The Words of the LaGrotteria Family
Interview With Today's World
What follows is the text of an interview which was conducted in February 2000 between Todayís World magazine and Frank LaGrotteria, Director of Conference Services for the Interrelations and International Federation for World Peace. The article can be found in the February 2000 issue.
Questions and Answers
Could you tell us a bit about the work that you do in relation to the international conferences (how you came into it, basically what your job entails, how long you've been doing it, why you were chosen for it)?
I formally began working on International Conferences after graduating from UTS in June of 1994 and joined the staff of the IRFWP under Dr. Frank Kaufmann. One of the main goals of IRFWP is to foster religious harmony through dialogue. This takes place through the gatherings of diverse personalities in a conference setting. As a member of the IRFWP staff I was often called upon to work out the logistical details of these meetings. After several meetings, I began to get the "hang of it" and was subsequently called upon to do more meetings.
My career as a meeting planner took a significant turn when I was asked to organize the international ministers conferences held at the Victoria Plaza Hotel in Montevideo, Uruguay in the spring of 1996. Those meetings were well-attended with 600-700 guests per conference. We needed extensive ground transportation as well as multiple hotel accommodations all the while working with a diverse staff from surrounding countries. That experience helped me understand the conference dynamics of dealing with larger groups and the unique challenges they present.
After that I was chosen to work on the World Culture and Sports Festival III, held in Washington DC in 1997. That project took one full year to plan, and in the end we had booked over 30 hotels and housed over 18,000 people as well as provided for their transportation and food!
My recent work has included the 1998, 1999 and 2000 WCSF, the Assembly 2000 as well as the 11 International Hoon Dok Hae conferences recently held in Washington DC. In 1999 I received certification from the Convention Liaison Council as a Certified Meeting Professional (CMP).
Could you outline the basic life cycle of a typical international conference? What various phases do you see and what are the challenges and priorities of each phase?
When I first started working with IRFWP we planned meetings with a one year lead time. These days however we are often called upon to do meetings in a matter of weeks or sometimes days. In fact the first international Hoon Dok Hae conference (July 30-August 1, 1999) was fully organized entirely in 25 days! Of course even with a short lead time there are many phases which go into organizing a conference. The first and foremost is the concept of the conference itself or its purpose. Save for a few very creative individuals in our Church we are usually given this information from True Father. Again I am reminded of the inception of the Hoon Dok Hae conferences which began in True Fatherís mind as a sleepless 4th of July Sunday night. True Father explained to those gathered for breakfast the following morning that he could not sleep the night before and had the idea for an international conference of leaders who would study his words in a three day Hoon Dok Hae. Basically from that point onwards all the necessary phases of conference organization kicked in. We needed to secure a venue, invite guests, plan materials for reading, create a schedule, book rooms and meals, book airline tickets, create a budget and so forth. Miraculously the first international Hoon Dok Hae conference was a tremendous success. To do justice to each phase is really a bit too extensive for the subject of this article however I would be willing to review this with you in a separate context.
How many and where have you done conferences overseas and generally how have they differed from one to another? (Were there differences between this year and last in Seoul?)
I have been involved in or organized over 30 international meetings in 5 foreign countries in my career as a meeting planner. What I often find in other countries and here in the United States are not necessarily national differences, although they most certainly exist, rather I find fundamental personality differences instead. In other words, there seems to be a common "can-do" personality in each culture and its counterpart the "its-impossible" personality. For example when True Mother visited India in December of 1993 we could not find a suitable chair for her to be seated on stage. Of course they have chairs in India but the rental companies I checked had only high backed plush red velvet wedding chairs; they made you look like you were sitting on a throne! They were gaudy and old looking and I did not think they were suitable for True Mother. In that situation we were advised by the local members to visit the craftsmen in the Sikh community. There I met craftsmen who easily understood what I was looking for and from a simple sketch created the chairs! Another type of person would say we canít do it or we donít have chairs like that, but as I say there are "can-do" types the world over. Fortunately its the "can-do" type of personality we often attract and encounter with our meetings and intense immediate demands.
I know that the heads of the various organizations live in widely disparate parts of the U.S. Could you tell us a bit about what goes into coordinating things on the American end before coming to Seoul? (How do you avoid misunderstandings when using e mail and phone conferencing? [Do you think there would be fewer misunderstandings if you were face to face in the same room?] Was it necessary to schedule periodic meetings in which people flew to one location?)
