For Planners, Journey to Atlanta Began Four Years Ago

By Dori Meinert May 17, 2012
Lisa Block

Boxed lunches for 15,000 people? No problem.

Trash pickup for the same? Piece of cake.

The logistics needed to ensure that the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2012 Annual Conference runs smoothly are mapped out in painstaking detail in a 700-page document that conference planners affectionately call their “bible.”

Completed just before Memorial Day, the massive tome records the thousands of details and decisions made over the previous 18 months. Every microphone, every chair, every coffee cup is documented.

“Everything that’s not nailed in the room is included,” said Letty Kluttz, SPHR, manager of conference programming.

The specifications go to 14 vendors and 15staff team leaders, whose job is to turn the plan into reality.

It Starts with a Tour

For many attendees, the journey to the 2012 Annual Conference in June will take a few hours by plane. But for SHRM’s conference planners, the journey began four years earlier in 2008 when they selected Atlanta as this year’s site. While in Atlanta for SHRM’s Diversity & Inclusion Conference, Lisa Block, vice president for meetings and conferences, toured the area. She noticed all the improvements to the city since SHRM last held its Annual Conference there in 1999.

“I was staying at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, which had just undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation that was beautifully done. We got a real taste at that meeting,” Block said.

Only seven or eight large cities can accommodate a conference as large as SHRM’s, she said.

Key considerations include:

  • Is the city’s convention center big enough?
  • Are there enough hotel rooms in the vicinity?
  • Is it an attractive destination that attendees will want to visit?
  • Is it near a major airport?
  • How much volunteer support can the local chapter provide?

From 2008 to 2011, SHRM staffers made several visits to Atlanta to iron out the contract for the Georgia World Congress Center and to finalize hotel contracts.

Of course, while the plans for Atlanta were in their infancy, conference staffers also were finalizing plans for Annual Conferences in each of the years in between.

But the heavy lifting for the Atlanta conference began about 18 months earlier.

“There are a lot of decisions that have to be made well in advance. Part of the challenge and the art of this is that you don’t know all the details, so you have to make some very good assumptions,” Block said. “They’re not guesses. They are assumptions, based on facts.”

Surprisingly, there is no visible operations center—no giant whiteboard with schematics to keep plans for multiple conferences straight.

Yes, Block and her team use spreadsheets and e-mail. But with decades of conference planning under their belts, they operate primarily by instinct. “We have a natural rhythm that we’ve fallen into,” said Meetings Manager Jennifer Wroniewicz, CMP, who is on her 11th Annual Conference. They know what their individual responsibilities are and where they need to be as a group at any time.

“The collective experience is what drives us,” explained Block, who has planned 23 Annual Conferences for SHRM.

Something Old, Something New

In August 2011, they finalized speakers and session presenters for Atlanta. “There is a balance between what is new and what is evergreen,” Kluttz said. For example, every conference will have a session on the Family and Medical Leave Act because it is a topic people always want to learn about. But sessions on social media are new in recent years.

In January 2012, they began monthly meetings with 16 subteam leaders, who are in charge of detail work on various aspects of the meeting such as technology, communications, seminars and Tuesday night entertainment.

In early March, they led a group of about 40 staff members and vendors to Atlanta, pinning down many details, such as audiovisual equipment and security needs. That’s when volunteers from local SHRM chapters are trained.

“The agenda for that meeting is pages long,” Block said. “We bring everybody together to walk through the convention center and make sure we’re all on the same page.”

Block and a small team meet with the chef and taste the food that will be served. Making boxed lunches for 15,000 is no small feat. They do a simulation to make sure that the sandwiches are the right size, packaged appropriately and won’t get soggy.

Another huge logistical problem is ensuring that the trash from such a large crowd is removed quickly. “We have really high standards for trash pickup. We have tons of our staff radioing when there is a trash situation, and we have people on standby to manage that,” Block said.

Each of the 500 signs that will direct conference participants has been approved by a SHRM staff member. “Part of the complexity of the conference is taking the floor plan and making it come to life. We lay stuff out—because the fire marshal has to approve everything,” Block said.

Every tiny detail is written down, compiled into the specifications book and e-mailed to vendors and staff members before Memorial Day.

Obviously, planners have to have strong organizational skills. But once the conference begins, their problem-solving skills are paramount.

'We're on Stage'

When the conference planners arrive in Atlanta, they immediately begin to set up. “When the first member walks in the door, we’re on stage,” Block said. Despite extensive planning, “there are always surprises—always,” she said.

At 4 p.m. each day of the conference, the staff and vendors meet for a debriefing. They go over the day’s events to determine how to make the next day more successful.

But there can be no late nights out for the conference planners—they get up at 4 a.m. to arrive at the convention center well before anyone else.

And, even while they are making sure that this year’s conference is the best it can be, they are looking ahead to the next year. Attendees in Atlanta will be able to register for the 2013 conference in Chicago, which staff have been working on since—you guessed it—2009.

Dori Meinert is senior writer for HR Magazine.


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