My first meeting: A tale of two cities

Meeting planners. Automated RFPs. Meeting delivery. Ensuring the property delivers for the delegates. These are all concepts hoteliers and their sales teams are well familiar with. But 30 years ago (or thereabouts), I was tasked with the responsibility of being THE meeting planner as part of my job assignment. This was my first big break, and I thought you might enjoy this calamitous tale of two cities.

Before I was initiated into the hospitality industry, I worked in packaged goods as a product manager for Procter & Gamble (they called the position brand manager) and next as a category manager for Frito-Lay. Business in those heady days of the early 1980s was all about hoopla and flashiness. Good employees were scarce, and to keep your staff motivated, new product launches were part Ziegfeld Follies, part Disney. It seemed that budgets for these activities were not in the least bit limited by austerity measures or corporate bean counters. Rather, the only limitations were the imaginations of the presenter marketing team.

As Frito-Lay’s category manager for potato chip products, I was tasked with the responsibility of launching a new brand, O’Grady’s, a thicker cut potato chip. You can still watch the TV commercial on YouTube.

Being in Canada, two separate launch meetings were required: English language in Toronto and French language in Montreal. The goal of both meetings was the same: to introduce the product to the sales force and get them excited about selling the product to their customers.

Salty snacks share one attribute with hotels: the product is fragile, meaning that if you do not sell it today that purchasing opportunity will be lost forever. Thus, the role of the sales team is to get new product front and center on shelves and off-shelf display units.

Our marketing department was no more than eight people split equally between potato chips and corn snacks. Compared to a sales force in the hundreds, it was silly to see the rivalry between these two teams. This all reached a climax in the marketing team’s approach to sales meetings: aggressive, in-your-face and one-upmanship in everything that was done. With all this in the background, there was no one for me to delegate the responsibility of meeting planning.

First up was Toronto. Our selection of the Inn on the Park, back then a junior Four Seasons property and now a Lexus-Toyota dealership, was based primarily upon our ability to actually drive a delivery van into the ballroom. A secondary reason was that a premium-priced product deserved a premium quality hotel for its launch. I recall little interest in the double-occupancy room rate charged or the meals proposed. There was, to my recollection, no price negotiation.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the sales delegates took their Frito-Lay trucks to the event. Imagine yourself as a guest of the hotel that day, only to wake up and see a hundred such boxy vehicles in the parking lot!

The culmination of the sales launch was the new product portion of the meeting. This was not going to be just a PowerPoint-style presentation completed as a series of 35mm slides in a Kodak Carousel projector (remember that PowerPoint didn’t exist yet). No, an event like this demanded action. And action is what they were going to get.

How best to demonstrate to an audience what is important to them? The solution we came up with was simple: take a delivery truck and turn it into an incredible delivery truck. At the time, the Mel Gibson movies “Mad Max” (1979) and “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” (1981) were still in their glory. So, what we did was dress our entire marketing team in the look of the Australian badlands, with leather, punk-rock hats, chains and all manner of post-apocalyptic doodads. Next, we modified the delivery truck by removing the muffler, adjusting the suspension to hold 20-inch mag wheels and adding racing slicks borrowed from the local drag strip.

The plan was simple. The truck, with the new product and marketing team inside, would come onstage from behind the curtain at the point in time our president introduced us. This dramatic entry would sear into the minds of the awaiting audience as we drove one of THEIR trucks and proceeded to distribute the new product samples for them to examine and taste. No question, this was going to be a sales launch for the ages — one they would remember for years to come.

We piled into the truck and awaited our cue. At the precise moment, my boss, the director of marketing, turned on the engine. The sound, backfires and exhaust noise were exciting.

He shifted the truck into gear and once again gently put his foot on the accelerator. Nothing happened. He gave the accelerator a little more gas. Still nothing.

The audience was getting restless, or, in the very least, partially asphyxiated from the fumes. Still no movement forward. 

His foot was probably near the floorboards when I discovered what was wrong: the parking brake was on! As I was in the passenger seat, a light bulb came on. Rather than say anything, I simply released the brake.

Like a jackrabbit unleashed, the modified panel van took off. The distance we had to travel was a mere 10 to 15 feet on the stage. After that was a massive stack of unopened potato chip-corrugated boxes … followed by the door to the lobby!

 We passed our center stage marker in what seemed like a nano-second. By the time my boss had figured out what had happened and jammed on the brakes, we had exploded through the product display and impaled the front end of the truck on the double doors, blasting them four feet into the lobby. Luckily no one was there.

The crowd cheered as if this was the best thing they had ever witnessed in their entire lives. Perhaps it was. Few car accidents are ever staged indoors, fewer still on purpose! We looked at each other for a second, and then as they say on Broadway: the show must go on. Without missing a beat, we jumped out of the truck and starting distributing the product.

Needless to say, hotel management was none too pleased. The repair bill I received was turbocharged by the need to get repairs complete for a wedding that weekend, some 72 hours later. With no one hurt and no structural damage, we nonetheless considered this a very successful event.

The following week, our team was off to Montreal for the French-language equivalent. Management decided that, in the best interests of corporate accounts, driving a delivery truck onstage wasn’t feasible. Accordingly, our plan was a little bit more conservative. Lessons learned!

We were told that the Quebec sales group was even more “rough and tumble” than their Ontario counterparts. My knowledge of the French language, being rather limited, precluded me from spending a lot of time in the field working with them. Ergo, I had no real benchmark from which to judge the merit of these comments. As a precaution, however, we agreed to remove the mini-bar fridge keys prior to their check -in.

Following the Toronto escapade, this launch was far more subdued. Without the truck, our team prancing around in Mad Max outfits might have seemed somewhat perplexing. But if the salesmen were confused, they certainly did not show it. The round of applause was almost as boisterous.

At the end of the Montreal meeting, I felt pretty good. No damages to report and everything went off without a hitch. Then the bill arrived. Damages.

Three mini-bar fridges were crow-barred open. And what’s worse, three more were missing! To this day, I am not sure how they smuggled the fridges out of the building and onto a shuttle bus without anyone knowing.

I don’t know what the exact takeaway is from my Montreal experience. Never lock up the mini-bar, perhaps? Either way, it was a hell of a ride and a wild first encounter with the hospitality industry.