I would consider the last District 30 Spring Conference to be the most disappointing among those I’ve attended over the years, and that included the one which I was humiliated as Contest Chair. Not because there wasn’t a “Tea Party” victory in which the rejected candidates did get elected to the Top 2 positions for the 2010-2011 year. It was because the execution of the conference was rather poor in my view, at least when I was in attendance Friday and Saturday nights, in particular the Saturday night portion.
When I arrived at the conference site for Saturday’s portion of the conference, it was 6pm and dinner was supposed to start. After hearing from a conference co-chair that the ceremonies after the dinner will take place at 7:15pm, I headed to the restaurant hotel and grabbed a bite to eat, encountering several Toastmasters and talking about numerous topics. When I went to the main conference room at 7pm, the servers were only handing out salad! Looks like it would be a while before anything else will be taking place.
More people were waiting outside of the main room as time was approaching 8pm and only then the people were starting to eat their main dishes (8pm was supposed to have the District 30 International Speech Contest). Many, including contestants and their families, were impatiently waiting for the dinner to conclude and the contest to start. Almost 8:30pm, some speaking started. Those who didn’t have the dinner were told to move to a spillover room to watch live footage in the main room. Then, Past International Director Dietmar Wagenknecht was introduced and all of a sudden there was a “This is Your Life” skit that was supposed to be a surprise for him. NOWHERE in the program indicated that this was supposed to go on, which did take half an hour.
9pm came and there was the DTM ceremony. Unlike last Fall in which it was well coordinated, many of us were waiting for several minutes for any of the 7 to show up on stage and get the “high fives” from the previous DTMs. After that, 9:30pm came and there were supposed to be two more things going on before the contest – the installation of new District 30 officers and to recognized the Conference Committee. But without any indication that these two events were going to be deferred till later, the International Speech Contest took place! After the contest was over at 10:30pm, announcements were made that the other two events will take place afterward and those not interested are free to leave.
Only a third of the contest audience remained, the 2010-2011 District 30 elected officers were inducted, the District Governor elect gave his presentation and the Conference Committee were recognized. I left around 11pm while the committee recognition was going to start. Well there was supposed to be one more thing that was supposed to start at 9:30pm till midnight according to the program – evening entertainment called “Saturday Night Live with Toastmasters”. Doubt anyone could stick around after 11pm as many were “conferenced-out”!
OK, there was all this hype months before the conference about how much work and people were behind the event. There was this hype shown in the Barry & Jerry Show that had videos out in YouTube claiming that this conference was going to be one of the best ever. Many in the conference committee were part of previous conferences and had a lot of experiences and lessons learned. We have a so-called “Advisory Council for Events” the last two years that is “committed to the development of conferences and TLIs from one event to the next”. So why with all these things in place it appeared we were taking many steps back with this last conference?
I look at three fundamental areas in which District 30 officers and conference chairs need to address, failing to do that could cause more problems such as this one:
1) Conference personnel – The conference chair, one of the co-chairs, both contest co-chairs, the facilities chair and the educational chair also served as either Area or Division Governor. Not only that but 4 of them who were Area Governors were also running for Division Governor at the conference. I mentioned a couple of years ago that those handling two or three major Toastmaster roles could result in neglecting one or all of their roles. And since they were close to District 30 politics and may have had their opinions on the top leadership, the election results could have affected their morale – which I did notice Saturday night. Perhaps if we had people in critical conference roles that did not have other significant Toastmaster responsibilities and were not deeply embedded in Toastmaster politics or personal ambitions, we would have a team solely dedicated to delivering a great conference and can adequately deal with any situation during the event.
2) Transparency when the schedule changes – No matter what steps the conference committee take in making sure everything starts and ends on time, many things could happen. From what I heard for this conference, there was miscommunication between the hotel staff and the conference committee regarding dinner that may have led to the huge schedule delays in the program. What the conference chair should have done was to huddle with critical committee personnel to revise the schedule, then (most importantly) communicate that to both those attending the dinner and others outside of the dining hall on the changes in schedule. If it had to be changed several times and need to be announced several times, so be it – it is better than surprising the attendees. Many attendees set limited time in their schedules for this event, if they were told in advanced that the contest starts two hours late they could, for example, tell their kids or their babysitter that they will be returning home late. Or it may not be worth waiting that long and they would go home early. Leaving the attendees guessing, which this conference committee did, would cause not only a disservice to them but to many not at the conference who are dependent on the attendees.
3) Conference priorities – District 30 conferences in recent years have become more and more like “Lollapalooza” with educational sessions, contests, business meetings, showcases, award ceremonies and entertainment all mixed into one. The problem with that is how to deliver all of that in one Friday evening and all-day Saturday without either overwhelming the attendees or dragging them to late at night. From my past experience in conference committees, District 30 has absolutely NO COURAGE in making tough decisions on what to keep and what to drop.
I still remember after the 2006 Spring Conference when there was a transition meeting with the 2006 Fall Conference committee, which I was part of both. The Spring Conference ended at midnight for the Saturday portion, irritating plenty who were present and assumed that it would end a couple of hours before. One thing we did in the 2006 Spring Conference was had a special ceremony on Thursday night to honor the International President on his visit. So at the transition meeting, a question was asked about if we should continue that for other purposes. I suggested that we use that in a Fall Conference to recognize Distinguished Clubs, Areas and Divisions, as I believed many who attend the conferences are not club or district leaders, but rather regular members who want to learn to be better speakers from the keynote speakers and educational presenters. Mike Raffety, current International Director who was at that time the District 30 Lt. Governor of Education and Training, vehemently objected to that suggestion stating that recognition is extremely important in Toastmasters and we have to do that with the most audience possible. Others agreed with Mike, so I gave them this question – “so what else can be cut so the conferences will no longer end late at night?”. There was silence then, there may still be silence to this day.
There have been surveys out in past conferences as to what the attendees want to get out of the conference. Asking attendees if they were most looking forward to the educational sessions, the keynote speakers, the contests, the awards, the entertainment, or any showcase of speakers. Instead of just giving “lip service” and pretending to tell everyone that District 30 cares about the attendees through so-called committees and YouTube videos, they need to put those surveys in action and start setting up conference schedules to what the majority of conference attendees want, n0t what they have always been. If it meant reducing the need for, let’s say, recognition or entertainment, District 30 should try that and see if it makes a positive impact on the next conference.
District 30 needs to take a long, hard look on the organization, scheduling and execution of their conferences so members attending can get what they came in for. Personal visions and ambitions along with traditions should be set aside if these conferences have any chance to move forward, otherwise many including myself may never attend another District 30 conference again.