What happens when your meeting hotel gets a presidential surprise?
Imagine attending a continuing medical education activity when all of a sudden the hotel is swarmed by media, an army of security personnel, and, oh yeah, President Barack Obama and his family.
That's what happened to a group called Big Sky Oncology, which was holding a CME activity at the Big Sky Resort in Big Sky, Mont., last August. While it didn't interfere much with the docs earning their CME credits, the presidential visit did make for an interesting few days at the hotel.
The first inkling that the president planned to visit came to the hotel's personnel about three weeks out when White House staff called checking availability for a “primary guest,” recalls Dax Schieffer, director of public relations and partner, resort. They didn't say whom, exactly, but they did say to keep the inquiry confidential. About a week later, hotel General Manager Taylor Middleton was informed that the Obamas would be spending the night on August 14. Hotel officials later learned that the president would be in the area for a town hall meeting in nearby Bozeman that day.
With the visit a week away, Middleton and his staff organized an eight-member group dubbed “the Secret Keepers” to handle the visit. “We basically met every day, at the same time, to help triangulate and coordinate all the information we'd receive between the advance White House teams and Marine One,” explains Schieffer. “Constant communication was key.” It all had to be kept on the down low, since the hotel that the first family was staying at hadn't been announced.
That meant the meeting groups — including Big Sky Oncology — were not made aware that the first family would be visiting, says Schieffer. “We could not even tell our staff.”
The resort has about 725 rooms and 55,000 square feet of meeting space across multiple properties, including the Summit Hotel, where the oncology meeting was taking place and the Obamas were staying.
Two Secret Keeper team members worked directly with the White House advance travel staff, which made lodging-related requests and inquiries. One team member handled food and beverage requests from the travel staff, while another worked with Secret Service. The Secret Service was “incredibly friendly and gracious about our assistance,” says Schieffer. “Of course, as soon as the president's motorcade got close, things got serious.”
There was also a team member appointed to work directly with personnel at Marine One, the president's helicopter. Just to make sure that the Secret Keepers were covering all their bases and handling the requests, there was a standing meeting every day at 1 p.m. to update everyone and coordinate functions. Schieffer, charged with updating team members on local media buzz and ensuring that word of the president's visit hadn't leaked, also sat in on the meetings, as did the general manager and director of operations. When President Obama arrived at the hotel, he was greeted by four of the Secret Keepers.
A 400-Room Presidential Block
To prepare for the Obamas, the hotel staff blocked off 400 rooms around the property, many of them at the resort's Summit Hotel. For just the first family and Secret Service personnel — including the president, first lady Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and the president's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng — they blocked off two entire floors. Then they set aside rooms for White House advisers, staff, and the travel team, as well as for law enforcement and emergency personnel, and the 60-member White House press corps at other buildings on site, including the Huntley Lodge and Village Center. The block also included empty rooms for security reasons.
In addition, they had to install special phone and communication lines that were compatible with White House communication equipment, and they had to rig the service elevators so they went directly to the 10th floor, where the first family was staying.
While the CME group was not made aware of the Obamas' visit in advance, it became pretty clear to everyone on site on the day of the visit as security personnel guarded the entrances to the Summit Hotel and everyone had to go through security screens similar to those at airports. But the hotel remained open and people were welcome to come and go and wander around the lobby. Only the top two floors were off-limits.
Aside from the heightened security and screenings, the group faced only minor inconveniences. The parking lots were shut down for the Marine One helicopters (guests had to be shuttled to the property), and one of the group's dinners being moved to another on-property location on the night of the president's stay.