DAN MEYER IS YOUR AVERAGE, EVERYDAY-LOOKING GUY
He's married, lives in Nashville, and works for a company that provides Internet access to some 1,900 schools in Tennessee. But he stuck out like a sore thumb last year at the Inkin' the Valley Tattoo Convention and Sideshow Gathering. Strolling among tattoo aficionados adorned with body art and strange piercings, Meyer overheard a comment about his group, the sword swallowers, who occupied the other side of the exhibit hall.
“Those people over there are weird,” said the man covered from head to toe in tattoos. Meyer, the executive director of the Sword Swallowers Association International, had to laugh.
“I thought that was the funniest thing — the pot calling the kettle black,” cracks Meyer, who launched SSAI two years ago and is also known as “Halfdan, the Human Dipstick” and “Belteshazzar, the Blade Glommer.” He is currently organizing the third Sword Swallowers Convention at the Inkin' the Valley Tattoo Convention and Sideshow Gathering, to be held over Labor Day weekend in Wilkes Barre, Pa.
It just goes to show that even in the world of “alternative”, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.Indeed, while mainstream professional societies and trade associations constitute the well-known face of the convention industry, there are thousands of groups getting together annually who are united in their unusual, off-beat, or just plain wacky interests — from women in red hats celebrating middle age to earnest believers in ghosts. It's a world reflective of the incredible diversity of American culture — and one where meeting planning faces its own set of challenges.
SWORDS AND STIGMA
One challenge for the sword-gulping group, for instance, is getting their props to the annual event. Swords are not exactly airplane carry-on items. That's where an SSAI membership card comes in handy. “It kind of helps convince them to let me on the plane,” explains Meyer, although his crate of swords must fly in baggage. All performers are responsible for bringing their own props, whether they're swords or a bed of nails.
Meyer's biggest challenge — outside of getting a 24-inch blade down his throat without killing himself — is rounding up a select group of performers to attend the convention. As executive director of the SSAI, Meyer is in contact with all the active sword swallowers in the world, who number about 40. But to get them to come to the convention, Meyer found that he needed a hook, not a sword.
So he organized The Big Swallow, a midnight performance during the convention at which all the sword swallowers in attendance would attempt to set the record for most swords ingested at once. Since it had never been done before, setting the record the first time would be easy. The first year, 2002, 19 people swallowed a total of 50 swords to set the record. This year, Meyer and his associates will be looking to beat the 2002 record, which was not broken last year.
Getting publicity for the feat was an added bonus as CNN, The Discovery Channel, Shocked and Amazed TV, and the Travel Channel, have all done features on the Big Swallow. This year, the Big Swallow will be held at midnight on Friday, September 3.
While some off-beat groups seek out the spotlight, others, perhaps unfairly, have a reputation that precedes them. For Starfleet International Inc., an association for fans of “Star Trek,” the science fiction television series that spawned movies and spinoff series, the biggest meeting planning challenge is overcoming the “stigma of the Trekkie,” according to Michael Malotte, awho heads up the association and whose official title is Commander, Starfleet.
“People sometimes don't take you seriously,” he says. “Fighting the stigma of the geeky person that lives in their mother's basement and has never been kissed is kind of a standard thing for the Trekkie.” Indeed, Starfleet has raised its fair share of eyebrows when booking hotels over the years. “We have people that look at you and say, ‘Oh, my God. What have I walked into?’ and other people who say, ‘This is pretty cool.’” But after 30 years, the Starfleet group has become less of a novelty. Some hotels, like the Kansas City (Mo.) Airport Marriott, where Starfleet has held its convention three times, get into the spirit of the convention by having staff wear Spock ears.
Each year, the convention destination is selected based on a theme. Last year it was held in Charlotte, N.C., in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight. This year, as we went to press, the convention was to be held in Birmingham, Ala., at the end of July. The theme: “Journey to the Land of the Vulcan.” No, not that kind of Vulcan, but the Roman god of fire and forge, whose statue overlooks the city.
The Birmingham Marriott is hosting the meeting, with attendance expected to be between 200 and 300, which is about average. The guestis Lee Shackleford, a professor at the University of Alabama and former writer for “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” William Shatner (James T. Kirk), and Patrick Stewart (Jean-Luc Picard), two Star Trek captains, have not yet made appearances at the group's annual convention, but actors such as Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and George Takei (Sulu) have attended over the years, Malotte notes.
