With several thousand attendees, exhibitors and speakers converging on Washington for CUNA's Governmental Affairs Conference, CUNA Senior Vice Presidents Jill Tomalin and Mark Wolff and Vice President Linda Johnson wind up keeping many balls in the air.
Whether it's checking congressional schedules and weather reports or checking with a caterer to be sure the food arrives at its appointed place, CUNA's team is trying to make sure that Murphy's Law doesn't apply to this year's conference.
Wolff, who is based in Washington and is the go-to person for coordinating the speakers and breakout sessions, said the schedules of members of Congress are often in flux and that requires frequent rearranging of time slots.
"We're always prepared for late cancellations. What's predictable is that things happen that aren't predictable," he said.
A few years ago, CUNA hired former Washington television news anchor Paul Berry as master of ceremonies to move the program along and provide material in case there are unscheduled gaps between speakers.
It's not only lawmakers who can cause problems with scheduling. Wolff recalled that a military band that had been slated to perform at the beginning of one of the sessions got caught in traffic and was late and had to be placed on the program later that morning.
Although lawmakers and regulators can't charge for their speeches, fees and expenses for other speakers cost about $200,000. Other big-ticket items include $100,000 to rent the Washington Convention Center and $300,000 for audiovisual equipment.
CUNA has 16 core staff members whose sole responsibility is preparing for the conference during the months leading up to it. In addition, all persons on the 60-member Washington staff get involved in the planning and implementation.
Tomalin, who is based in Madison, Wis., as is Johnson, said that because this is the third year CUNA has held the conference at the Washington Convention Center, it's a little easier than if they were changing venues annually.
"Our partners at the center know our needs," she said.
Nevertheless, a month before the conference, CUNA staff members did a walk through at the facility to check details, such as ensuring that there is adequate space for the more than 280 registered exhibitors.
The walk through follows a planning process that begins in earnest the summer before, when staff members discuss themes for the conference and possible speakers. They work with speakers bureaus to see who might be available within CUNA's price range.
Wolff declined to say how much CUNA are paying this year's speakers, who include former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough.
Johnson said that beginning in the summer they develop a specification document that lists all the details of the conference and includes Excel spreadsheets. By the time the conference starts, the document is usually more than 300 pages. In addition, they have weekly meetings to discuss the progress and deal with any crises.