‘Please Don’t Call Me Shirley’

Expect the unexpected, and other lessons from a CU meeting planner.

April 20, 2011
KEYWORDS annual , business , meeting
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What I learned

As I turned my thoughts back to planning for this year’s annual meeting, I felt surely it would be a huge success (and it was). I wonder though if “Shirley” will be watching over me, and wonder what lessons can I take away from this impromptu experience to be an even better event planner?

Here are five risk management meeting tips I’ve learned from Dr. Rumack (a.k.a. Leslie Nielsen):

1. Expect the unexpected even if the odds are against it. Meeting planners and hosts should anticipate some or all heck to break loose even though the odds are in your favor nothing significant happening. Good planners will have contingency plans in place and activate them when necessary.

During my second annual meeting at the Marriott in 1989, the staff told me that a bomb threat was called in and our banquet was delayed. They said it wouldn’t be wise to inform our guests of the details until we knew more information.

Needless to say, our hungry folks were not happy when the food was delayed and not served as advertised. Luckily, the unforeseen threat was only that—a threat, but the damage had been done.

2. Never break character. When disasters strike, stay calm and collected no matter how much you are quaking in your boots. Lt. Frank Drebin and Dr. Rumack never broke character despite the chaos around them. You may be the only cool head left standing in a crisis and your boss and co-workers will appreciate it.

I was a guest at the Washington Hilton on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, with some co-workers and association members. Our legislative visits had been cancelled and many of our credit union officials were still at the hotel.

Under the unusual circumstances, the Hilton staff invited us to sit in their ballroom during another group’s meeting. Those members were watching CNN on a large projection screen as the tragedy unfolded. I noticed the hotel staff and the hosts remained calm even though many participants were quite stressed as rumors swirled about other terrorist targets in Washington.

Later that day, we treated our guests to dinner and tried to maintain a casual tone with them although on the inside we were quite shaken by the day’s events.

3. Know your role. Leslie Nielsen easily made the transition from serious actor in his early days to comedic actor in his later years. He knew what his role was in each instance and was successful at his craft.

During our brief encounter, I instinctively knew what my role would be. Although counterintuitive, I played the straight man and set-up the punch lines for him.

As a meeting planner, know your role. Sometimes it’s as warm host and greeter. Perhaps the role of snap decision maker will require you to displease a few so the many can benefit.

If your offsite baseball game is rain delayed, do you arrange transportation back to the hotel early and feed them, or give them a rain check to a future event? Play the heavy if needed. If the hotel is missing its mark on service, communicate your displeasure in a respectful but firm tone even if your disposition is normally a pleasant one.

4. Meet or exceed expectations. Playing Dr. Rumack or Frank Drebin was not required during his down time, but Nielsen did so because his fans expected it, and I imagine it gave him enjoyment to see their reaction.

What do your clients expect of you? Do they receive a personal thank-you note and a photo of their hole-in-one after the conference? Do your clients whose spouses need additional time navigating the ballroom get seated in advance of the doors opening? Do you remember who gets the fish instead of the steak?

If the answer is “Yes, yes, and yes, then Dr. Rumack would be proud of you.

5. Playing a prank is risky business. Never play a prank on your boss unless you’re nearing retirement. I don’t like surprises, and neither does he, although the surprise encounter with Mr. Nielsen is a memory that we fondly recall about this same time every year.

RICH SCHAFFER is senior vice president at the West Virginia CU League.

What a treat!!!

Tim Henderson
April 26, 2011 3:00 pm
The chance encounter with one who knew how to maximize each chance, what a treat! It was especially refreshing to hear of someone courageous enough to shake up the status quo of our "professional" standards - meetings, elevators, etc.

Only Leslie Nielson and you, Sir, could be respected for it. i seem to be reprimanded at each attempt:)
Thanks for sharing,

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