To the Point

Protests, Protocol, and Pizza

The result of massive planning and coordination, the nato summit demonstrates the power of face-to-face meetings.

The result of massive planning and coordination, the nato summit demonstrates the power of face-to-face meetings.

The recent North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit might have been just a blip on your radar – that is, unless you live in Chicago, which hosted the event. For those of us who work in the meetings industry and live here, it was particularly fascinating to watch the events of the NATO Summit, May 20–21, unfold.

More than 60 heads of state – and 10,000 more people from their delegations and media outlets around the world – converged on Chicago for 24 hours of tightly orchestrated meetings and events. The stakes were high: It was just the 25th event of its kind in NATO’s 63-year history, and the first to be held in a U.S. city other than Washington, D.C. The event would take place in a busy city against a backdrop of protests by thousands of demonstrators.

There were street closures to coordinate, special security rules for commuter trains, and extra training for Chicago police. There were also the challenges of finding an insurance carrier willing to protect the police against lawsuits, assembling a PR team large enough to serve 2,000 credentialed media (and securing enough donated deep-dish pizza to feed all of them), communicating regularly with demonstration leaders, and issuing up-to-the-minute status updates to downtown offices, whose businesses were disrupted by the Summit.

These complex orchestrations don’t even take into account accommodating the needs of 60-plus heads of state and their delegations, whose comings and goings, seating arrangements, meals, photo opportunities, and every whim had to be flawlessly managed in countless different languages while taking different customs and protocol into consideration.

It was a massive undertaking for a meeting that took place over a mere 24 hours. However, the Summit underscored the tremendous power of face-to-face meetings, even in our highly connected digital society. And hopefully, even the uninitiated understood that there’s a discipline behind the planning and execution of such an event.

Would it have been much easier to set up a teleconference? Absolutely. Do the world’s leaders have the means to talk to each other on their own? Definitely. And surely someone could come up with a system they could use for voting on or voicing their opinions on NATO policies remotely.

I hope what isn’t lost on government leaders in the post-GSA scandal era is what the recent NATO Summit demonstrates: There is simply no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. The value of that meeting – despite the work hours, the level of coordination, and the out-of-pocket costs – is what matters. I haven’t seen an ROI report for the Summit, but I think most would concur that a gathering of more than 60 leaders of the free (and not-so-free) world is a rare occasion with tremendous opportunity and significance for all.

Obviously, events on the scale of the NATO Summit don’t typically get booked and produced in less than a year – unless you’re NATO. When the decision to host the Summit was made just 11 months out, the 2012 National Restaurant Association (NRA) Restaurant Hotel-Motel Show was already slotted for McCormick Place over the same dates. Read how NRA resolved the scheduling conflict and managed to pull off a successful show for more than 61,000 attendees.

Deborah Sexton

Deborah Sexton is president and CEO of PCMA.