Lights, Action, Conference!

By Kathy Gurchiek May 6, 2010
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Steven Spielberg. Martin Scorsese. Alfred Hitchcock. Lisa Block.

Block’s name might not be known to moviegoers, but her job as director of meetings and conferences for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is akin to creating big-screen magic.

“It’s a little like being a movie producer,” Block said of pulling off SHRM’s Annual Conference & Exposition and other events such as the Staffing Management, Strategy and Diversity conferences. “I love watching the doors open at the general session and people stream in. That’s where all the work of the building of the sets and the selection of the speakers all comes together for me.”

The Trinity College-Hartford urban studies major and third-generation Washington, D.C., resident always wanted to work for a nonprofit organization.

“It was really important to connect to a mission-driven organization. I have always needed some connection to what the people that I work for do,” she said. As a conference planner, “I run a business that has a major impact on communities. That connection was really clear to me from the beginning.”

SHRM is Block’s fourth membership association that she’s worked for. Her first was as exhibits coordinator for the nonprofit then known as the American Personnel and Guidance Association. Her responsibilities extended beyond planning the trade show booths, thanks to a mentor who offered her opportunities to grow.

She worked as meetings manager for the National Council for International Health and as meetings manager at the American Association of University Women.

Block joined SHRM in April 1990 and is responsible for site, vendor and facility section and negotiations and logistics for all of SHRM’s national conferences. She manages the planning and logistics for all of SHRM’s conferences, seminars, board meetings and special events along with her staff of 10 professional meeting and exhibit planners.

Her Annual Conference duties include overseeing arrangements for its 1,300 expo hall booths, shuttle transportation, hotel and convention center arrangements and the development and production for all general sessions, which have audiences that approach 15,000 people. She also leads a cross-functional in-house team of more than 100 SHRM staff that support the Annual Conference.

“Perhaps one of the best indications of how well Lisa does her job is that people are unaware of how much she does and how well she does it. They simply see a well-run conference where their expectations are met or exceeded. She makes it seem easy,” said former SHRM president and CEO Susan R. Meisinger.

“She understands and likes SHRM members and is able to anticipate what will make their conference experience better and better each year. She’s held leadership positions for her own professional organization of meeting planners, which has provided her with valuable contacts in the industry—convention centers, hotel chains, visitor bureaus—and she’s able to leverage these professional relationships to the benefit of SHRM conference attendees,” Meisinger said.

‘Far More Sophisticated’

The first SHRM Annual Conference Block planned was in Atlanta in 1990. The 2010 Annual Conference in San Diego marks Block’s 21st for SHRM, and she still finds the job exciting and fresh.

“We don’t do anything the way we did 20 years ago,” she said. “The breadth of programs is significantly different and greater,” and many services such as the SHRM bookstore have grown into a complex retail operation, she noted.

SHRM has grown significantly—in membership, number of conference attendees and staff—she observed.

“We’ve gotten far more sophisticated in how we do things. We’re more complex, we provide a broader range of options for HR professionals and a vastly richer experience.” Attendees’ expectations have also diversified, she added.

SHRM’s 2010 Annual Conference includes more than 150 concurrent sessions. There are mega sessions on employment law and legislation, strategic management, international HR, personal and skill development, and talent management. There are preconference workshops on June 26 and Super Sunday Sessions on June 27. There are sessions devoted to HR in the public sector; more than a dozen sessions on California-specific HR issues and laws are offered over three of the conference’s four days.

“As one could imagine, putting on an Annual Conference is complicated with a lot of moving parts,” especially one depending on the work of so many volunteers, observed Tim Tumminello. Tumminello is HR director at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, where SHRM hosted its 2009 Annual Conference.

“I witnessed Lisa’s organizational skills and can honestly say they are second to none and why SHRM's conferences are so well done. Over 18 months of planning and finally executing the conference, her dedication to SHRM and her obvious love for New Orleans shined through, and our city was a great beneficiary in the end,” Tumminello said.

As Block and her team finalize details for the world’s largest HR conference, they are planning Annual Conferences five years down the road.

The 2011 Annual Conference is scheduled for Las Vegas, the 2012 Annual Conference will be in Atlanta, and the 2013 Annual Conference will be in Chicago. Locations for the 2014 and 2015 Annual conferences are being finalized.

