Tales from C&O 2008: Warped Drives

Our 7th annual Contracting & Outsourcing conference wrapped up at noon on Friday, and the attendees, speakers, and exhibitors all went away happy, as far as we could tell! Success!

Our exhibit hall sold out in record time, and this year’s attendee count was up 50% from 2007’s; we chalked that up to a combination of going back to Thursday-Friday dates from last year’s Tuesday-Wednesday (the only dates we could get the venue, the fantastic Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick, NJ), and the lineup of speakers and topics that I assembled.

(This was the first year that I flew solo on the speaker lineup, following the retirement of the guy who used to moderate the conference and help us get FDA speakers. For months, I second-guessed almost every  decision I made regarding the topics, speakers and scheduling. Except for the one that actually failed at the show. I’ve learned a valuable lesson: never let a panel discussion take questions from the audience.)

Having such a large number of attendees meant that our registration desk staff had to be very well coordinated. My associate editor runs that part of the event, and she did a great job of figuring out how many people we could add behind the desk before we reached the point of diminishing returns, where people smack into each other while retrieving badges, badge-holders, programs, USB drives, and bags, while printing up new badges for walk-up attendees. I think she gets tired of my “we couldn’t do it without you” praise, but that doesn’t make it less true.

Our show has hundreds of attendees, a dozen speakers, and 130 exhibiting companies (most of which send more than a single employee), and it’s set up and run by 4 full-timers who are also responsible for producing an ongoing magazine, with help from several marketing assistants, who have to divvy their time among our conference and all of the other magazines they work on. So we each have checklists and timelines of things we need to get done for the show.

In addition to assembling the speaker lineup, I’m responsible for making the 52-page conference guide (with heavy assistance from my associate editor), designing a dozen or so posters for the event (thanking sponsors for breakfasts, lunches, coffee breaks and prize giveaways, displaying the conference schedule, and giving directions for the sessions and the exhibit hall), getting the presenters’ Powerpoint files together and making sure they don’t have font problems, getting the speakers’ hotel-room comps ironed out, and a million other little things. (Oh, and we have to finish the 156-page October issue.)

The other 3 full-timers also have huge sets of tasks, some of which have to be taken care of months in advance and some of which can’t be completed till the day before the show. That’s event planning for you; there are a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong, but when it all works, you feel even better about making it happen.

Which isn’t to say everything was smooth sailing. . .

Now, as I mentioned earlier, we give the attendees a bunch of items when they pick up their badges. Sponsors pay for to get their logos on badge holders, bags — we had really fancy backpacks this year, which impressed everybody, especially the exhibitors who weren’t allowed to take them because we had to make sure we had enough for the attendees first — and USB drives that contain PDFs of the speakers’ presentations. In the past, we printed out each of the presentations and included them in three-ring binders. Two or three years ago, our sales director had the idea to put everything on thumb-drives, and that’s saved us a ton of time and effort, while also reducing papercuts.

My boss arranged for our regular vendor to supply the drives, and I sent the PDFs (5 out of 8 sessions, since some of the speakers were late with their presentations) to them on schedule. The vendor would preload the drives and screen-print the logos, and we’d have them in our hands more than a week before the conference.

Or not. This year, the vendor had a great new design for the USBs! Since this was a pharmaceutical conference, wouldn’t we love to have USBs that look like capsules? With a red overcap and a white undercap, they made a great visual! The sponsor’s red logo would print wonderfully on the white section of the capsule!

Well, almost. The curve of the capsule meant that the sponsor’s logo would have to be altered a little. The sponsor company was European, so getting the go-ahead from them in late August was difficult. But w eventually got approval, and our vendor sent the order on to its supplier shortly after Labor Day.

Then almost two weeks went by, and we hadn’t received our drives yet. My boss was curious about how they looked, because we hadn’t gotten a sample drive this year. He was used to selecting from among 5 or 6 samples, but his regular contact at the vendor had retired this year, the new people told us the capsule would be perfect, and no samples were forthcoming.

We figured we were still on schedule for delivery, since the drives were supposed to arrive by Sept. 18, a week before the show. Then we figured we’d still be okay if they arrived on Monday, since we had a lot of other things to coordinate, and this vendor had never let us down before. When Monday passed without a delivery or a response to my curt e-mails on the delivery status, we started to worry a little.

