June 26, 2013

Event Planning: Painting the Curb White

Highway SignIt’s in the essential DNA of every events planner – from the intern to the experienced manager: “Pay attention to the details”. Like every cliché, it’s obvious and it’s true. And, like every cliché, it can lose meaning over time, becoming something we just say automatically. But the lucky among us have stories about the what, the when and the where of how we learned its true importance to the work that we all love to do. My story takes place in January, 2005 at 5:30 in the morning at Disney World and has remained an important touchstone in my successful career as an Events Director.

I was the Director of Events for the International Dairy Food Association (IDFA); its annual Dairy Forum for 500 dairy executives was being held at the Disney Yacht and Beach Club. At that point in my career, I was growing into my leadership role and abilities.  And it was my first meeting at Disney. I didn’t know what to expect from the global leader in family vacations and theme parks, a company famous for its attention to detail and its customer service.  Would Disney provide 500 executives and my staff with the same level of service that it delivers to the little girl and her family visiting Cinderella’s castle for the first time?

On the morning of my story, the opening day of the Forum, I was up very early and down to the staff office at 5:30, well before the start of the day’s general session.  My staff and I had been onsite for a few days already, first with set-up and then with pre-committee meetings. So far everything was running smoothly, thanks in no small measure to our coordination with Marianne Vance, Disney’s terrific CSM. The conference center included the standard porte-cochere (meeting planners’ varied pronunciation of porte-cochere will be addressed in a future post!), but so far there had been no reason to use it. But on that morning, at that moment, as I looked outside, I saw a Disney “cast” member painting the curb of the porte-cochere with a fresh coat of white. The curb that had not been used, damaged, or even had a cigarette butt tossed onto it.  And each morning after that, for the rest of the conference, I would see a “cast” member in the early morning’s light carefully repainting the curb so that it was always perfectly white. By the time the attendees awoke and arrived at the conference center, Disney had made sure that every detail, even the ones that few would notice, was perfect. “Have a magical day” – became more than just a marketing tagline after every conversation and encounter!

This was a pivotal time in my career as an Events Director. I was finding my way as a leader, finding my own style. I had begun to understand the critical importance of being well-prepared myself and of preparing my staff, but my experience that January was a turning point in my professional development.  “Painting the curb white” became my personal metaphor for the intense and thorough attention to details, both seen and unseen, that makes an event successful, memorable and, yes, enjoyable. My suggestions are obviously basic, the ideas not at all complex, but remembering to follow them consistently is essential and can make a big difference. When that happens, when the organizing principles become a part of you, of the essential DNA that I talked about in the beginning, the personal and professional satisfaction is authentic. So, here are my suggestions for “painting the curb white”:

1. Get up while all your guests are still asleep. I try to get to the staff office before everyone else, if  possible (without comprising sleep too much, still the #1 most important thing). I run through the day’s schedule, BEOS and staff responsibilities and assignments. In a quiet staff room I can focus on what needs to happen to make that day successful

2.  Have a staff meeting, even if, as it has often been for me in the past few years, it is a series of individual conversations. But the best case scenario remains a 10- minute meeting with all staff involved in logistics.  Quickly go through the day and discuss any problems from the day before

3.  Get a read on the staff.  Through brief conversations with each key logistics staff, you will be able to read everyone’s temperature. I can’t stress enough how important I think high spirits are to a successful conference; the best case scenario is everyone having fun, doing what they love, while focused and dedicated to the work.  (This also lets me get a good read on who had a little too much fun at the reception the night before)

4.  Make sure the hotel staff has arrived for the day. Now it’s usually the AM red coat or concierge, but old school it was always the CSM.

5.  Walk the space, the registration area, the general session room, the exhibit hall.  Make sure everything is clean, leaving enough time for the hotel staff to fix anything before attendees arrive. (Think of it as checking out your living room one last time before your annual holiday party!) Don’t be above cleaning up things yourself.  No matter how long I have been in this field, I always roll up my sleeves and do whatever it takes.

Of course, each conference is different and there are many other responsibilities and tasks that you will deal with first thing – putting out surveys, rehearsals, etc.  But this is my basic “Painting the Curb White” List for each event.  By adapting it to fit your own style, I believe that each morning you can renew yourself and your staff, making the event not just successful, but “magical”.