I looked at the photo on the LK site for inspiration. Ah, that giant room with those ranks of chairs and glitzy chandeliers and patterned carpeting and overly chilly air conditioning…It reminded me of my former life in marketing/communications and fundraising. For many years, I volunteered such knowledge as I was presumed to have to the international organization for those of us in the non-profit education field. I lost count of the panelist and moderator duties, faculty roles in weeklong programs, planner of conferences, and other jobs I took on.
I was presenting on a panel with a designer who became a dear friend when the Challenger blew up and the day disintegrated into clusters of horrified people who were suddenly reminded of the value of life and the nature of heroism.
Another time, I was to interview a college president as the main morning event at the Fairmont Hotel when San Francisco lost all power. The organizers begged him and me to do it in complete darkness because the hotel wanted everyone to stay in place, sure the lights would come on in a few minutes. They didn’t, and for 50 minutes 450 people were treated to the occasional sight (I was told this later by a cackling acquaintance) of my chin as I leaned into the flashlight to see what my next question was. The lights stayed out until Suze Orman, the lunch speaker, opened her mouth, at which point they snapped on, of course, and she dazzled the crowd.
One aspect of conferences in those days was the delicate phenomenon of attendees pairing up with people to whom they were not married. In many cases I heard about, one or more of them was married to someone else who, ipso facto, was not at the conference. These brief liaisons provided some distraction from endless, earnest discussions of how to increase alumni giving totals or find new ways of appealing to jaded 16-year old prospects for the freshman class. I never heard of a marriage ending as a result, but then I didn’t know most of the people outside of our semi-annual coming together for the Conference on Strategic Marketing or the Summer Institute in Communications and Fundraising.
No matter what the conference is about, I believe there is a common conference culture, supported and reinforced by the sight of neatly lined up chairs with padded seats and backs, tables with coffee urns and water glasses, and people skittering from the Sunset Room to the Governor’s Hall in search of the holy grail – that event where the speakers will all sparkle, the man sitting next to you will be the one person you hoped to run into, and the talk will reveal, finally, the deepest and most worthwhile secret to success for your career.
I, as a longtime veteran, prefer to wait it out in the bar.