I live in Mendocino, a world apart from Madison Avenue and sometimes I forget that the world can be so harsh. When I moved to Mendocino from San Francisco, I was fortunate enough to take a city-based job to my home for two days every week. It pays the health insurance and other incidentals while my husband and I develop our business.
So for the past ten years people have called me from large corporations in New York on an 800 number and I have booked travel for them to their corporate meetings. Our office specializes in large meetings and my division did the travel. Many of the people in the office are "meeting planners" and go onsite to troubleshoot every detail and make sure that the CEOs and CFOs are afforded a perfect trip and that there are no details left to chance.
Meeting Planners are well-paid, anal-retentive ‘yes men’ who do not miss a detail and fawn over the officers constantly assuring their every second is coordinated to perfection. I am the last person who should be in this league, as my brain functions artistically and not in a linear way. Although, I am a competent travel planner with years of experience there are some things one simply cannot control, i.e., weather, Mechanical malfunctions etc., I personally have found that there is a certain karma which comes with trying to over control the outcome of your trip. The more one attempts to be in control, the more things go wrong.
For the past five years, a major corporation from New York has planned their very high-end board meeting on Presidents Day in February. Every year there has been a weather event, or what the airlines call an "Act of God" disaster.
I recall one meeting in Bermuda that was cancelled due to a hurricane leveling the property. We quickly scrambled and re-booked everyone to Palm Springs to a high-end resort, only to have the clients arrive at a time when huge wild fires erupted.
Last year, the same clients were meeting at a very upscale Laguna Beach location. The weather was perfect in Laguna Beach, however, that was the same weekend that the Eastern Seaboard was closed down for days due to snowstorms. I spent hours every day speaking to clients who absolutely "had to get home! They refused to accept that no one was flying and continuously had me search routes to get them home and get them home NOW! I suggested that they relax and enjoy an extra day or two in the sun, however that was unacceptable. They would trudge back and forth to the airport and wait for over-booked flights that were eventually cancelled. They would check-in and leave without dealing with their cancelled flights and leave me hours of wrangling on the phone attempting to get refunds for them. They tried and tried, however, the ones who waited and enjoyed themselves by the pools were the lucky ones and they all ended up waiting until Monday to fly when flights were in the air again. Because the airlines will never cancel that far ahead my job is to constantly re-book and reschedule despite the futility of the situation.
Despite my apparent failure to work magic, they decided I should come on-site this year in case of emergencies. I was horrified. I didn't mind dealing with these people on the phone but the thought of these stressed out, controlling executives in front of me in a small hospitality suite made me cringe. My boss requested this of me and short of resigning, I had no option.
I looked up the website for the resort in Puerto Rico and saw it was what I call an "American Bubble Resort": 400 acres of lovely villas, golf courses and very expensive stores. This resort in no way resembled the real "Puerto Rico". It did resemble similar resorts in Hawaii, Bermuda, St. Thomas and Cancun. It doesn't seem to matter where you go these days, you can be safely shuttled to a well-manicured golf course and villa resort where the only natives you encounter are working in menial jobs.
My next fear was that I would be forced to wear a Lacoste shirt and khaki pants as some meeting planners were asked to wear during their duty. I was relieved to hear that ‘work casual’ was acceptable.
On the 10pm news I was alerted that flights to the east coast for the 14th were once again being canceled. I called United and was re-booked on an 11am flight through Chicago to San Juan. I was able to board this one, only to end up delayed in Chicago O'Hare for 8 hours. I arrived in Puerto Rico at 6 a.m. on the 15th, two days after leaving. That's when the real fun began. Fortunately, there was a driver to meet me and take me to the resort, which was two hours away. I collapsed in the back seat and saw nothing of Puerto Rico until we arrived in Fajardo where I sat up and attempted to regain consciousness, I saw some poor little colorful houses with lots of junk in the yards. It looked a bit like Tijuana before we entered the huge gated resort.
I found the hospitality suite and was introduced to about eight workers. Next to my small desk was a table filled with walkie-talkies. I was told disgustedly that they did not work but was given a cell phone pre-loaded with every worker’s number.
I sat down and tried to look like I knew what I was doing. Luckily, my laptop worked, as a crew of computer specialists had come down from New York and set up ethernet connections, fax machine and separate phone lines. They were presently setting up computers and fax machine in each of the board members’ and officers’ rooms for their five-day stay. It would be too inconvenient for them to use the computer room set up in the hospitality suite for the lowly personnel.
