Plan Your Next Meeting in an Exciting Location
By Natalie Holder-Winfield
Natalie Holder-Winfield is an assistant editor of The Affiliate and is a diversity consultant for QUEST Educational Initiatives, a consulting firm that provides diversity and skills development training to law firms, bar
associations, and law schools.
During the 2006 ABA YLD Spring Conference in Portland, Oregon, I ventured out to Mount Hood with delegates from the Tennessee Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (TBA/YLD), and I was amazed to learn about their “destination location” meetings. Over the past few years, Stacey Shrader, who serves as the media relations coordinator and director for the Tennessee affiliate, has worked with the TBA/YLD to plan Caribbean cruises and trips to Disney World and the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. In this article, she shares her event planning strategies for hosting these destination location meetings.
How did the TBA/YLD decide to hold meetings outside of Tennessee?
These meetings started about six years ago when the TBA/YLD president at the time wanted to plan a cruise for one of the YLD board’s four annual meetings. The “big bar,” that is, the Board of Governors for the Tennessee Bar Association, had a long history of hosting meetings outside of the state, usually in sunny locations such as Destin, Florida, and the Alabama gulf shore. The president approached the big bar about allowing the YLD to plan an out-of-state meeting and they approved his request. That first year set the stage for a tradition that has continued.
How does the TBA/YLD decide which meeting to hold outside of the state?
The YLD governing board meets four times a year: in June at the TBA’s annual convention; in July for an intensive planning session; in the fall; and in January at the TBA’s Leadership Conference. Locations for the convention and leadership conference are set by the big bar, leaving the summer and fall meeting locations to the discretion of the YLD president. Because the July meeting is a major planning meeting, people hunker down in a hotel meeting room and there is little time for extra activities. The fall meeting, by contrast, is designed to measure the progress of projects and activities and, as such, allows for more free time. Typically, the July meeting is held in a low-cost location so that a nicer (i.e., more expensive!) location can be used for the fall meeting.
How far in advance does the TBA/YLD plan these destination location meetings?
It takes about six months. Because hotels and meeting spaces sell out, you want to plan far enough in advance. Plus the size of our group plays a big part in where we meet and where we eat. With a group of 60 (including spouses and guests), it’s too difficult to walk into a restaurant and expect to be seated, so our meals are always catered affairs that also require advance planning. You also want to have enough concrete information about the trip logistics to give members plenty of advance notice so they can plan—both financially and professionally—to attend.
How are the destination location meetings chosen?
Really it’s the prerogative of the YLD president to pick the locations. The president usually has a vision for the meeting, so I am in constant contact with him or her. The current YLD president had an “inside track” this year because her mother works for Disney and lives in Orlando. In November, we took advantage of that contact and traveled to Coronado Springs, a Disney park property. We held our meetings and most meals onsite, but did have a special offsite dinner in a private room at Epcot Center’s aquarium to cap off the weekend. Dinner was followed by a private dessert reception and viewing of the fireworks show that closes Epcot each night. The board members and their families really enjoyed the evening.
Are there differences between planning a cruise versus a land tour?
With a cruise, all meals are included, and everyone eats in the same dining room every night. This keeps costs down and makes things easier because meal menus at multiple locations do not have to be chosen. The downside though is that you do not get much variety. For free-time activities, cruises also are easier because the ship offers a whole host of pre-packaged excursions and people can make their own reservations. For those considering a cruise, I definitely recommend using a travel agent who can be your advocate with the cruise line. There are so many different departments that you have to deal with (room bookings, catering, group photos, etc.), it makes it a lot easier to have one person to interface with. But one lesson learned from our last cruise was the importance of bringing the ship-based convention manager into the planning discussions. I did find that arrangements worked out ahead of time with corporate staff did not always get communicated to on-board personnel.
Land-based trips obviously involve more decisions for the meeting planner. They also involve planning activities in “foreign” territory. I may not be familiar with the area where we are going, so I spend quite a bit of time talking to tourism offices and searching the web for ideas. Land-based trips also tend to be more expensive, so there is a greater need to negotiate the best deals possible for each meal and event.
Does the TBA/YLD have a budget for holding destination location meetings?
The TBA/YLD’s budget includes a line item for meetings. For all meetings, except the destination location meeting, board members are reimbursed fully for their expenses. Because of the unique nature of the destination location meeting, we cap the reimbursement somewhere between $500 or $600. This covers the vast majority of the costs, but also recognizes that folks are getting a mini-vacation out of the trip. They may have to pay $100 to $200 out of pocket but many bring their families and make a fun time of it. Depending on the location, these meetings have run us anywhere from $17,000 for a cruise to $28,000 for the Disney trip, based on an average attendance of thirty-five board members.
Does the TBA/YLD do any fundraising to offset the costs of the destination location meetings?
No. We just have a really supportive bar association. We have in the past, however, solicited sponsors for dinners and for our hospitality suite, which we set up wherever we go!
Do you have any advice for affiliates that want to plan destination location meetings?
Use your imagination and choose a place people will get excited about. Warm and sunny locations in the fall and winter tend to be more successful in getting members to leave their practices behind for a few days.
In structuring the meeting, you want to give people enough free time so they can enjoy the location, but obviously you have to be sensitive to making sure the trip does not appear to be a boondoggle. We try to break up the days, alternating between meetings in the morning and the afternoon, free time during the off-hours, and a mix of group meals and meals on your own.
If you are at a loss about where to start, poll the group. Some of our best ideas for locations and activities have come from the members themselves. The added bonus is that when they help plan it, they also have a stake in making sure it is a success!