I hadn’t been to Atlantic City since my grandmother rented a cottage there back in the late 1960s, so I was unreasonably excited to check it out during Meeting Professionals International’s World Education Congress 2016.
I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but it was such an interesting mix of natural beauty with the stretch of gorgeous shoreline, some old-fashioned honky-tonk along the boardwalk and Steel Pier, giant casinos (both the bustling kind at the likes of Caesars and Harrah’s and the Borgata, and the eerie spaceship at the end of the boardwalk that was the ill-fated Revel), beautiful meetings spaces, wild night life, and some of the best eggplant parmesan I’ve ever eaten.
The city, like WEC itself, appears to be one of those places that is in transition, open to trying new things that either work—say Harrah’s new conference center, which is booking way ahead of expectations—or don’t. Honoring the past, making the most of now, and positioning for the future—the conference’s theme of reinvention seemed really appropriate here in a way that it wouldn’t have last year in San Francisco, or next year in Las Vegas.
Enough rambling! Here are some of the things that stood out for me at WEC16:
• People watching on the boardwalk. Holy cow, what an interesting cross-section of humanity you see strutting down that stretch of beach.
• The beach! It’s beautifully clean with fine white sand and just the right amount of surf. While I’ve never really met a beach I didn’t like at least somewhat, this one was so much prettier than I expected.
• The evening activities, especially the first night’s beach party. I know the organizers were sweating bullets all day watching a potential storm’s path, but hanging out on the sand under the stars and dancing to the tunes spun by DJ CB Shaw and his trumpet player was worth the anxiety. The food stands lining the perimeter offered a great mix of treats, including the aforementioned eggplant parm, and organizers even handed out very cute bags and flip-flops for those whose shoes were not beach-friendly.
As for the fundraising receptions, well, I’m not much of a player, but it looked like those who are had a blast at The Big Deal. And Rendezvous at the WAV nightclub, featuring the pop band Train, was way too much fun. There was a weird little undercurrent though, at least for me, in being in a packed nightclub so soon after the horrific shooting in Orlando. I found myself gravitating toward the edges and always being hyper-aware of the exits instead of my usual spot front and center.
Update: Since I originally posted this, I heard from Meet AC that it privately had 10 uniformed Atlantic City Police officers covering Rendezvous on Monday night. "Our security detail was hired prior to the Orlando tragedy so we were very much prepared," Meet AC Communications Manager Jessica Merrill told me in an email.
• Emcee Dena Blizzard, host of the Miss America pageant whose show—“One Funny Mother”—I bet is roll-in-the-aisles funny, was spot-on for the MPI vibe. Funny, irreverent, surprising…she kept things moving along, even the necessary-but-boring housekeeping bits. And, just when I thought I’d seen everything that could possibly be sponsored slapped with a logo, she managed to find new sponsorable real estate!
• MPI President and CEO Paul Van Deventer’s quoting a member who told him, “MPI has its mojo back.”
• Puppy cuddling!
• The Water Coolers, a musical troupe that customizes lyrics to popular songs, who kicked off the opening general session with some serious belly laughs. I hope MPI posts one of their videos (binder song!!) so you can see/hear for yourself just how awesome they were.
• Spoken-word poet Sekou Andrews, who took to the center stage to just rock the RISE Award kickoff. I would love to have a copy of his words, because they were just amazing, as was the way he performed them for us. Malala Fund co-founder and social activist Shiza Shahid may have gotten the standing ovation in recognition of her work to advocate for women’s empowerment, including that of Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, but in his own way, Andrews was also totally SO-worthy.
• The breakouts I went to were uniformly excellent. Social Tables’ Dan Berger is an amazing thinker and speaker, and his session on future trends was one that continues to reverberate for me. And if you ever get the chance to see Barbara Dunn O’Neal, attorney and partner at Barnes and Thornburg, or Bonnie Wallsh of Bonnie Wallsh Associates—or if you’re really lucky, both—just do it. Their session on risk management was engaging, thought provoking, eye opening, and, believe it or not, pretty funny.
• The Earl Grey tea ice cream at the Gordon Ramsay Pub and Grill at Caesars was so refreshing and unusual and just fantastic.
• The Catchboxes and headphones they had available for the campfire sessions. These were held at a “campsite” in the hallway, a short distance from the brainstorm session area (which I also loved—so high energy!). The intimate feel of the campfires is something I’ve loved in the past, but it can be really hard to hear. The headphones and Catchbox throwable mic felt a little weird to use at first, but made that type of session work so much better.
• Rocker Rick Springfield singing and playing guitar to a backdrop of clips from his glamour days in the ‘80s. I thought the woman next to me was going to pass out from excitement when he came off stage and started heading our way, taking selfies with a lot of happy fans.
• The people I met—some I’ve known for a while via social media and just got to actually talk with face-to-face for the first time, others I haven’t seen in eons, and a lot of new people who reignited my passion for this business all over again. I’m not sure why, but for some reason the networking this year just clicked for me in a really great way.
• The moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting tragedy. Also, I wasn’t there for it, but I hear that the LGBTA reception on the final afternoon included a very moving reading of the names of the victims.
A Mixed Bag
The incredible general session room set up. It featured mixed seating of every kind imaginable, from café fourtops to leather banquettes to barstools to highboys to dinner tables to other types of seating that I’m not sure the names of. It was a serious visual “wow” when we walked in, and everyone got to pick the type of seating and seating arrangement that made them feel most comfortable. The center stage was so cool, and I thought Dena did a good job in presenting from it. The auxiliary stages in the four corners of the room, hung with giant screen backdrops and supported by monitors throughout, were where most of the general session speakers presented from.
While I loved the creativity, and the energy the set gave the room, there were a few kinks to work out still. For one, the audience was never quite sure where to turn to see the next presenter and there was a lot of awkward neck craning. Also, since many of the tables were anything but round, half the table would end up having to turn their chairs to face the stage. At least for the first day. After a while, people mainly seemed to give up and just watched the nearest monitor, which gave the room kind of a disjointed feel—different areas of the room looking in different directions, and most not actually facing the stage where the speakers were.
Also, speaking in the round is not something that comes easily to most speakers, which is probably why most spoke from the corner stages. But I would have loved to see more of them take it on—huge kudos to Sekou Andrews for showing us how seamless it can look when a speaker knows how to work all four sides of the stage.
Swing and a Miss
• Sponsored breakout sessions where the sponsor gave a short spiel and showed a promotional video before the session started. This was tedious to begin with, but after seeing the same promo several times, it began to have the opposite effect of what the sponsor intended.
• Room 490 at my host hotel—where did the window go? While I understand the hotel was sold out and it was slim pickings, my windowless room was pretty dark and claustrophobic. Hopefully it was a temporary thing and a window installation will be coming.
• The final luncheon musical chairs game. I was a little late getting there, but when I did, I walked the entire ballroom twice and could not find a single seat that wasn’t taken. And I wasn’t alone—there was a small herd of us seatless, hungry rovers. I was told to take a seat and someone would let me know when they set up tables for us, but no one ever came to get me. Eventually I noticed that some bar seating in the very back had silverware on it now, and I joined some folks there for an abbreviated version of the lunch that the main audience was served. I know, these things happen, and I was semi-cool with it once I got some bread to munch on, but some of the planners I was sitting with were seriously not happy.
What's on your best-of/worst-of-WEC16 list? It's funny how a couple thousand people can all attend the same event and have very different takeaways—I'd love to hear yours.