I silently tried to figure out just what I was supposed to be doing while observing the other employees. The head meeting planners were people I will call Dot and Petboy. Dot was a nice but very intense woman whose business it was to organize seamless meetings. She had been organizing meetings for this company for several years now, and was running around checking villas and barking at hotel staff — she had no time for hellos and was constantly on the phone, desperate to make certain that every detail was perfect. This included changing pillows to a different type that had been requested by the client, and checking each piece of lawn furniture because there was an unfortunate incident the year before when the CEO's lawn chair tilted precariously. These Board members looked at everything as if it was out to insult them personally and would think nothing of asking for their bed to be changed if it was too soft or hard.
Behind Dot sat Polly, a cheerful Scottish woman who arranged activities, tours and spa treatments. Polly was good at giving explanations such as how the CEO had a terrible temper and would scream and fire any one at the drop of a hat for incidentals such as the infamous lawn chair incident. Behind me sat Ethyl, a sharp and witty company travel planner who was constantly on the computer changing grids and reprinting the daily plans, so that everyone would constantly be up-to-date on the movement of the board and the officers.
They were all much too busy to fill me in, but I soon learned that I was to check each incoming flight and then email four people (Ethyl, and Petboy and the meeters and greeters at the airport) to advise them the ETA of each flight. It was imperative to relay changes, i.e., a flight being five minutes late or early. I fussed around doing this and managed to look busy.
Suddenly, there was a call and Ethyl announced loudly “the CEO is at Wal-Mart in Fajardo!” Everyone cringed and Dot ran out to re-check his room. I wondered what the heck the CEO was doing at Wal-Mart, a landmark I missed on my trip to the resort and then was told by Polly that it was simply a warning that he was arriving in ten minutes. Petboy had given us the update.
The little cell phones buzzed back and forth as the mini secret service agency I seemed to have joined prepared for the arrival of the King. When he arrived the minions stood out smiling and assisted Mr. and Mrs. King to their Villa that was larger and more expensive than any of the other officers. What a faux paux that would have been! All was quiet for a minute and Petboy entered to debrief the team.
Now Petboy was a piece of work — think obsequious and fawning Eddie Haskell from ‘Leave it to Beaver’ at his worst. Think the kid in your second grade class with no friends who was constantly helping the teacher and ratting on any suspicious activity in class. This was a man who took his job seriously and was paid well to take care of unlikable and demanding people. He was perfect.
"Ok team, the CEO checked in A-OK, but we need to stand at attention and be wary of every move. No eating from the hospitality lounge when people are inside, no chatter in the office, and I want everyone smiling and ready to assist at all times."
We all went about our work. Every once in awhile a delivery would come and I would volunteer to take it rather than wait for a butler. I enjoyed the chance to walk outside and slide important envelopes under the VIP's doors. Somehow, I made it through the day and was moved to a small room in the main hotel and returned to sleep. The cell phone would remain on all night in case of emergency. The wake up time was 6 a.m. so we could open the Hospitality Suite at 7 a.m.
I came in and hurriedly ate breakfast; we were supposed to eat our meals in the hospitality suite in lieu of charging them to the company to save money. At about 11 a.m., Petboy came in and was in a tizzy. The CEO was unhappy with the golf cart transfer situation. Since the resort was 400 acres and people were in different villa compounds the only way to get around was by the constantly traversing golf carts. An edict was issued to add golf carts and have the corporate logo attached to the front. The next solution was to have an employee stand in front of the hotel holding a corporate logo sign in order to assist any company people and flag down the golf carts. It was decided that since the flights had all arrived safely that I would be the lucky one on that duty.
At first I thought it was great, to be outside. However, as the day went by, I started melting in the humid weather. Every time I tried to sneak a sit down, a company employee would come in to view. (They were easily distinguishable by their pressed shirts and slacks and briefcases vs. the beach togs most people wore at the resort.) My superior was supposed to take over for me, but came out and told me it was such a pleasant day, I should just stay on duty. I ended up standing there like a dork with the sign for twelve hours and feeling like a fried egg. I smiled and opened doors for the ”big boys" as they were constantly going in and out of meetings in the main building. I went back to my room earlier that night, simply because I could not stand up any longer.