Well, this question is really a question for the executive director. In my case I have been most often working under the direction of Dr. Thomas Walsh. For most of my recent conference experience Dr. Walsh has served as the direct link with either Mr. Salonen or Rev. Kwak. As such he has been the person who communicated the concept of the conference to various other organizations or concerns. He also had the very challenging task of giving us the central direction and then representing our feedback back to the leaders. The most often used method of communication was the conference call and email. As much as face to face encounters are helpful, these days its completely possible to do almost all the planning electronically.
What is particularly unique about these recent events is the inter-departmental cooperation between the directors of True Fatherís international projects. This year the World Convocation of Leaders was co-sponsored by 16 different organizations! In this kind of situation the executive director faces both the blessing of the collective wisdom and experience of such a powerful group as well as the challenge of creating unity between them. Each time we have done the Convocation Dr. Walsh has been a leader with great reason and logic in producing excellent events.
As much as the executive director must coordinate the thought processes, the work of the conference planner or event manager is to make the idea or thought a reality. The conference planner has to take all the directions, thoughts and even tone of the concept and put flesh on it. This is done through painstaking attention to each and every detail large and small.
If you are willing to go into it, what role do prayer and internal conditions play in these conferences?
Well, I am of the school where a day of hard work and sacrifice is itself a prayer. Thus for me to work hard, serve others, and push myself physically and mentally to the limit are already good conditions. Next to pushing myself beyond my own physical limits is unity with my central figure. In this case, it is the executive director. The executive director is both a professional position from an organizational viewpoint and a spiritual center from a principled perspective. I have found that remaining fully objective to the center point is probably the single most valuable condition I can make to ensure the success of any particular event. In many ways the conference experience is like a mini course in living the Divine Principle way of life or a Divine Principle sprint. You have to exert maximum self control, unite with your central figure and make your work an unconditional offering. I think this is an excellent way to refresh ourselves spiritually as well as educate our second generation from the inside of True Fatherís activity. I sincerely wish to encourage our young people to participate in these activities if at all possible.
As for specific conditions however I also find that before and during the conference even small personal sacrifices yield tremendous results. I have found that each person has some comfort level, which when sacrificed even for a short time, can serve as a very good internal condition to keep that person on track or tuned in to the needs of the moment. In other words lets say you usually sleep for 6 hours a night but you cannot sleep that long because you are preparing for the conference or while you are on site at the conference your sleep is cut down to 4 or even 3 hours. If under these circumstances you are grateful and make it an offering to give up your sleep to work for the sake of others, even though technically you should be dead tired, I have found that new energy shows up and you can persevere all day in good shape. Each person has their own unique challenging area such as food, sleep, relationships or whatever. When you give up your comfort level with gratitude it can easily serve as a good condition. The fact is these events are True Fatherís ideas which are themselves born of great personal sacrifices on his part and what he needs from us is the realization of these ideas in a substantial form. In my view he needs strong healthy people united together in a rational organization to carry out the details.
We all hate packing and moving. What kind of and amount of equipment is it necessary to transport overseas for these conferences? Have you ever forgotten anything vital and how did you deal with it?
As far as packing and moving, as undesirable as these activities are I find them to be excellent methods of moving into the new environment and returning from it. While packing and preparing the necessary external items one will need in the new environment one can begin to visualize the new situation and prepare mentally for it. As far as what to bring, these days in almost every major country of the world it is possible to obtain all the necessary material hardware to do a good conference. One can easily rent computers, audio visual equipment, fax and copy machines, in short whatever is needed. The problems are really not with equipment and office supplies. The problems are with communication and the flow of information. Although we have advanced a great deal on a technological level we are still often struggling with providing accurate up to date and relevant information. Information is really the key to doing a successful event on the execution side of things. From the invitation process onwards it is our constant battle to keep updating our information and informing others in the process. In other words in a typical conference situation you have so many guests who are invited and then register for the event. Once registered we have to keep track of things like their position and title, arrival time, flight number, food preferences and so forth. This information then fuels the reports to the leaders, reports for hotel accommodations, VIPs, meals, ground transportation, and so forth. If this information is inaccurate or missing it can mean the difference between a good experience for the participant and a bad one. I am of the opinion that you can boil a conference down to one correctly typed letter into a database as the single unit of reality on the external side of things. Thus attention to detail and information is fundamental to solid conference planning.
