What to do when your attendees are sick and tired

Hope Levy Kott, project director for Rockville, Md. — based consulting firm IQ Solutions, had an interesting challenge when planning a two-day, 250-attendee scientific conference on chronic fatigue syndrome last October for the Department of Health and Human Services: trying to accommodate the patients who also wanted to attend the meeting. It was held at the Marriott Key Bridge in Washington, D.C.

“This syndrome is very difficult to diagnose, and it tends not to be taken seriously.” CFS patients — whose symptoms can include profound weariness, insomnia, auditory and visual disturbances, chemical sensitivities, and food intolerances — “have trouble getting people to understand that they have a real disease with real symptoms. These folks came to the meeting loaded for bear because they feel they're not heard by the medical community,” she says. Kott, with the help of Marriott Key Bridge director of convention services Ghada Ellassel and her staff, was determined to make these attendees feel understood and respected.

Comfort for the Weary

“We set up what we call a ‘comfort room,’” says Kott. In addition to providing a low-lit, quiet place to rest, the hotel let IQ pull chaises longues from the pool area, which was closed for the season, to put in the room. Then the hotel took it a step further by making up the chairs with pillows, sheets, and blankets (and remaking them several times a day).

The hotel also let IQ staffers bring in patio furniture, foot rests, and other furniture to put in the back of the meeting room so patients could have comfortable seating while they listened to the presentations.

Feeding Body and Soul

Because many patient-attendees need to snack frequently and are on a variety of diets — wheat-free, fat-free, high protein, low protein, etc. — “We beefed up staff in the gift shop so people could come in for frequent snacks,” Kott says. Organizers also set up cash-and-carry lunches, working closely with the chef to make sure that items were affordable and available la carte so people could buy only what they could eat.

“People were hugging us at the end,” says Kott. “They kept telling us that they felt validated, because someone had heard their needs. We felt good: We'd done our job.”