Case Study Back to School When nearly 200 meeting professionals met last October for an educational event sponsored by Meeting Professionals International, attendees knew they were in for a classroom experience. Little did they know that they were about to be immersed in a nostalgic, back-to-school atmosphere that would surprise them at every turn--so much so that even MPI's event organizers were wowed.

Judy Smith, director of education for Dallas-based MPI, says that the staff at Marriott's Bay Point Resort, in Panama Beach, Fla., had informed the association that they were planning to theme the gathering. But she had "no idea the extent to which they were going to take it. They took every single meal function--breakfasts, midmorning breaks, lunches, mid-afternoon breaks, and dinners--and made some effort to make them school-related. We're talking about costumes, decor, and scenery changes five times a day!"

The staff established the school theme at MPI's opening gathering, fashioning it after a spring-break party, complete with games and activities such as a bungee run and a Velcro wall. Having set the stage, the staff never dropped the ball, elaborating some aspect of the theme at every opportunity during the meeting.

For example, one meal function looked like a tailgate party at a college football game. A marching band led attendees outside, where a mock field had been created with yardage markers and goal posts and "MPI" had been painted on the grass in big letters. Around the edge of the field, tables overflowed with food typically found at a football game; diners were served by a wait staff that was suitably clad--the women in cheerleader uniforms with the letters "MPI" sewn on them and the men in jerseys of matching colors. They even did a cheer, Smith recalls.

A midmorning break was set up to like like a high school chemistry class, with lab equipment and staff dressed in white coats. At a table shrouded in dry-ice smoke, juices were served in beakers while a few staffers acted the part of the nutty professor. One midafternoon break was themed as an art class, with ice cream served in mock paint cans, while another function resembled shop class, with staff dressed up as shop teachers and tools and sawhorses as part of the decor. School recess, with the opportunity to play games like jump rope and hopscotch, was the theme of another break.

One break that turned out to be a mock fire drill was signaled by the piercing sound of the resort's fire alarm system. When meeting-goers dutifully trooped outside, they found themselves at a break fashioned after a school fire drill. No detail was spared: A full-size fire truck and local firemen attired in their protective gear were at the ready.

At lunch one afternoon, a local dance group on stilts, the Second Story Boys, led attendees in a rousing pep rally. The closing night event was--what else?--a graduation dinner. To the music of "Pomp and Circumstance," attendees entered the room, where the wait staff was dressed in caps and gowns. Each table featured an artfully lit ice sculpture centerpiece with small diplomas suspended in the ice.

Smith says she was impressed by the level of creativity, the depth of planning, and the involvement of the entire hotel staff. Best of all, the resort's labors helped MPI meet its educational agenda. "It was such a nice relief from the classroom effort that it enabled you to give your all in every session because you knew you could have fun in an hour and a half," Smith says. "You could really be intense when you needed to be, but the theme wasn't so distracting that you had to tear people away. It was just the right touch."