Good news! The CEO was pleased with the company visibility and I was on for another day! This time I relied on one of Ethyl's print outs to be alert when meetings began and ended. Otherwise, I hid in the air-conditioned lobby with my book. I was beginning to figure this out.
That evening back at the suite, Petboy enlisted me to accompany the butler to deliver elegant presents from the CEO to all the board members. Ignoring the butler, Petboy gave me detailed instructions on exactly how to place the bags with $500 crystal clocks on each pillow and the precise angle to place the gift card from the CEO. Surprisingly this turned out to be a delightful time because the butler, Mario, was talkative and told me all about Puerto Rico and his life. We entered each suite, ended up remaking most of the beds and placed the presents just so. He told me of his time in the army, eight years, and when I uttered, “Why?” he laughed and said he didn't quite know but he was glad to be out.
Puerto Rico is a place that has been raped by the US. During the 1950's they sent door-to-door envoys to talk women into sterilization and a third of the population was sterilized. If that was not ethnic cleansing I do not know what it was. Also, Agent Orange was developed on what was once a beautiful island off Puerto Rico, until finally the natives, many dying of cancer rebelled and stopped them although it was too late to save much of the habitation and health of the natives. The towns are checkered with U.S. Stores like Staples, Walgreens, Wal-Mart and every conceivable fast food chain, and they have taken over any ethnic food or mom and pop businesses.
On Sunday morning the Catholic staff members were taken into Fajardo at 7am. My faith was renewed with the opportunity to see Fajardo. The church built in 1774 was crumbling and decorated with plastic flowers. The priest in jeans resembled an L.A. gang member. However, the people were friendly and happy. With my limited understanding of Spanish I recognized Paul's letter to the Corinthians and was reminded of a recent guided meditation where the Buddhist monk spoke of loving everyone, even those who were most difficult to consider loving. Did that mean I should love the CEO? That would be difficult!
Back at the Hospitality Suite things were heating up for departures.
I was back on duty as a travel agent. Everyone wanted to depart earlier. This was a challenge due to the fact that I could only book two people on every flight (in case it crashed) and some officers were not allowed to travel with others. I consulted my complex grid and rearranged flights as Ethyl reprinted the departure manifest every ten minutes to update the staff on the current changes.
While in their meeting on departure day, butlers would carry their bags out to the limo. Petboy or I would stand smiling by the limo with a box lunch and gush fond goodbyes. Petboy’s were fonder than mine.
Meanwhile, Polly was getting cancellations on all the tours she had prepaid and arranged: a kayak trip for ten; a private bus tour to the rain forest cancelled but non-refundable at $5,000 each; 14 people had signed up and now an empty bus was sent back and paid for when nobody felt like going. facials, pedicures and massages cancelled and non-refundable at $100 to $500 each.
Polly began issuing these as perks to the staff who were under strict instructions to keep a low profile and hide if they saw any corporate wives. Polly just could not stand the waste. I was treated to a massage, but had to use a different name and duck into the bathroom after a near encounter with an officer’s wife. At least they were not all wasted.
I was just breathing a sigh of relief alone in the hospitality suite when I answered the phone. Muffy, a bigwig was yelling at the top of her lungs.
She had returned to her room and her key would not work — again.
It seemed that all of the officers’ keys kept getting demagnetized, probably due to them placing them next to a wad of credit cards, but Dot was not about to tell them that. She just kept issuing new keys. I never had a problem with my keys but the bigwigs had them constantly. I sent the butlers out only to have Muffy call back screaming that three butlers were there attempting to take her luggage but she did not trust them. Dot got on and sent Petboy immediately. Petboy calmed Muffy down and brought her back to wait in the hospitality suite for her limo, and then enlisted staff members to sing her a little ditty, to cheer her up. (Luckily, I was too busy on my computer to join in.)
Other board members fumed as their limos were three to four minutes late and Petboy and I relied on our cell phones to call the companies and urge them to rush. Each minute in the realm of their angry vibes felt like an hour.
Finally, the CEO descended from his villa and the staff surrounded him and accompanied him to his limo, waiving a fond farewell and smiling about another successful meeting! bus boys carried a freezer full of lox that he had requested accompany him back left over from the dinner. When his limo took off, my hands spontaneously went together in a clap. I then realized that the other officers in the limo behind him probably saw me clap to my embarrassment. However, then I realized that they most likely felt the same way.
So this is where our insurance premiums go!