Meeting for Change and Acceptance

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.”