Conference Day

Musings from the Past

I recently came across a journal entry from a conference Green Builder Program organized back in the 90s. I’m not sure which one this was, as we did a few, but it captures the feeling of the day. If you’ve ever organized a conference, you may find this entertaining. Or not. But as I read this, I was reminded of what a great team we had during that time; several on that team are still close friends after forty years.

Conference Day

The alarm rings. The hazy cloud of that transition between dreamworld and daybreak was ushered in by the voices of NPR on my radio alarm.It begins. The day of the conference.The months of planning, enthusiasm, panic, and purchase orders are over. Today we hit the conference center with a team of volunteers and prayers for yet another success. 

The last days before the conference were at once chaotic and calm — calm, no doubt, because Mary had absorbed the panic of the hour for the rest of us, and chaotic because of the bazillion last minute details which end only when the last box is removed from the conference center. “Attendance registration is too low! Call out the media SWAT team! We need fifty more volunteers!” The conference this year was a great leap from past years. It was literally international, with nearly thirty attendees and speakers from from various places in Mexico and South America. Two days instead of one, and a full day of public events. Had we lost our minds?This was the scale of event normally turned over to professionals who were paid to be stressed. Five minutes before the doors are opened for registration, half the materials are missing.I don’t believe I perceived a flappable moment by Sylvia throughout the event. Surely her presence kept a lid on the registration team’s anxiety. This was to be the first of several irregular heartbeat moments during the two days. I reflected [hopefully] that this would be the main glitch of the conference and I was glad it happened early. Note: one of the more memorable Murphy’s Laws for me was “any time things are going well, you’ve overlooked something.”

The first wave of activity over, attendees are in their rooms and there are no signs of major problems. Steve has equipped the volunteers with radios, and they are strategically positioned in Disneyland fashion to keep the attendees moving and happy. Duck costumes were not permitted by Mary; professional attire only today. I missed that meeting, and wore the traditional tie-dye-world-on-a-T-shirt, with a sports coat.

The exhibit floor was abuzz with activity, center crews setting up booth spaces. How was this all going to happen by 9:00 AM when the exhibitors arrived to set up? Exhibitors, normally a congenial, friendly lot, have a conference setup side that few wish to behold. This dubious privilege fell on Bruce, Laurence, and Sandra. The choreography of this place was a sight to behold — from a safe position on the mezzanine overlooking the main hall.

The keynote address approached all too quickly. Getting water to the speaker table, a seemingly simple task, took several staff members and a radio. Then came the commencement of the second, and perhaps worst, heart palpitation moment. Our keynote speaker, a distinguished and revered leader in environmental planning and ecological design, and a primary reason for many of the attendees to choose this conference, could not be understood by at least half of the audience. A combination of poor acoustics, sound adjustment, and the speaker’s Scottish brogue dampened what surely would have been an inspiring presentation. One of the members of the audience, putting the best face on the unfortunate situation, said the sound problems forced him to really concentrate on what the speaker was saying.

One of the functions of the team running a conference is to absorb the chaos and present a calm front. There were moments when the calm gave way to “if you’re not doing anything, get out of my way!” But the team was fabulous at maintaining decorum, even in the midst of speakers not showing up without warning, or workshops turning people away because they were full (a good problem, I would submit). Then there was the speaker who grabbed the wrong van from the hotel and ended up at a University of Texas Mexican student conference. This qualifies as a speaker nightmare.

In the midst of the controlled chaos, there were few, if any, complaints from the attendees or the exhibitors. On the contrary, people would seek out staff members and tell them what a great event this had been for them. This is curious to me, yet I’ve seen it often. It seems “successful event” is in the eye of the beholder, and the more “beholders” see success, the better the event.It’s up to the operators to keep things on the surface running smoothly even when the inevitable bumps in the road occur. Crowd control; the illusion of order in the midst of chaos. When hundreds of people get together in the same place, the possibilities for disorder grow exponentially. This is to be acknowledged, not eliminated, for the only way to bring success to an event involving humans is to go with the flow, change course when necessary, and take the path of least resistance. 

When the hour came that the last of the conference attendees exited the building — smiling, I must add — the team shed the the weight of the past two days’ activities as one might throw off a winter coat in the middle of a Texas summer. Some removed the stress in layers (more like a Colorado spring) over the next few days. 

I don’t want to forget the Thursday night call [before the conference] from Mary, already consumed by the conference. “The Salvadorans are coming!” She was laughing at the irony of opening her home [in addition to the conference preparations] to long distance, international travelers, clearly enjoying the unfolding of the plot toward opening day. By anyone’s standards, this was going far beyond the call of duty, yet was accepted [by Mary] as absolutely appropriate.

What a team!