For example let's say you type the participants name correctly and enter their arrival time, food preferences and so forth in your database. The various conference organs who have access to that information use it to book rooms, order food, prepare name badges, and pick the person up at the airport. When they arrive they are thus greeted and checked in to the hotel and registered for the conference. Therefore their physical needs are met and they can focus on the reason why they are attending the event unobstructed by any external need. In this sense the conference planner and all the staff have provided the correct atmosphere for the purpose of the meeting to be realized. In short they allow the person every opportunity to receive True Parents in whatever form the conference takes. In the case of the recent Hoon Dok Hae conferences True Parents were offered directly through True Fatherís words.
On the other hand, letís say that the information was entered incorrectly or is missing. The person arrives, no one knows they are coming to the airport, they somehow make it to the hotel, there is no record of their name, and then they come to register for the conference and no one has ever heard of them. First of all how embarrassing it will be for that person and second of all how many obstacles are now placed in the way of this person having a good experience and being in a position to receive anything from True Parents. Thus I believe that data or information is the heart of our work and those who can manage it effectively are the ones who can produce successful events.
What are the various departments necessary to put on a conference smoothly and what role do they each play? (ground transportation, hotel liaison, translation, etc.)
I have identified 10 majors areas or departments which are necessary for a comprehensive conference services department and to run an efficient conference. They are Data Services, Accommodations, Ground Transportation, Secretariat (when necessary we add Press here), Meeting Rooms (when necessary we add Displays and Translation here) Hospitality, Usher, Registration, Meals and Treasurer. Before the event we also have a department which handles all the printed materials and documents.
When we have a large international event such as the recent World Leaders Convocation in Seoul each one of these areas had a coordinator and a staff. Staff can range from a single staff member such as the meal coordinator and her assistant to as many 12-15 staff members for the hospitality department. Staff is totally dependant on the size of the meeting. As the number of guests and activities increase obviously more staff are needed to handle the needs of participants and the logistics in moving, feeding and housing them. When the event is small in number such as the IRFWP Interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Jews in Cordoba, Spain in the summer of 1999 we had 2 full time staff members to handle 30 participants and their spouses. In that case I and one assistant handled all of the duties contained in the departments listed above. In other words large or small to do a complete job as a conference planner all the areas must be covered.
As far as coordination and communication between the departments, it is a must. All the department heads have to keep open, honest and objective communication we usually have a daily staff meeting. As mentioned above I have had the pleasure to work with staff members who have come largely from the international conference organizations which have been doing conferences in some cases for 20 years. Having trained, reliable and mature individuals is invaluable in putting on an international event.
Most of us feel comfortable in predictable situations. I am really impressed at how you stand calmly in the midst of utter chaos. How do you deal with the stress of a life in which unexpected glitches will almost certainly emerge?
What I strive for the most in conference management is to have a structurally sound organization and to cover as many need-driven bases as possible. Next is to develop and maintain proper relationships with the leaders and staff members. I have found through much suffering and hardship that it is simply not enough to put on these events and reach the end of it. The fact is we need to reach the end of it and still love each other or at least like each other in the process. This means that no matter how hard the circumstances become we maintain a loving, positive, and respectful attitude toward each other and avoid at all costs the loss of our tempers or the denial of any persons unique value in front of God. Of course in the heat of battle you will find me a tiger at times, but I really strive to do so with proper motivation and a willingness to do the job myself if necessary. This and having had the blessing of being involved in many significant providential conferences over the past 10 years has given me a great deal of confidence in doing my job. As for real troubles and crisis I think to myself the next day will dawn and the crisis will pass, I also refuse to give up, and I am determined to continue to love God, True Parents and Brothers and Sisters at any cost. In that sense, come what may I already have what is really valuable in life so no crisis threatens me, on the contrary I am often happily challenged by new and difficult situations.
For example at the final Hoon Dok Hae conference in Washington on the eve of the American celebration of True Fatherís 80th birthday far more guests arrived than were expected. We had our chief data operator down with pneumonia and nowhere near enough staff to take proper care of the guests. Our biggest challenge was to make sure everybody got a seat at the banquet, transportation back to the hotel, and complete all the concluding logistics for our conference. This situation created a great deal of stress all around for both the staff who were pretty worn out from the 6 previous conferences and for the brothers and sisters who accompanied the participants. Basically we made it through the crisis by sticking together from the top on down, facing all the difficult situations as a team, and handling one thing at a time. In the end our guests were seated and things worked out pretty well.
Can you tell us about some of the problems that have occurred and how you have had to deal with them? [I recall the Rabbi who was unable to get kosher meals last year.]
