Most major hotel chains have an internal web portal that connects the banquet and event managers (also known as convention services managers) across all properties, providing those employees a forum for sharing experiences and best practices and for soliciting advice on how to approach certain aspects of upcoming events.
Some of the enlightening stories they share with each other involve unexpected circumstances that caused significant last-minute complications for an event. The event managers on these internal forums often educate their colleagues by explaining how they tapped into whichever resources they could—within or outside the property—to save an event from disaster.
In that same spirit, we recently asked a longtime event manager at a large meetings-focused property to share stories about events she serviced that presented on-the-spot complications, requiring her to draw upon their full range of expertise to make things work.
At Chicago Hilton (the first property to use dedicated convention services managers, in the mid-1950s), Kathy Heneghan, hotel manager, has handled events across the 234,000 sq. ft. of meeting space for the past 10 years. In fact, one of her first serious event challenges at the property involved working with Barack Obama’s transition team just hours after his victory in the 2008 presidential election.
Once his election-night speech in nearby Grant Park was finished, Heneghan learned that President-elect Obama needed space on the property to meet with potential cabinet appointees, plus another space for press briefings—and it all had to be ready within 18 hours.
After dismantling the table in the hotel’s boardroom that same evening and hauling the pieces down to a larger room that would host the cabinet-selection meetings, Heneghan and her team actually went on a shopping hunt through the hotel to find furnishings and decor to fill out the room and make it look presidential.
“We went to our executive guest lounge and took books and lamps, and then we went to our exhibit space and found bookshelves to use as accents on the room’s perimeter,” she says. “We even rummaged through our GM’s office for useful items. And our facilities director figured out how to clip several flags in a way so that they hung vertically around the room in the proper fashion.”
But there was a second large task requiring immediate attention: the relocation of another group’s 800-person breakfast scheduled for the next morning in the ballroom being converted for the press briefings.
“We had to get another space set up at 6 a.m. to handle their meal, and then have enough people on property to guide those 800 attendees to their new space and away from the ballroom that the U.S. Secret Service now had control of,” Heneghan says. In the end, everything worked out such that Obama used the two large rooms for five weeks—forcing Heneghan to reassign event spaces for several other meetings coming in over that time frame.
In 2017, Heneghan had a moment of deja vu while working with a large computer company on a customer event that required a 1,000-square-foot, high-tech customer lounge on the exhibit floor.
“The planner was very concerned that we had all the technology elements set up in a certain way around the space,” she notes. Once the planner came through the lounge in the late afternoon and observed the successful testing of each technology, Heneghan asked her when the furniture for the lounge was coming so they could finish the set-up.“Her eyes got wide and she said, ‘Oh no—I forgot to order it!’” Heneghan says.
With the event beginning the next morning, Heneghan had to round up colleagues and comb the property for furnishings that would work in the space, much like nine years before.
“We went to our restaurants, elevator lobbies and other public spaces and grabbed small tables, soft chairs and couches that matched well enough,” she says. Hundreds of attendees conducted business in the lounge the next day, none the wiser to the impromptu setup.
Rob Carey is a business journalist and principal of Meetings & Hospitality Insight, a content marketing firm for the group-business market.