A volunteer-driven, nonprofit association, Starfleet boasts 4,000 members and 250 chapters around the world. More than half of the chapters donate to local charities, and this year proceeds from the national convention will benefit the Ronald McDonald House, says Malotte. “You pretty much name the charity and someone's probably raising funds for it.” They also have a scholarship program for up to 10 members (or their families) each year to offset the cost of college tuition.
“We have our reality-challenged members,” concedes Malotte, who, when he is not at the Starfleet helm, is technical support manager for Gateway Computers in Kansas City. While some fans do show up in full Klingon regalia and other costumes, many are more subdued and go for the camaraderie.
“It's more of an association of friends,” he says. “People who have been brought together with a common interest.”
Common interest is sometimes not so common. Take, for example, the American Ghost Society. Founded in 1995, the organization boasts more than 600 members, mostly ghost hunters and ghost enthusiasts. Troy Taylor, ghost hunter and author of 33 books, including his most recent, The Ghost Hunter's Guidebook, put together the society's first conference in 1997 in Decatur, Ill. He has since moved it to his home base in Alton, Ill.
Originally, the conference was to be held at a local hotel, but plans fell through so the meeting was moved to his bookstore, which turned out to be a great location because it not only reduced overhead, but the old building, with a haunted history, provided the perfect atmosphere.
“I never really believed it [was haunted] even though this is my business,” Taylor admits. “It seemed too good to be true, until things actually started to happen.” At a conference reception a few years ago, he recalls, people were conversing in the back when all of a sudden, books started flying off the shelves.
Then there's Bill Washell, founder of Maine's Paranormal Research Association, based in Lewiston. Washell, who specializes in voice phenomena — he records spirit voices electronically — has been bumped, heard chains rattle, seen apparitions, and had a sleeper sofa slide across the room toward him in his experiences as a ghost hunter. He got into the field at the age of 18 when his recently deceased mother appeared before him in his bedroom to tell him everything would be OK.
At the group's inaugural conference, the 2003 New England Ghost Conference held in Salem, Mass., Washell had a close encounter of a different kind. “While we were doing our conference, this little old lady was walking up and down the hall, blessing the hall,” he says. “She would follow us everywhere we'd go and bless that spot.”
The association's second annual conference will be held August 6 to 8 at the Parkwood Inn, Brunswick, Me., and is open to the public. “The goal for our conference is to bring something different and unique into our area,” Washell says.
That strategy has worked well for Taylor's American Ghost Society, which Alton now welcomes with open arms, after some initial apprehension. The local Holiday Inn, the biggest hotel in town, even blocked rooms for the event this year for the first time.
“We kind of went from being that oddball thing that nobody talks about to being embraced by the community,” says Taylor, who was surprised to win an award from the tourism board in Alton. “I think they finally woke up and said, ‘Hey, these ghost people are spending a lot of money in town.’”
SPECIAL NEEDS FOR SPECIAL GROUPS
Sandy Brown — the festival director for the volunteer-managed International Jugglers' Association — knows all about juggling several tasks at once. That's because Brown, for 17 years, was a professional juggler who went by the name of Sandy Brown, Juggler Renowned. That was then. Now she is a licensed physical therapist in Kansas City who doubles as the person in charge of putting on the annual convention for a 2,000-plus member organization that is anything but ordinary.
IJA's 57th annual convention, held this summer at the Buffalo (N.Y.) Convention Center, attracted about 1,200 members. “It's a very colorful festival,” says Brown. “Things are flying through the air, people are on unicycles. You just see some unbelievable things.”
As one might imagine, very high ceilings are a necessity to accommodate the shows, competitions, workshops, and demonstrations that make up the bulk of the program. And because the group puts on a variety show every year, access to a performing arts center is mandatory. This year, the world-famous Flying Karamazov Brothers were the guests of honor, performing at both the convention center and a nearby theater.
One of the group's most unusual requirements is that IJA members must have 24-hour access to the center. “People will be in there throughout the day and throughout the night,” says Brown. “Juggling never stops. Jugglers don't sleep.”
The special needs of some groups have nothing to do with entertainment — and everything to do with social change. “There are lots of things we have to look for in a hotel that most meeting planners don't have to look for,” says Maryanne Bodolay, executive director and meeting planner with the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, based in Sacramento, Calif.
The 2,000-member organization was founded in 1969 to fight discrimination and serve as a support group for fat individuals, which, the organization is proud to point out, is not a four-letter word. With a focus on activism and education, the organization holds an annual convention that consists predominantly of workshops and seminars that look to raise community awareness, promote movement and health for people of every size, and help children and adults cope with diet and weight issues, explains Bodolay.