Well, all I can say is that each situation requires a specific response. There is no set answer or pre-fabricated response to any particular situation. In the example you mentioned above the issue was a matter of principle and a problem of communication. During the invitation process a request came in for Kosher food. The hotel assured us they could provide Kosher food. They assured us this was no problem so we made it known that Kosher food was available. What actually happened was that the hotel did not fully understand the seriousness of the word "kosher" and took it to mean kosher style not real, authentic, prepared in separate kitchens and blessed by the Rabbi, kosher food. When the guest requested his kosher meal and it was not served it caused a problem of principle. The guest was promised one thing and received another. This particular individual has attended a number of our events and was simply making the point that had he known in advance that Kosher food was not available he would have made other plans for his meals. Many orthodox Jews travel and carry food with them or eat a variety of fresh fruits and nuts which are acceptable under the rules of their religion. Thus we had the double problem of having acted on incorrect information and a participant who felt he had been wronged. Our response took a while to formulate as we had to first find out what happened. Figuring out the problem in the midst of running an event with 400 international guests in a foreign county took some doing. Once we understood what was wrong we worked to actually find kosher food in Seoul. We did! The Israeli embassy had some prepared food they were willing to bring to our conference. So we got that food and with many apologies to the guest assuaged his feelings and moved forward. Thus you can see that a conference planner needs to wear a wide variety of hats, in this case a detective, a diplomat, and even a chef!
The follow up to this story is actually quite a tale. Together with the gentlemen mentioned above IRFWP organized the Jewish-Muslim Encounter in Cordoba, Spain this past summer. Half of the participants were orthodox Jews who kept strictly to the laws regarding Kosher food and the other half Muslims who also keep a number of similar dietary laws. Thus our culinary expertise was put to the test again. This time the challenge was finding a caterer with the resources, staff and wherewithal to do an event in the middle of the summer vacation season in a primarily non-Jewish area. It took a great deal of searching to find the right person and then convince him that in fact 30 people from foreign countries would be arriving and expecting their Kosher meals for 4 days. Once we made the face to face contact things improved however it was a rocky road during the advance preparation period. This is also a challenge which we face when working in a foreign country. Many times our meetings and requests are so unique that it's hard to believe that we are really planning to do what we say. In any case each and every challenge and situation requires a specific response.
I would like to offer one more example of a crisis which required a particular response. This situation occurred during the minister conferences in Uruguay in the spring of 1996. First of all we were in the unique position of having conference attendees who came from non-Unificationist sources. These conferences were the result of agreed upon cooperation between Dr. Fanini and True Father during a conference the preceding year on North - South Christian Collaboration.
The first step in the cooperation was to teach these ministers the Divine Principle as a way of explaining True Fatherís great success throughout his life. From the beginning we were quite blessed with having True Father present to give the opening speech. He often stayed throughout the whole conference and made various suggestions on how we could improve things. One of the most challenging of these "suggestions" was when he asked us to begin the program at 8 AM in the morning. As simple as this request sounds one has to consider that the participants began arriving at 7 PM the night before in charter aircrafts in three hour intervals (the only time the planes were allowed to land was during off hours over night) and finished arriving at 3 AM!
Fatherís idea was that this was a serious time and each moment should be used to its fullest extent. For those familiar with scheduling an event where True Father or True Mother plan to speak it is always the biggest challenge to get the participants to arrive on time and be in their seats when True Parents arrive. To accomplish this with a scheduled starting time of 8 AM required the participants to take their seats by 7:30 AM. Working backwards from there they had to have already eaten their breakfast and begin arriving in the room by 7 AM. Therefore we had to start breakfast from 6 AM and if that were not challenging enough many participants were staying at other hotels, four to be exact. We could not count on the participants being able to follow this tight schedule on their own especially after arriving only a few hours earlier and be on time for True Fatherís speech. We developed a plan to both call and knock on each and every door of each and every participant in each hotel before 6 AM! We woke them up, fed them breakfast and bussed participants in from the other hotels. We had a full house and True Father delivered his speech [I wanted to cite the name of that speech as it was historical and Father went on to give in many times, however this was the first time he gave it publicly; the contents were about Jesus, Mary, Elizabeth, Zachariah and John: if you can find it please reference it here) to a packed room.
Many participants later commented that the early morning wake up call set the tone for a serious conference of study and reflection and actually thanked us for the strict schedule. Some participants said it was like a spiritual boot camp. These comments were gratifying to me because uniting with this direction was no easy matter and it took a great deal of absolute faith and obedience to do so. With the help of some very willing staff members and a certain fearlessness to actually go around knocking on doors in the wee hours of the morning we realized True Fatherís idea in reality.
