Like any meeting planner worth his salt, Barry Wolpa is obsessed with details. For a Genworth Financial Inc. dinner at the Great Wall of China, Wolpa, vice president of meetings and incentive trips, even consulted a lunar calendar. He wanted the 225 incentive winners and their guests to dine as a full moon slowly rose over the Great Wall, illuminating the massive structure for miles.
More than just a spectacular closing night dinner, the final evening of this mid-May incentive trip was to be Wolpa's swan song: At the end of June, he would be retiring from San Francisco-based Genworth after 18 years.
“I dreamed of this event for two years,” he says. “I created it in painstaking detail.” As the group approached the wall, they would be greeted by 50 Tibetan drummers in full traditional regalia, then be guided up to the crest of a walkway and wowed when floodlights suddenly revealed the portion of the Great Wall where they would be dining. For the finale, Wolpa had wrangled permission to shoot off $25,000 worth of fireworks.
The Earthquake Strikes
But there was one detail he couldn't possibly have accounted for. As the first of his two groups, each of whom spent five nights at the Raffles Beijing Hotel, was on its way to the Great Wall for that eye-popping dinner, an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale hit Sichuan Province. Although the epicenter of the quake was in Western China, almost 1,000 miles away, those who were in the hotel ballroom waiting to board buses saw chandeliers shake.
“I got a text message from my colleague back at the hotel who was going to be on the last bus saying, ‘Oh my God, there was just a tremor. Chandeliers are swinging three inches off center,’” Wolpa recalls.
He stayed cool and focused on moving his group. “I got all of my buses out of Beijing before the buildings emptied. Office buildings just kind of emptied into the street because they were swaying.”
That evening's events at the Great Wall were unaffected by the disaster, the full scope of which wasn't apparent until the following day, as members of the second group were preparing to board planes to China. Since day-to-day life in Beijing was unaffected by the quake, there was no consideration of a major change of plans.
“I did receive a few e-mails from folks who were nervous because they feared impact on Beijing or travel to Beijing,” Wolpa says. “So I sent out an e-mail to all the attendees assuring them that, while the earthquake was very serious in the region where it occurred, it did not create any issues for travel to Beijing, and I let everyone know that they should continue with their plans. The proactive e-mail blast did the trick. Everyone came.”
Days of Mourning
But that was far from the end of trouble for Wolpa. Both groups were following the same itinerary — half-days spent with the group doing private tours of stunning sites like the Summer Palace and Tiananmen Square, with the other part of the day taken up by a choice of five optional tours. Everything went fine with the second trip until, less than eight hours before their Great Wall evening, the Chinese government declared a three-day national period of mourning for the victims of the quake. They pulled every permit Wolpa had — no fireworks, no dancers, no dinner. Not even access to the Great Wall.
The situation deteriorated from there. Wolpa's inclement weather back-up venue returned his $5,000 deposit on the spot because of the decree. Every other facility in Beijing large enough to accommodate his group would not work with him.
When news of the permit denials came, the Shangri-La Hotel, which was handling the catering for Wolpa's dinner, was already out at the site with the food. They agreed to continue to prepare and serve the meal. Starting from that point, Wolpa asked Brian Yin, co-owner of Destination China, thehe was working with, to help him re-create what he could. “I told him two things: I'm not going to ask you to do anything that would jeopardize your ability to do business going forward. So I'm not going to say shoot off the fireworks and pay the consequences. And two, we need to focus on what we can do rather than on what we can't do.”
Yin and his staff painstakingly renegotiated every part of the evening's festivities, coming at last to an event at the Wall that respected the Chinese government's wishes. “[Yin] knows all the right people in Beijing,” Wolpa says. “He is about as connected as anybody could be, so I was really grateful to be in his hands.”
Step by step over the next several hours, Wolpa pieced his event back together, re-securing permission to use the Great Wall site and negotiating all the details. To avoid attracting too much attention, he scrapped the initial plan for flipping the floodlights at just the right moment to reveal the elegant dinner set-up in favor of putting on the lights before sunset. The exotic dancers that were to perform during the meal were still allowed to dance, but officials denied musical accompaniment. Permission for amplification was re-granted after Wolpa made a heartfelt plea to the official in charge, explaining his impending retirement and desire to address the gathering. But the winners dined in silence.
The Right DMC
Wolpa credits Yin for helping to recover most of his original event plan. “You have to be able to work through your DMC and to trust them implicitly,” he says.
An experienced planner and world traveler who speaks Italian, Spanish, and French, and understands German, Wolpa is used to taking charge of his negotiations around the world. But China was a challenge due to its culture, the Communist government, and a language he had no hope of understanding.
“In China, they haven't been doing Western incentives for as long. They think differently, and they act differently,” he says. “It is different working with a Communist country — no doubt about it. There are regulations; they can change their minds; they can do anything.”
After the fact, though, he has a different perspective about the evening at the Great Wall. “This was a national disaster that took 80,000 lives,” he says. “If we had to skip the fireworks, people certainly understood.”