Few would argue that former President Bill Clinton is a gifted orator, as witnessed by his nomination speech at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night in Charlotte, N.C. I was impressed with his passion when I saw him speak live at the recent Global Business Travel Association meeting in July in Boston, where he focused on many of the same themes, including the harm that “constant conflict” creates. He said at the DNC, ‘‘When times are tough and people are frustrated and angry and hurting and uncertain, the politics of constant conflict may be good, but what is good politics does not necessarily work in the real world. What works in the real world is cooperation.’’
That’s a powerful message and one few could deliver as well as Clinton, however high-caliber speakers bring their own set of challenges to you as association meeting managers, including how you deal with the press at your events. And on that note, as an editor in the trenches, I have two comments for GBTA: The policing of the press should be consistent—and, please, give us plenty of notice about the rules.
GBTA drew nearly 6,000 attendees to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center July 22–25. Our Boston-based editorial staff was thrilled at the prospect of covering two former presidents GBTA had lined up: George W. Bush and Clinton.
I remember getting the press release from GBTA in February announcing Bush as a speaker. Wow, I thought: Now there’s a very high-profile speaker who will certainly be a draw; but doesn’t that mean GBTA is leaning a bit toward the right in this political season? How can a Republican former president take center stage in an election year without offering equal time to the Democrats?
Not 10 days later, a GBTA release announcing Clinton as another keynote speaker landed in my inbox. I wondered to my staff, did GBTA get grief from its Democrat constituents? Well, both appearances must have been in the plans all along, although we cannot get confirmation.
Fast-forward to the convention here in Boston in July. Bush spoke at Tuesday’s luncheon and Clinton was the closing speaker on Wednesday.
There was a bit of a kerfuffle around press coverage. When our staff arrived, they were given a handout explaining coverage restrictions. Bush staff would not allow press to cover his speech, but those willing to gather an hour beforehand could sit in the far back for the first three minutes to take still photos, no video. The handout warned that rule-breakers would have their registration revoked. Sure enough, they corralled us into a press space in the hall, then after a few minutes made us leave. But certain media re-entered through the regular entrance and later reported on the entire speech. His remarks were also streamed to a TV set in the foyer outside the ballroom, so anyone could listen. Clinton made no limitations for press.
As it turned out, neither talk was very political, and neither addressed business travel in any meaningful way. Does GBTA know its audience? For sure. Delegates clearly were interested in hearing them speak. Crowds started lining up well ahead of time for each speech, the queues snaking down the hallway and around the corner in either direction.
The next meeting I attended, ASAE in August, had two politicos on the agenda, James Carville and Karl Rove, giving both parties equal time. ASAE definitely knows its audience, too, and while there were no lines out the door for this general session, staff understood the sheer entertainment value both pundits brought to the table. Most attendees left the room laughing, if not swayed by either’s political chatter, which seemed loose on the facts. At least the press got to cover the whole thing.