When a crisis comes up I think what is needed is fundamentally a faithful response garnished by a systematic and logical approach to either solve the problem or realize, as in this case, the direction. It seems to me that when we face these kinds of challenges objectively and see situations for what they are we can find an appropriate response. I think what often bars our way are pre-conceived notions and in many cases personal pride. In some ways, at least in conference planning, pride is better found in being flexible than in being rigid.
How about on the other end of things: could you tell us about some of the inspiring incidents involving conference guests over the years?
Well, I think the most gratifying moments are when participants genuinely offer their appreciation for our services. After suffering through long hours and one demand after another a kind word from a participant goes a long way. On this point however I must mention my favorite comparison. Just as a good film producer is invisible to the audience (scenes transit from one the other smoothly, lighting and sound are good, dialogue flows, etc) the conference planner at their best is invisible. No comments are actually a good sign so in many ways it's hard to know from objective feedback whether or not we are doing a good job. In any case the purpose of conference planning is not an end in itself but the means by which an idea or larger conversation is brought into reality. When we take care of the details and allow that conversation to go on un-impeded we have done our job.
What do you feel are the purpose of these international conferences? [Do you see them as Father's legacy to future generations or do you discern their impact in the world today?]
I do not know the purpose for which True Father so heavily invests in international conferences except perhaps that these events are possible stepping stones on the highest conceivable levels during which True Father can spread his message to the widest possible representation of the worldís population. I can tell you this; each and every conference is a new, unique and wonderful challenge. In this way many new opportunities are being created to both expose the world to True Father himself and educate them through his direct teaching and otherwise general exposure to our movement at large. Our work is not a money making venture and as such we are free to manifest our highest ideals in caring for and relating with the participants. I believe that we can make a difference in the lives of the guests who attend our conferences and thus by extension their families and realms of influence.
Is there anything you'd like to add that hasn't been addressed by these questions?
Well I would like to add that no conference planner stands alone. In fact a conference planner is only as good as the crew he works with so in that sense I am really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to successful meetings. The credit and hard work truly belongs to the whole team. There are no superstars in a way. Each and every person, each and every detail, each and every minute must be well attended and one person cannot do that by himself. No matter how large or small a persons task, each piece adds significantly to the overall performance in much the same way that even the tap of a symbol or role of a drum in an orchestra can put the final touch on a piece of music. The conference experience is really a fantastic way of applying the Principle to a real life situation. Using the Principle we can make a rational conference organization and provide the scaffolding which will support the multi-varied circumstances that will inevitably arise. Ultimately the scaffolding will fall away and our unity will take over allowing us to fulfill our responsibility in a grand chorus of human responsibility.
Could you say a few words about the Korean Western cultural interface at the 1999/2000 convocations.
Well, as I mentioned earlier, the world over I have found the "can-do" and its antithesis the "its-impossible" personality. Korea is like a country that is founded on the "can-do" personality or spirit. It seems to me there is nothing Koreans cannot do or are not willing to try. This is nowhere more apparent then in our group. As a national character I sure this personality trait accounts for a large measure of the economic success of South Koreaís industrial machine and certainly the many successes within our movement in Korea and throughout the world.
As for the conference experience our real challenge was utilizing all of that positive energy in the most productive ways. The Korean staff had a fantastic willingness to do whatever we needed so our dilemma was to identify tasks we could give to them for completion. This was a big challenge as we are used to doing these conferences on our own, even in Korea. Therefore we had to think in different ways in order to make the best use of both the available labor and resources. For example, the Korean staff members were in some cases able to get the audio visual equipment we needed from outside the hotel thereby reducing the cost of renting those items. The challenge from our side was to get an accurate picture of what was needed in advance. This is often not so easy in a conference situation especially the recent Convocation where we had basically three conferences running simultaneously (IIFWP, ICUS, PWPA). Many of these types of requests typically come in very late and we are always scrambling to fill them. In some cases we were successful in asking the Korean staff for equipment and in some cases we were not.
I think the key point was the communication on a regular basis that helped us through many of our difficulties. We often met with the Korean staff members to discuss situations that came up along the way and in some cases reported to them the details of ongoing or developing problems. This type of effort to keep key people informed is crucial to head off problems before they begin and solve on-going problems in the shortest possible time.
Unlike last year where we operated under such a short lead time (literally 3 weeks) this time we had a little more time to prepare and met with the Korean staff in advance of the event and then worked side by side with them throughout the on-site execution phase of the conference. Although more needs to be done in terms of regular on-going communication, I believe we made some significant advances over previous years levels of cooperation.