede this one.

1. When traveling for work I get on the first flight out in the morning.  In cases of bad weather or delays it is the flight most likely to get to its destination.
2. I try to never travel with clients.  It is imperative to be on-site prior to their arrival and, personally, I like the flight to be “my time.”
3. I always book my own travel whether it’s online or through a travel agent and review the itinerary for accuracy.  On one occasion, I asked a colleague to book my flights.  She did so efficiently and asked me, more than once, to review the tentative itinerary.  Pressed for time, I assured her it was fine sight unseen.  I had plenty of time to review and lament the itinerary when my connecting flight from Baltimore to Washington (a 20-minute flight and a 40-minute car ride) was delayed for three hours.  That was many years ago and since that time I (almost) always carefully review my itinerary.

Recently, all of my beliefs collided in my journey to Chicago for a small dinner meeting.  I was at Newark airport at 6:00 am for my Newark to Chicago flight when I looked, I mean really looked, at my boarding pass for the first time.  There it was in black and white – ORD-EWR – 7:00 am – gate B4.  Oops –that should read EWR-ORD.  What now?

I had booked the flights in a hurry and last minute since attendance figures indicated the meeting would certainly be canceled.  It wasn’t.  I was multitasking while on the phone with the travel agent and filed the emailed ticket away without a glance.  To be fair, there were signs.  I wondered why the flight was scheduled to take four hours from Newark to Chicago.  That seemed longer than necessary and I knew it was not a “prop jet” since I had a first-class seat.  My bigger concern was that the flight was going out of Terminal B.  99.9% of Continental flights go out of Terminal C.  The terminal “change” threw a kink into my morning plans because the only Dunkin’ Donuts in Terminal B is located outside of security so I would need to allow enough time to drink my coffee before going through security.  I NEVER allow enough time to drink my coffee before going through security.

So, back to my 6:00 am epiphany at Newark – there was no way I could get all the way to Chicago to make my 7:00 am flight back to Newark so something had to change.

I stood in the check-in line at the airport and frantically tried to get the travel agency on the phone.    Of course I got to the front of the line just as Sue, the travel counselor, answered the call.  Thinking fast I dropped back to the end of the line and explained my situation to the sympathetic agent.  As we talked I got to the front of the line two more times smiling apologetically at the confused counter agent and avoiding eye contact with the other travelers in line.  Sue re-booked me on the next flight from Newark to Chicago, but could not complete the booking until the Continental agent canceled my boarding pass for the original flight from Chicago to Newark.  I hopped back into a line that had quadrupled in size since my last trip to the counter and waited.

When it was my turn I explained my confusing situation to Sherry, the Continental agent and Sue and I waited while Sherry checked me out of my original flight.  Then Sherry and I waited while Sue confirmed me on the next flight to Chicago so Sherry could check me in for that flight (still with me?).  I had a nagging feeling that, with all the time-consuming steps involved, I would never make the flight, but to make a change now would start the whole process over again so I let it play out.

New boarding pass (EWR-ORD) in hand I joined the sluggish line to pass through security.  While I waited, the line seemed to get longer and slower and longer and slower and I fumed silently as my flight time approached.  At long last I reached the front of the line and spewed my passive frustration on the TSA agent checking my boarding pass and ID.  I told him to take his time; there was no way I was going to make my flight.  He asked why I hadn’t let the other passengers know I was going to miss my flight; he was certain they would have let me pass. I shrugged and wondered if he had ever successfully tried that approach with a long line of disgruntled business travelers.

Traveling sans laptop, I moved fairly quickly past the conveyor belt and re-assembled my belongings, and got re-dressed on the other side.  Energized, I did my best OJ Simpson run through the terminal, truly it wasn’t impressive.

Out of breath, I skidded to a stop at my departure gate right at departure time.  I could see the plane through the window, but the boarding area was deserted.  Even the gate agents had left.  I stomped over to the adjoining gate to book the next flight.  Indignant, I announced to the agent that I needed to be rebooked and there was no one at my gate to help me.  He replied, “There’s no one there because YOU missed the flight.”

“I know I missed the flight, I just spent over an hour trying to get through security!” I snapped back.  (Note-I felt at the time, and still do, that exaggeration was appropriate in this case).  He took my boarding pass and quickly booked me on the next flight one hour later 50 gates away.  The only available seat was in the last row of the plane- no first class, no reclining seat, but conveniently close to the bathrooms.  I was on my way.

With time to spare, I leisurely made my way to the new gate with a long overdue Dunkin’ Donuts pit stop en route.  Anxious to sit down and regroup, I was startled to run straight into my client waiting for the same flight (see rule #2).   I put on my best meeting planner smile, reviewed the meeting specs with him, and made appropriate chit-chat before escaping with a lame excuse about returning some phone calls.  He was in the first row of first class when I boarded and remarked, as I waited to make my way to the back of the plane, “With all the traveling you do, I would think you would be upgraded.”  I smiled politely and refrained from regaling him with all that had occurred that morning.

I made it to Chicago with time to spare and, as I reflected on the morning’s events, I took the lesson that no matter how many meetings you plan or times you travel it is critical to check and re-check the details.    As a reward for a lesson re-learned, on the way home I was seated in the first row of first class and appropriately routed ORD-EWR.

About the Author:

Trish Rafferty, CMP is the Senior Meeting Manager with Meetings in Medicine in NYC.

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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