The theme of this year's convention — held in August at the Newark (N.J.) Liberty Airport Marriott Hotel — is “Dream Big,” with a program designed to encourage members to follow their dreams and not put them on hold. Attendance is expected to be about 400.
Bodolay looks for a hotel that is self-contained because members spend 99 percent of their time at the property. But the hotel can't be too big because some members have mobility issues. The group also requires an accessible pool with steps as opposed to ladders, adequate-sized bathrooms in the guest rooms, and pre-determined meeting space so that hoteliers can't shuffle sessions based on head counts. Historically, she has found that airport hotels generally fit the bill. “The hotels love us because once we're there, we stay there,” she says.
Once the destination is selected, Bodolay does a lot of pre-con work with hotel staff on sensitivity training. “We go into a lot of detail about what's acceptable and what's not acceptable,” she says. Many of the members are bilingual, so she lets hotel staff know that slurs made in other languages are often detected and not tolerated. Incidents are rare, but when they do occur, Bodolay insists that the employee be sent home.
“I'm ferocious when it comes to protecting the attendee, and I pretty much will go though anything to do that,” she states. “These six days need to be a time where they can be safe. They're paying a lot of money to be safe, and I go through a lot of trouble to make sure of it.”
MEET THE RED-HAT NATION
When British poet Jenny Joseph wrote the poem, “Warning,” she probably didn't imagine the phenomenon that has become the Fullerton, Calif. — based Red Hat Society. The speaker in the poem is a woman who celebrates her aging by wearing a purple dress and a red hat, drinking brandy, and making up for the temperance of youth.
Sue Ellen Cooper, founder and “Exalted Queen Mother” of the Red Hat Society, was so inspired by the poem that she decided to give her women friends a red hat on their 50th birthday as a rite of passage, explains Matthew Reekstin, vice president of finance, meeting planner, and Cooper's son-in-law. “The idea was to have fun with aging, to reach the plateau with fun and laughter rather than dread,” Reekstin explains.
Four years ago, a small society of 20 women was formed to do just that, and largely through word of mouth and some magazine articles, the group has grown like wildfire. Today, there are 25,000 chapters, primarily throughout the United States and Canada, and approximately 600,000 members, with chapters popping up around the world. “It's pretty much gone from a little family business to a big family business,” with 50 staff members, including a CMP, Reekstin says.
The first convention was in in 2002 in Chicago, where 425 women showed up in the uniform of the society: red hat and purple dress. This year, 2,500 people attended the “Red Hat Rodeo” at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center near Dallas. The convention featured a barbecue, a trip to a rodeo, guest speakers, and a performance of “Menopause, The Musical.” Red Hat gatherings are designed to be low on formality and high on fun, and are based each year on a theme, Reekstin says.
“Meals aren't just meals, they are events, like the pajama breakfast, the gospel brunch, or high tea. Hotels love having the group because they are so outgoing and colorful,” Reekstin says. “Other guests are always peeking in on their events out of curiosity.”
To attract the Red Hat Society, a destination must possess an important attribute: “It has to be a fun city, with an interesting draw,” Reekstin says. The 2005 event will be held in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand and has been dubbed “The Big Deal.”
“We pride ourselves on serving members and making them feel important,” he says. “It's really all about them.”
Pack Light for This One
Site selection is relatively cut and dried for the American Association for Nude Recreation, based in Kissimmee, Fla. It's either at a clothing-optional resort or it's not an option. Fortunately for the AANR, there are 267 nude resorts in the United States and Canada, including Glen Eden Sun Club, Corona, Calif., site of the 2004 convention.
AANR expects about 1,000 people to attend the annual convention in August, says Carolyn Hawkins, public relations coordinator at AANR, so the resort has to have the meeting space to accommodate a fairly large group and have adequate recreational facilities.
Recreation is indeed the focus of AANR, which was established in 1931 and boasts 50,000 members, so ample swimming, tennis, volleyball, horseshoes, hiking, horseback riding, and other amenities are a must. But there is also an educational and business component to the meeting, says Hawkins, and yes, these indoor sessions are clothing optional too. “If it's chilly, like an air-conditioned room, then some prefer to have a T-shirt on, but basically these folks are nudists and they want to be nude,” says Hawkins. “Nude when possible, clothes when practical.”
While the resorts have rooms, space is limited so some guests of the annual meeting must stay at nearby hotels, where clothing is required for all guests. The AANR has yet to run into any problems at local hotels. In fact, says Hawkins, they are very receptive and usu-ally give the association special group rates.