Spotlight on: Rotary International
The birth of a meeting is spurred by an objective, but imagine if your goal was to determine what it would take to change the world? That’s the endeavor for Rotary International, an organization dedicated to service in the community, in the workplace and around the globe. Comprised of more than 34,000 clubs in 196 countries, members volunteer for projects that support education and job training, provide clean water, combat hunger, improve health and sanitation, and eradicate polio. The membership’s culturally diverse mix is represented at its annual convention, a platform for the organization’s global initiatives.
As Rotary’s director of meetings and events, L.J. Williams often repeats this phrase to keep the organization’s goal top of mind: “If you could get the world more fully participated in your meetings, they would be better meetings.” And with more than 1.2 million members around the globe, Rotary is doing just that.
Williams and his five event planning teams—registration and housing, program and promotions, logistics, contract administration and finance budget administration—are responsible for Rotary International’s five annual events and a tri-annual council on legislation. Of these annual events, the Rotary International Convention is the largest, drawing delegates from more than 150 countries. In fact, the 2012 convention was held in Bangkok, Thailand. It garnered 33,104 delegates from 159 countries and geographical areas.
Williams and his teams began planning the 2012 event about 20 months before it started, which means they’re already well into 2013 planning and have begun the process for 2014. But even before then, the Rotary board of directors receives a written report on the suggested cities to inspect for the convention. Williams says the team used to send requests for proposals to 10 cities, but it has since narrowed it down to five international cities for each annual convention. “We had these good destinations doing everything right and jumping through hoops to prove themselves, yet we could select only one,” Williams says. “That leaves more losers than winners.”
Rotary is currently contracted with hotels and venues through 2018, which gives them plenty of time to set the local host organization and convention committee. During the planning process, the local committee takes responsibility for certain aspects of the program and Williams’ team plans others. To help, local committees always receive Rotary International’s manual of procedure for conventions to guide them through the planning process.
“The stronger the culture, the more challenging,” Williams says. “They do it their way, which can be a great contrast to the way we think it should be done.” Any planner who organizes international events understands that even small cultural differences can amount to large-scale budget or planning challenges. He uses the 2004 Rotary convention in Osaka, Japan, as an example. The Rotary’s manual of procedures for conventions details security arrangements, which are managed by Rotary International and are not the responsibility of the host committee. Because it is not in their culture to “lose face,” a term that means to lose recognition or respect from someone, the local committee presented its own proposal for security, which added significantly to the event budget. “I knew there was no way to get around this and have any other security than the one they were proposing,” Williams says. “We bowed and accepted how things are done there.”
Another issue Williams faced when planned the event in Osaka came down to basic body language. In the Japanese culture, nodding the head means that the person is listening, not necessarily that they understand or agree to what you’re asking. Williams says that what would’ve taken 10 minutes to accomplish in a meeting in the U.S. took an hour in Japan.
Because of some of these cultural differences, Williams says, “It also pays to have local expertise on your side such as a DMC [destination management company], local tourism office or CVB.” Some years, the planning team is fortunate when the Rotary International leadership has a cultural understanding of the destination. Former Rotary President Kalyan Banerjee, from the Rotary Club of Vapi, Gujarat, India, assisted with cultural communication for this year’s convention in Bangkok, for example.
Cultural differences aren’t the only issues Williams has to address year after year. The sheer size of the meeting affects the planning and execution of the event. The Bangkok meeting, for example, was held at an Impact convention facility, similar to the Kintex facility in Seoul, South Korea. Both are enormous arenas and exhibition facilities. The Rotary’s largest international convention was in Osaka, Japan, with 45,381 attendees. Williams says a baseball stadium was converted to feel like an intimate theater for the event.
In these countries, large venues that can accommodate the Rotary’s general session—seating for a minimum of 22,000 people—are usually located in the outskirts of the city due to high traffic congestion in downtown areas. This can be a problem, says Williams, since the hotels are located in the city center. To assist in making delegates feel comfortable in the city the first day, Williams has greeters at the airport who direct them to private conference shuttles, but after that, attendees are encouraged to take public transportation, including to arena events outside of town. Like the overall community spirit of Rotary, Williams says most people befriend fellow delegates, and they end up traveling together.
Even though the international convention has a long history—the first meeting was held in 1909—the program is continuously evolving and improving in theme and format. The convention’s main program is four days, with a pre-opening day of orientation for first-time attendees and the grand opening of the House of Friendship, where delegates can visit service project booths, share ideas, peruse the latest Rotary publications, and register for the next year’s convention. Williams and his team partner with the local host organization to decorate the House of Friendship with a local flair. Traditionally, the grand opening has included entertainment from local musicians and artists. Williams has recommended that this part of the program be excluded from the pre-opening day for future years.
“Sometimes there are not enough people to watch, and there’s nothing more difficult than seeing the local talent perform their hearts out without an audience,” says Williams. He also feels the House of Friendship is not the best stage for local entertainment as it interferes with this area’s networking focus. “Meeting Planning 101 dictates that the elements of a program should add to the informative aspect of the experience.”