Tales from C&O 2008: Speakerboxxx

In our previous installment, I chronicled the epic fail of our USB-drive suppliers. I know you’ll likely find this stuff boring, but I offer all these details so that you guys will have some idea of why this blog doesn’t always get the attention I’d like to give it.

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Our annual Contracting & Outsourcing show has two major components. One is our one-day tabletop exhibition, which features 125 pharmaceutical contract service providers, vendors, and other companies. Over the years, we’ve fine-tuned the schedule to make sure the attendees visit the exhibit hall numerous times during that day. Plenty of exhibitors have told us that our show is the best return on investment of any event they attend, because of the quality of the attendees they meet.

The main thing that can go wrong for the exhibitors is that one’s display or materials don’t show up. This happens almost every time. Several years back, there was a logistics provider whose materials never arrived at our show. I always laugh about that.

Miraculously, there were no major exhibitor complaints this year (as far as I know). We did have one surly exhibitor the night before the show, but he turned out to be one of those bullies who turns out to be a wimp when you stand up to him.

Now, the other part of the show is the conference, which runs a day-and-a-half. We have 4 speaker sessions the first day, and 5 the second. This year, I organized all the topics, speakers and timelines (with plenty of assistance from my conference advisory board) and felt very good about the lineup. However, it’s one thing to have the lineup down on paper; it’s another to actually see the speaker standing at the podium at the appointed time. . .

Going into this week, I was a little worried because none of my speakers had canceled on me. Every year, there are July or August cancellations to contend with. Once, an FDA speaker in Maryland tried to cancel two weeks before the event, because of travel-budget restrictions. I offered to cover his train fare up to NJ, but conflict-of-interest rules prevented him from accepting that. I said I’d drive down there, get him and drive him up to the show, but that was also shot down because it qualified as kidnapping. Eventually, he was able to wrangle a car from his office’s auto pool, and we rejiggered the schedule so he’d speak later in the first day, giving him time to drive up. And that’s why we put a Conference schedule, topics and speakers subject to change disclaimer on the schedule.

This summer, all I had was a panelist whose company was acquired. He was heading for a new company, so he referred me to his superior at his old company, and that guy was even more qualified than the original panelist. (Note: as I alluded in my last post, the panel was the one failure at the conference, because the audience kept asking stupid questions. Or, as Mr. Garrison once put it, “There are no stupid questions, just stupid people.”)

The day before the conference, my day 1 FDA speaker called to confirm that she’d be there on Thursday, but that the day 2 FDA speaker may not be able to make it. But day 2’s speaker had already lined up a well-qualified backup, so it wouldn’t be a problem. When I met the backup speaker on the morning of day 2 (Friday), he mentioned that he’d been on a site inspection and only learned about his speaking engagement around 4pm on Thursday. “But I read over her slides and I think I know what she wanted to talk about,” he told me. I gulped. He worked out just fine.

Thursday (day 1) morning, I was down in the conference room, setting up the laptop with the AV guy, when an executive from [a major pharma company] walked in, along with a PR exec who represents [a major pharma company]. The executive asked me if I’d seen our opening speaker, who was from [a major pharma company] yet. They’d come to watch his keynote presentation.

“I haven’t seen him,” I replied. “But our staff told me that he checked in last night and picked up his badge and conference bag.”

“Oh,” the PR rep said. “Because we’ve been calling him for the last hour and he hasn’t answered or returned our voice-mails.”

Without batting an eyelash, I said, “I guess it’s possible that he’s OD’d in the bathtub. . .”

“. . .”

“. . . but I’m sure he’ll be down here in time for his presentation.”

I headed back upstairs to our registration desk, trying not to envision our keynote speaker pulling a Sid Vicious. Our liaison from the hotel walked up to me with a sheet of paper. He said, “Here’s the list of last night’s reservations [our speaker-comps as well as attendees who reserved rooms under the conference rate] who didn’t check in last night.”

The first name on the list? Our second session speaker!

I thought, “Well, I can always scrap the morning’s sessions and just send everyone to the exhibit hall, I guess. . .”

Our keynote speaker walked by a few minutes later, and the second speaker arrived an hour before his presentation; it turned out he had forgotten that we had a room reserved for him, and stayed in a hotel by the airport that night.

On the second day, I tried not to worry about the fact that the final two speakers (#s 4 and 5) had yet to check in with us, and had never gotten me their presentations. I called #4 and got his voice-mail. He’s a regular columnist in my magazine, and has spoken at our show before, so I was a little concerned that he made no contact before the show. I called the PR agency that gets me his column, and my contact there got scared when I mentioned that our boy hadn’t shown up yet. She said she’d call his company and find out where he is.

I reached speaker #5 on the phone. He said he was on the way, and that he’d e-mailed his presentation over a few minutes earlier.

Looking over my schedule, I decide that I could get speakers #3 and #5 to go long and eat up speaker #4’s slot, if necessary. Because I’m all about flexibility, and both of those speakers had enough to talk about that the attendees wouldn’t mind hearing more about their topics.

But still, speaker #4’s name-badge mocked me as I sat at our sign-in desk. I headed to the conference room to check out the session. Attendance was good; it always drops significantly for the second day, but our overall numbers were so big, we still had more than 100 people in the audience on the second morning.

Once speaker #2 finished, I warned #3 that he’d likely have to go long, since we’d yet to located #4. He said it wouldn’t be a problem, since his presentation could actually go an extra 45 minutes, with all the info he had. (We’d only allocated 35 minutes, including Q&A, for each day 2 session.)

I was back in the hotel lobby when my cell rang. It was the PR agency for #4. They hadn’t been able to find him, but had left messages with his assistant and his partners. I said, “I have no idea what we’re going to — Oh, here he is, walking through the hotel lobby! Bye!”

And then I had one of those realizations that I create worries for myself. Sure, #4 hadn’t come by our sign-in desk. Sure, he hadn’t returned my voice-mail. But why on earth didn’t I walk over to the hotel’s front desk and ask if he’d checked in on Thursday night? Of course he had, and now he was walking over to say hello and give me his Powerpoint presentation on a USB drive.

I said, “Hey, [#4], you might have some very worried-sounding calls on your voice-mail. Including from your partners.”

“Ah, it’s always good to keep ’em guessing,” he said.

I headed to the conference room, caught #3’s eye, mid-presentation, and said, “Back to our regular schedule.”

He looked at me for a second, and then said, “Okay, we can ignore the next 5 slides. . .”

And an hour or so later, we closed out our 7th annual conference, and I drove home to my wife and my woof.

2 Replies to “Tales from C&O 2008: Speakerboxxx”

  1. An entertaining tale. Educational too. But I also have to say that the closing, “I drove home to my wife and my woof.” strikes me as both a keen expression of how we live now, amusing, and yet fadingly sad at the same time.

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