Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

August 2012

Bookings: The Unplanned Life

By Barbara Palmer, Senior Editor
While I am in the moment, while it is really emotional, I think: “Okay, I have to separate myself out, figure out what I can do and what I can’t do.” And make whatever I can work, because it is way more about how you present it. I tell my office staff: You can get anything you want in life, it is all in the way that you ask. If you go at somebody in a certain way, you are going to get a certain type of reaction. So you have to learn when to be more flexible, and ask yourself, what is the best thing that we can do to make it better now?

An event is a living, breathing thing. You can do your timelines up and down through next week to the second, but if a truck breaks down and your rentals do not show up, guess where the timeline goes? At the end of the day, things happen that are beyond your control.

Do you think that this resilience enabled you to stay on your feet during the rollercoaster economy of the last few years?

There are a lot of people who have had to close their doors because they could just not ride it out, because the economy has been horrible and because they were stuck in what their niche was and who their clients were. And I understand that, because we had problems.

The first thing that I had to do was to talk to everybody and cut salaries. And we rented out part of our office. My staff had to know that I would do anything possible to save the business, and if they were not going to be part of that, then this was not the right company for them. If I had been emotional and just sat and cried every day, my business would have been gone.

So, the first thing I had to do was cut the losses. Then I had to go to the clients that I had and see if there was anything we could do. And if there wasn't, I had to come up with new clients or new business, which is what we did.

There are a lot of layers in your book—it is a memoir, a business book, and it could serve as a primer for how to talk to a friend who has gone through a tragedy.

It was very, very edited, because each of these layers had its own book in it, but it all had to tie together. People say to me they could not put it down, that it just flows. The reason why I think it worked and why people are responding this way is because I am an event planner. An event has timing and a tempo and an energy to it. You have to know how to pace it. And my book, I treated it like an event. Just when you felt like you were satiated with something, I went in a completely different direction.

Have there been any changes in your relationships with clients as a result of your book?

I do not know how many of my clients have read the book. Maybe you put it out there, but you can’t send it to four thousand people. A lot of them have [read it]. A lot of them loved it. A lot of them, they loved me before, but now they kind of get it. I think it makes people feel better about working with our company, to know that ...it really started about celebrating.

One of [my clients] said to me, “Now I understand the reason why you fight so hard for me.” Because I get what fighting is, and I do not understand the word no. And I just want the best for my clients. And so I go into every situation with, “Yes I can.”

What about the goodie bag in the title?

It is a universal truth that people love a goodie bag. But to me it always seems sort of sad. You are waiting for what you are going to get on your way out. Instead of just being in the moment and enjoying the party that someone has spent so much time putting together, people are reduced to worrying about goodie bags and fighting over who is getting the better one.

Just be here now. Be in this moment, inside the event, and appreciate and enjoy what has been an army of people’s work, for how-many months. [A goodie bag] is something you may or may not like, as you are leaving. How sad is that? It is always looking to the next thing, instead of just being in it. Like I said in the book, it is not about the presents, it is about your presence.

If someone had told me my life would have worked out that way, ...what do you really know at the end? The end is that you just have this day, and that is all you know. So, make it count. You have one life. Make every day count, and stop waiting for your gift to happen some other time.

Sidebar: Book Excerpt

Book Excerpt From I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag: A Memoir of a Life Through Events — the Ones You Plan and the Ones You Don’t

I had heard about a course at MIT called “Birthing of Giants.” A master’s program for entrepreneurs, it was an intensive series of classes in all the high-level stuff that I’d never thought about in a concrete way — vision statements, corporate culture, best practices. … I worked in a female-dominated industry, my employees were women, and I've always thrived on my relationships with women. Not only was this totally male-dominated environment alien to me, but I felt deeply intimidated by the other students’ knowledge. Most were MBAs with all kinds of business expertise that I’d learned by my wits — not in graduate school. I felt like such a fraud. Here I was, just having won [the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award that] most of them had applied for and lost, and I had already forgotten about that accomplishment. So I put on my tough exterior armor and sat at the front of the class, absorbing the coursework like a sponge but speaking to no one — at least initially. When the others were getting together for drinks in the evening, I was back in my dorm room, poring over what I’d learned during the day. I’m sure I was known as “that bitch from New York.”

Over time though, I started to warm up, and I was deeply affected by the passion of my fellow students. There was always an incredible array of speakers, and each of the business owners who attended was invited to tell the story of his or her business at some point during the course. I listened while these strangers spilled their hearts about what their businesses meant to them, and how they had poured so much meaning into their work. For the first time, I felt surrounded by kindred spirits. I realized a truth that has stuck with me ever since: Everyone’s got their something. Everyone in that room had a story — whether it was sickness, poverty, divorce, or some other adversity — and they had all channeled their personal challenges into something beautiful. Their stories might be different from mine, but we all had one.

Finally on the last day of the course, I was the only person who hadn't spoken. This was at a time when the people who knew what had happened to me were a very select few, and certainly no one in my office knew. I’d never sat down and told a bunch of girlfriends what had happened, much less 64 strangers whom I’d been so intimidated by just a short time before. In telling me their stories, these strangers had shown me the respect of treating me as their equal, as if I was as worthy as they were to sit in that room.

I got up in front of them, and for the first time in my life I told a large group of people about my personal tragedy, and how my company had been born of my commitment to spend the rest of my life helping people celebrate. I said that I got up every day and helped people to laugh and express themselves, and I loved what I did. Their response was staggering to me — a standing ovation followed by dozens of emails telling me how much my story had meant to them.

It was a life-changing experience for me to reveal myself that way among peers, and to feel nothing but respect, acceptance, and gratitude in response. It taught me that at least some of the time I could fully be myself — all the sides of me present and visible for the world to see.

I took everything I learned at MIT and I brought

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