by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
From New York to DC
The moody June of New York City followed me to the Finance and Insurance Conference Planners’ (FICP) Education Forum in DC, adding soaring temperatures to the on-going atmospheric instability. The cool, air conditioned interiors of our host hotel, the newly refurbished and exceedingly good J.W. Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue, were a welcome refuge from the 100 degrees of heat that gripped the capital at the start of the week.
Following a full day of pre-Event meetings, our first official foray outside took us to the iconic Washington Hilton for a spectacular private dinner in the Cabinet Room hosted by FICP favourite, Francine Cobb along with Taylor Walker, Sales Manager for both the Washington and Capitol Hilton. Taylor delivered as impressive a site inspection as seen by our constellation of seasoned meetings industry professionals, keeping it pithy and punchy but hitting all the key takeaways.
Built in 1964 the Washington Hilton has played a central role as an “official” government hotel, visited, on average, 16 times a year by the sitting president. Its immense ballroom can accommodate up to 2200 for a seated function and, thanks to an impressive back-of-house infrastructure, can serve a perfect steak to everyone in 11 minutes flat! If we were astonished by this, then we were even more amazed by Taylor’s special talent: she can speak fluently backwards. Sey ehs nac kaeps yltneulf sdrawkcab!
FICP is a small meetings industry association that packs a pulsating punch, way bigger than its size. Its education and networking have earned the association a strong reputation for value and ROI and this Education Forum lifted the bar even further. Providing a balanced programme targeting neophytes and veterans alike, the Forum gave us tactical “How to …” sessions along with big picture classes on strategy and motivation.
The daily dilemma was which session to go to as frequently you found yourself with Sophie’s Choice, wanting to attend two or more sessions scheduled simultaneously. Thus I had to forgo Brandt Kreuger’s excellent class on using tablets for events because it clashed with Rob Biesenbach’s session on storytelling. Biesenbach broke stories into three key pillars – character, goal and obstacle – and encouraged us to identify these elements in our own narratives. Using stories to communicate key messages in our personal or business lives is powerful and impactful, he said, because stories play in the sandpit of our common humanity, connecting us emotionally with others and making abstract concepts real and comprehensible.
Next day, it was somewhat easier to choose between Ron Tite and Max Valiquette as I shared a stage with Ron a year ago in Toronto and heard his excellent presentation “How to thrive in the Expression Economy” before. Max, meanwhile, gave a wonderfully energetic Prezi exposé on the macro-trends and innovations that are radically changing how we live these days, helpfully applying his points to the meetings and events industry. It was a wide-ranging, comprehensive presentation that left us, finally, with the comforting conclusion that the more the digital world propels us forward, the more we treasure and yearn for face-to-face encounters in real time, in real places with real people.
The networking and social functions at FICP gave us lots of real people in real places in real time. On opening night the J.W. Marriott hosted a wonderful party on the twelfth floor terrace where, despite a day of skittish, nervy weather, we enjoyed monumental sunshine, glorious views and cracking cuisine. Indeed the J.W. Marriott distinguised itself over the entire duration of the event for great networking breaks and lovely lunches with a welcome, over-riding concentration on wellness and healthy eating. There was always lots of kale, quinoa and blueberries in evidence!
We went off-site on the second evening and experienced first hand some “DC Cool” at Union Market, an edgy artisan food colony located in an up-and-coming neighbourhood, light years away from the politics and the power so synonymous with the capital. Co-ordinated by the wonderfully creative team at Global Hosts Alliance, Dock 5, the warehouse-style events space behind Union Market, was given a shabby-chic make-over to host one of FICP’s best parties ever.
The centrally located island bar was crowned by a single, enormous statement-floral that provided elegant juxtaposition to the exposed concrete walls and floors of the events space. Food stations with quality comfort foods like spicy chorizio dogs and mild chicken curry were set out strategically leaving ample circulation and seating spaces. Outside in the loading bay there was a wonderful popcorn buffet, each variety linked to a Hosts Global Alliance destination in attendance at the event. You could also go into the party truck, a full sized container rig decked out with lights and strobes, blasting out club standards to beat the band.
For dessert we switched location and returned to the safe cocoon of downtown where Starwood gifted us arguably the best view in the city from The Washington Hotel, now re-purposed as an uber-cool W. POV, the penthouse events location at the W, was privatised for FICP and there we enjoyed craft cocktails, delightful drinks and demonic desserts before negotiating the 100m dash in torrential rain back to the J.W. Marriott.
This was an event that delivered exceptional value across so many metrics and criteria. It provided us with education that was provocative both personally and professionally. It connected us with industry colleagues who delighted us by their youthful exuberance and inspired us by their aged wisdom. Finally it immersed us in a destination that offers everything we always knew it would and then so much more.
Pádraic Gilligan is a member of the Hospitality Partners Advisory Council at FICP. With Patrick Delaney he runs SoolNua, a boutique consultancy offering advice and strategic input to venues, hotels and destinations in relation to the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events market.
Finally, huge thanks to Speciality Imaging out of Salt Lake City for the wonderful work they do with FICP and for (most) of the pictures in this post.