SEPT. 10, 2001 — All systems were go for one of our biggest events of the year. The National Auto Auction Association was hosting its annual seven-day convention in three weeks at San Francisco's downtown Marriott. Two thousand attendees from the United States and Canada were expected, and our “Destination: San Francisco” theme was set.
We were thrilled about one of our opening reception themes. We planned to whisk the attendees down a corridor filled with airport icons: terminal signs, restroom symbols and — ironic in retrospect — an airline security area where guests would be screened before entering the dining room for the evening's ceremonies.
Twenty-four hours later, our lives were forever changed. All thoughts were on New York City and those who lost their lives in the tragic events of 9/11. The highly anticipated San Francisco event, at the forefront of our minds only a day before, was suddenly being questioned. We were scheduled to begin load-in in two days. Where would we find the strength to continue?
As the owner of ideas, a special event company based in Northern California, I have witnessed many last-minute changes and cancellations in my 10 years in business. However, this event stands out in my mind because of the can-do spirit of all involved.
Needless to say, all of our plans had to be scrapped immediately, and we set ourselves to the task of creating a new theme. Marriott general manager Kris Gagliardi and her team of associates bent over backwards to make everything possible for us. Our collaboration with Gloria Saylor, NAAA's meetings manager, and Charles Englert Sr., Marriott's catering manager, was very comforting during this stressful time.
Our collective goal was to create a remarkable event, but also pay tribute to the developments that were swirling in all of our minds. We quickly changed the original theme to “United We Stand” — brilliant in its simplicity and patriotism, and translatable to every detail of the event.
As suspected, our original count of 2,000 guests dwindled to less than half due to the country's apprehension about air travel. This fact, however, did not deter our enthusiasm. If anything, we were determined to host an incredible convention for those dedicated and excited attendees.
THE NEW LOOK
For the closing ceremony, the previous autumnal palette of yellows and oranges changed to patriotic red, white and blue. NAAA provided a donation to be presented to the San Francisco fire chief to support the rescue workers in New York. We designed a memorial, decorated with candles and rose petals, to those who lost their lives at the World Trade Center. Also, a letter sent from New York mayor Rudy Giuliani personally was read to the attendees, relaying his optimism for next year's NAAA convention in New York.
At the dinner ceremony, 30-foot-tall white scrim curtains concealed a 15-foot-tall replica of the Statue of Liberty, the icon of American freedom. To the tune of “New York, New York,” the statue was unveiled from behind the curtain and slowly wheeled to the stage. The attendees were eerily silent for a moment, clearly filled with emotion at the sight. Seconds later, however, everyone in the room instinctively rose to their feet, clapping and cheering to this tribute to America's spirit. It truly was a unifying experience for everyone.
NEW YORK BOUND
Preparations for this year's convention, to be held next month at the Marriott Marquis in New York's Times Square, have been challenging. But once again, the relationships we have built with our client and our vendors will be instrumental to our success. We have been very lucky to work with amazing professionals, all of them optimistic about the future of business in the Big Apple.
The Marriott staff has already gone beyond the call of duty considering everything that has happened to their business, having lost their location near the World Trade Center in the disaster.
Another stellar business partner has been Chris Madden Productions, the umbrella organization handling many of the design elements of the upcoming convention. Chris exemplifies the reignited spirit of New York. She has been enthusiastic about the safety of the city, assuring us that this is the right place to be.
Chris led us to Great Performances, a New York-based off-premise catering company. Liz Neumark, owner of Great Performances, has given us extra attention, spending time getting to know our client and connecting us to her network of talented professionals. Her pride in New York really shows, and underscores how important it is to bring business to the city during these hard times.
New York can be intimidating in its energy and pace, but I have found that post 9/11, attitudes have truly changed. The economic and spiritual blows the city has withstood are astonishing, and have revealed the spirit of the people. I feel as though I leave a bit of me there every time I visit, and in turn I bring back a bit of the spirit of New York to San Francisco. Clichéd as it sounds, the Big Apple is the apple of my eye.
Riccardo Benavides and Emily Stucky, ideas' rental coordinator, can be reached at 415/285-8681; the company's Web site is www.ideas-events.com.