Inside AAVSO Meetings, Part I: Venues
The purpose of the staff blog is to give AAVSO participants a window into the everyday workings of the staff. In the past I have regarded meeting planning as something that the general AAVSO population would not find very interesting, but today it occured to me that a look inside the process might not be as boring as it first sounds!
One of the initial steps in planning a meeting is finding a venue. This can be a pretty big challenge. Many things have to be balanced - location, price, amenities, competence of the venue staff, etc. Often times this balance is a moving target. For whatever reason turnover of sales people in the hotel industry seems to be very, very high. Once you have explained your requirements to person A from hotel X, gotten a favorable quote, and determined that they know what they are doing, quite often you call back to book the meeting only to find that, "Person A is no longer with us." Then sometimes you have to start over and explain all of your requirements to person B and hope that they are able to offer you the same good deal that person A offered. This switchover can happen multiple times during the course of planning a single meeting. I think my record is dealing with 4 different sales managers for one annual meeting. Once when we had a spring meeting in Atlanta, I spoke with my hotel contact the morning before the meeting was to begin to confirm arrangements for a tour of the hotel when we arrived in Atlanta that afternoon. Moments later I boarded the plane in Boston for Atlanta. I arrived at the hotel in Atlanta, went up to the front desk, and asked the staff person to let my contact, person C, know that we had arrived. The front desk person said... you guessed it, "Person C is no longer with us." I was on the phone with him only 4 hours earlier!! It is wonderful when you can establish relationships with venue representatives, but I have learned not to get too attached.
Even when you have someone stay put long enough to negotiate, getting information can be difficult. Not always, but sometimes it is very much like buying a car from a dealer. Two people can end up paying very different prices for exactly the same thing. I know that budget is a concern for everyone when attending an AAVSO meeting, so careful and thoughtful negotiations are very important in order to get good rates.
Speaking of affordability and rates... Have you ever looked at an AAVSO meeting notice, noted the banquet prices and suspected that the AAVSO was trying to make a profit on the plate of beef/chicken/fish? The truth is that we do not pad these prices to make a profit - food and beverage prices are just pretty crazy when it come to meetings. One of the most extreme examples of this came within the last year. I was asked to get a quote from a hotel for a sandwich bagged lunch for a small group. This lunch included a sandwich, canned soft drink, individual bag of potato chips, a cookie, and an apple. The cost was a whopping $42!! I almost fell out of my chair. I'm glad that I received this information via email because if I had been on the phone, I either would have laughed or been completely unable to speak. After a few moments to absorb the $42 price tag I realized that this price did not include the 15% service charge, 8% administrative charge, and 7% food tax. The grand total for the sandwich-in-a-bag lunch would have been $55.28! (By the way, I priced this same lunch at Subway and the total was $8.81 including tax.) Needless to say, we did not order the bagged lunch.
There are many factors that go into choosing a property including: airport access, public transportation access, parking, local activities, nearby restaurants, hotel amenities, meeting room size, noise level, etc. There are also unpredictable or out of our control factors that can have an effect on the meeting. For example, about 15 years ago while Dorrit Hoffleit was delivering a wonderful talk in our main meeting space, elevator music started blaring over the in-room speakers. I jumped up and checked the back wall (where all of the light controls and thermostat were located) for a control knob... nothing. I hightailed it to the front desk to ask them to please turn the music off. The girl manning the desk gave me a blank stare and said, "Oh yeah... That's in the men's room." I asked again, with a growing sense of urgency, if she would please have it turned off. She said, "Welllllllllll... I'm not realllllly allowed to leave the desk." Then she just stared at me. So off to the men's room I went. I stood in the doorway, announced my presence, and in the name of Dorrit Hoffleit, in I went. Next to the sink there was a random unlabeled dial on the wall with numbers around it. It was up on 10 - blaring, although interestingly enough no music could be heard inside the men's room. I turned the dial to 0 and for good measure I pulled the round plastic knob off of the little metal spike sticking out of the wall. I figured I could return it to the front desk once our sessions were over... although now that I think about it, I'm not sure that I ever did. Ooops. At that same meeting the building was configured in such a way that in order to get from the meeting space to the guest rooms you either had to go outside or walk through a bar area. It was raining the night of the banquet so everyone arrived at dinner through the bar. Some time during the banquet, unbeknownst to us, the bar transformed into a full-on nightclub with loud music, a dance floor, a disco ball, and even a bouncer! The image of Janet Mattei in her banquet outfit and nametag, navigating the crowded, pulsing dance floor while carrying the AAVSO slide projector in one hand and guiding Dorrit with the other is one that I will never forget!
Finding the perfect meeting venue is often a challenging task. Even when you think you've found it, often you find unexpected hurdles to leap over. The important thing is to be ready for anything and take each moment as it comes. What matters most is that the members, observers, and friends of the AAVSO in attendance have the opportunity to catch up with old friends, meet new friends, collaborate on ideas, and even share some funny stories about the time that Rebecca went into the men's room!