The fog hung thick over the Bel Air hills. The helicopter, its engines silent, awaited its very special passenger. A Secret Service agent alertly listened for unusual sounds in the fog around him. If the weather did not improve soon, there would be no trip today. Money lost. People disappointed.
In a large, decorated hotel ballroom-turned-auditorium ninety minutes south, I awaited word that our guest speaker had boarded the copter and that it was airborne. Meanwhile, nearly 350 men and women listened to stories of their company’s successes and praise for their sizeable contributions to that success.
There was a sense of anticipation in the room. We had closely guarded the featured speaker’s name, but made sure everyone knew it was ‘someone big.’
Because our headliner was late, other event staff and I, connected by headsets throughout the ballroom and backstage, were frantically rearranging the program on the fly. Yet there was no guarantee this speaker would arrive at all and, if he didn’t, I knew the effect on the event would be catastrophic.
Finally, I received word. The helicopter had lifted off and was en route. Shortly thereafter, we ended day’s first session and released the assembled crowd for the requisite coffee and sweet rolls arranged in the foyer.
Time continued to pass
Ten minutes passed and still no speaker. Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes and I had no idea where the copter was. Some of our guests were beginning to wander back into the ballroom when one of our staff rushed up to me breathless, “He’s here.” The speaker had landed and would soon be backstage. The crowd, alerted that things were now moving forward, strode rapidly back into the ballroom and found their seats.
Lights dimmed, music played and the audience erupted with a standing ovation and applause, some jumping onto their chairs, when former president, Ronald Reagan walked into the spotlight on the stage. The room was full of affection and the atmosphere electric as he made his way to the middle of the stage and waved to the crowd, and they did not stop cheering even when he approached the lectern.
His secret service staff, who had been front and center at the foot of the stage, moved to their stations at each side. But despite the warm reception, they did not relax as President Reagan began to speak
But I took a deep breath, and saw the color return to the faces of the staff who had helped plan and execute this event. Great events are high risk high reward propositions and already we were beginning to enjoy the success of this event. Suddenly, however, we again tensed up. The question and answer period was underway and one of the audience, standing in the middle aisle at a microphone on a stand, told the president that he had given him faith again in his country and that that it would give him great joy to shake the president’s hand.
The Secret Service agents responded immediately and were once again in the middle of the approach to the stage. Plans had called for no one to approach the president and there was not going to be any spontaneous movement to the stage allowed. Along with the crowd, I waited to see what would happen.
The Great Communicator
But President Reagan, who had been dubbed the ‘Great Communicator’ for good reason, told the young man that indeed he would like to shake his hand if it could represent Mr. Reagan’s shaking hands with everyone in the auditorium. As he moved to the stage, the Secret Service within an arm’s length ready to take him out, the young man extended his hand upward. As the president grasped his hand, the crowd applauded and cheered wildly. After taking a few more questions from the audience, the president waved, turned and left the stage to a standing ovation. Now we really could relax.
There were many things that had to happen right to make this event the triumph it turned out to be. The planning process began many months before when I assembled the players around a conference table. The hotel had been booked and we were meeting to design the actual event itself. Over many months, we planned what would happen, in many cases, down to the minute. We all knew our roles and assembled the many resources necessary for success.
Luck is always an element, but the best way to be lucky and to manage an event to success is to work with professionals in all stages of planning and implementation. It’s a simple rule but one that always pays dividends.