But they arrived Tuesday morning, to much relief! Everything had worked out just swell, even if things had been cut a little close.

And that’s when I engaged in Quality Control.

I took a drive out of the box to make sure it had the files on it. I pulled the red overcap from the white undercap, and the white undercap broke in half. The USB end was stuck inside the red cap, a bit of circuit board and LED protruding sadly:

TOP: the capsule-shaped USB. MIDDLE: the USB section rips out of its housing. BOTTOM: In a perfect world, that USB section would be connected to the white part of the capsule.

This happened with the first 3 that I opened. I noticed that the red overcap had a pair of grooves inside it, which the USB connector slid right into. This made for a nice, snug fit. So snug, in fact, that it was breaking the adhesive of the USB piece to the white undercap that was supposed to hold it. And God forbid you tried to twist the overcap to separate the capsule; all your torque would be applied to the adhesive connecting the two white pieces, and SNAP! goes my heart!

So, one day before we had to get down to the hotel and prepare for the show, we had 500 defective thumb-drives. I told my boss about the problem. He said, “You think we can make an announcement to the attendees that they have to open the drives really carefully?”

I said, “That would be worse than not giving them a USB. Let’s tell them that there was a production problem and that all the PDFs will be available on our website after the conference.”

Then the vendor called me to ask how the drives were. At this point, I was so drained that I couldn’t even be angry. After all, there were fewer than 48 hours left until showtime; what could they possibly do? After explaining in minute detail why the drives couldn’t be given out, I passed the call on to my boss and got back to work on some October pages.

He called a few minutes later: “What if they get us 500 pre-loaded, logo’d replacement drives by Thursday morning, free?”

“I’d laugh really hard.”

They offered to screen-print and load these other drives right away and send them out by Wednesday for “early AM” delivery to the hotel. That meant we wouldn’t have them in time to put them in the attendees’ bags, but at least we’d be able to give them out during the conference. We could tell attendees to pick up their USBs on the way out of a session.

I decided I didn’t even need to start worrying about the drives arriving in time, since I was worried enough that my speakers wouldn’t be present at the right time. And that the AV setup would crash. And that half the exhibitors’ displays and materials would be lost by the porters. And that the lunch lines would be way too long. And that I left some incredible typo in the conference guide. And that the bags would turn out to be defective, too (they were shipped directly to the hotel, so we hadn’t seen them yet). And that the parking garages would fill up too quickly. And that everyone would break out the pitchforks and torches.

(It’s a stressful event, I tellya.)

Around 8pm Wednesday evening, I got an e-mail from the vendor, containing a UPS tracking number for the box, which had just been shipped out of the supplier’s Seattle office.

I turned in for bed around 9:45 that night, Xanax helping reduce my anxiety a bit. I checked the tracking number and saw that the box had been scanned in Seattle 15 minutes earlier, at 9:30pm, eastern time.

On conference day, I got up at 5am, as is my wont. After doing a little yoga, I turned on my laptop and checked the tracking number. The box had come through Rockford, IL at 2:52am, eastern time.

After showering and taking care of online news-posting for my magazine, I hit the UPS site again; it had reached Newark, NJ at 5:45am. I laughed. I guessed the box would get lost on a UPS truck and not show up at the hotel until the evening cocktail reception, but I held out hope that we’d get the drives in time. Or that they’d be delivered nice and early to the Hilton instead of our Hyatt.

I headed down to our registration desk and helped prepare for the onslaught. Once it was set up, I headed back to my room to pick up the Windows laptop we needed for the presentations. Last year, our IT guy brought his down for the show, but forgot to bring the power supply. I almost killed him. This year, I borrowed one from my dad, but didn’t tell the IT guy. My motto alternates between “be prepared” and “I ain’t goin’ out like a bitch.”

Before walking back down to the conference, I checked the UPS site. The drives were delivered at the hotel at 7:34am. I called my boss, who said they just brought the box out to him. We rapidly added a step to our “here’s your badge and your materials” process, and made an announcement for the early-comers to head over to the registration desk to pick up their drives later in the day.

For those of you scoring at home, this means that a company managed to screen-print, pre-load 5mb of information, and individually bag 500 USB drives in 24 hours. Then UPS managed to take a package in at 9:30pm and deliver it cross-country, door-to-door 10 hours later.

It sure is a heck of a world we live in.

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