Planning that far ahead, Block says, allows SHRM time to work with local chapters acting as volunteer hosts.

“We help them understand what that is all about.”

Block has had conference calls with the incoming president for the Southern Nevada HR Association—the SHRM chapter in Las Vegas—to talk about that chapter’s role in San Diego in promoting the 2011 Annual Conference. And in April 2010, Block traveled to Atlanta to work on the 2012 conference with leaders of that SHRM chapter.

“Every city has its specific challenges, and so it’s our job to understand those [challenges].” That includes, she said, how SHRM fits into the host city, how the host city fits into SHRM’s conference rotation, and how the choice of city impacts attendee expectations.

Block has a crisis management team that plans SHRM’s response to the unexpected during each Annual Conference. While they don’t talk specifically about what to do if monsoon-like rains descend or an earthquake hits, for example, the team has a general plan in place that it executes when necessary.

During the 1994 Annual Conference in St. Louis, for example, the kitchen was unable to serve a large sit-down dinner because of a labor dispute. SHRM’s conference crisis management team “went into action” and served the food themselves, Block said.

“Every conference has its issue, whether it’s something we planned for or not, or knew of in advance or not,” she said. In a town like Chicago, for example, it’s important to honor union rules.

“Unions are a good thing for our business in general because it’s skilled labor. … The people who work in those unions know what they’re doing, they do a good job. While it’s more expensive for us, the quality is there,” Block said. “You can establish good relationships with them, and if you’re clear about your needs and expectations, you can work with them.”

For Eric C. Peterson, manager of SHRM’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, SHRM’s Diversity Conference & Exposition is the major event of his work calendar. That’s in large part, he said, because of Block’s efforts at making it a success.

“I’m so grateful that our conferences team, led by the unflappable Ms. Block, is so consistently prepared and at the ready when things do deviate from the plan,” he said.

Rubbing Shoulders

Block has met her share of celebrities in her SHRM role, but she’s not star struck. She grew up around the corner from the home of George H.W. and Barbara Bush when Bush headed the CIA. As a teen she met cleric and apartheid opponent Desmond Tutu at the Washington National Cathedral. “Famous people are people. Some light up on stage and are a lot more reserved than we’d like them to be when we meet them,” she observed. “Some are very relaxed and animated and happy to meet and talk to people. And you can never tell—sometimes you’re disappointed, and sometimes you’re delighted.”

The 2006 Annual Conference keynote speaker, five-star general and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for example, made an effort to speak to and shake the hand of the man cleaning the bathroom backstage.

And Block recalls with admiration how Barbara Bush went out of her way to meet and speak with a very pregnant SHRM staffer.

“She really made an effort,” Block said of Bush. “That told me a lot about her character.”

In Block’s early days planning the Annual Conference, she felt sad when the conference ended.

Twenty-one years later, she feels a general sense of satisfaction and relief, knowing that she’ll see the vendors and others she’s gotten to know when conference planning resumes. Immediately after Annual, Block heads off for rest and relaxation—perhaps at a spa with friends or to her summer home in the village of Siasconset in Nantucket, Mass.

Community involvement, reading, entertaining and spending time with family keep Block rejuvenated.

She spends as much time as possible in Nantucket, where she works with the Nantucket Sconset Trust on historic preservation and land issues. Block’s involvement with the Rosemount Center House of Mercy—a bilingual Head Start/Early Head Start Center in Washington, D.C.,—reflects her longtime interest in early childhood education and the influence of her mother, who was an educator and school principal.

Block has been involved in the 5,000-member Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) since the late 1990s, serving in many volunteer capacities and as board chair in 2002. She has served on the PCMA Foundation Board of Trustees since 2007.

“It may not be brain surgery,” she said of meeting and conference planning, “but this is hard work and it takes a village of staff, speakers, volunteers and vendors to make it happen. I am lucky to work with great people and I couldn’t do this without such a talented team.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

Related Articles:

Spirited Guests Linger On in San Diego, HR News, April 19, 2010

SHRM, USO Partner for Operation Care Package, HR News, March 19, 2010

2010 Keynoters Reflect Diversity of Thought, Background, HR News, March 2, 2010

Selecting Annual Conference Speakers is Huge Undertaking, HR News, Feb. 2, 2010​

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