Instead of worrying about room blocks, he's thinking about where the tents will go. Instead of fretting about food-and-beverage minimums, he's busy making sure that there are enough portable showers and toilets.
No, Vernon Byrd is not your typical meeting planner, and the event he runs, Camporee, is not your typical religious conference.
The official name of the event is the International Pathfinders Camporee, and it is held every five years on a large piece of land in Oshkosh, Wis., owned by the Experimental Aircraft Association.
Camporee is an international gathering of Pathfinders, a youth group of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The most recent Camporee took place August 12 to 16, and attracted 36,000 Pathfinders from around the world. The event was sold out.
For Byrd, operations manager at Andrew University, which runs Camporee, the event lasts much longer than five days. He's on-site in Oshkosh for a month in preparation. Planning for the next event, in 2014, begins in 2010. Soon he will start negotiating, booking vendors, planning logistics, and meeting regularly with about 250 directors, coordinators, and staff from around the country who will help him to make Camporee a reality.
Here's how the 2009 event came together.
In Tent City
Imagine a field filled with 10,000 to 12,000 tents and four 40,000-square-foot airplane hangars. That's Camporee.
About 10,000 attendees roll in Monday afternoon, August 11, and the rest come in on Tuesday. Upon arrival, the kids set up their tents, which they bring from home. Most sleep in their own small tents, but some sleep in tents that accommodate five to 10 people. There are some trailers, but the vast majority of participants sleep in tents.
By Tuesday morning, Byrd and his staff have been there for more than a week setting up.
Byrd gets to Oshkosh on August 3, which is when EAA's massive annual AirVenture show ends. AirVenture is even bigger than Camporee, with 80,000 airplane enthusiasts in attendance. Imagine the activity going on that day, with one massive show tearing down and the other getting ready to set up. Since EAA owns the site and meets there annually, Byrd and his staff are careful to stay out of the way. By Monday morning, EAA is gone, and the Camporee work begins in earnest.
For Byrd, who's been part of every Camporee since 1989 and has been operations manager since 1994, the good thing about coming back to the same facility every five years is that he knows exactly what needs to be done.
While he doesn't have to worry about room blocks and food and beverage-the campers prepare their own meals, usually on grills in front of their tents-he does have to set up the activities, and it's the activities that define Camporee.
Overall, there are some 130 activities, including obstacle courses, rocketry, sailing, canoeing, hot-air balloon rides, wall-climbing, remote-control-plane flying, and much more. The kids also participate in 125 "honor badge" activities that include basketry, fire-starting, geology, and astronomy. Some of the activities take place outside, while others are held in one of the four hangars. Camporee rents the local YMCA for off-site activities such as indoor soccer, swimming, and ice skating.
In addition, there is evening programming, usually performances done by the kids. The main production is performed in installments on each night of the event. This year, the Old Testament story of Esther is told.
Byrd and his crew are in charge of setting up the activities, making sure that the sports equipment, honor-badge supplies, and furnishings arrive and are in place. For the entertainment, it means making sure the stages are set, the lighting is installed, and all the other equipment is ready.
Three directors oversee the activities: one for on-site activities, one for off-site, and one for honor-badge activities. All three report to Byrd. "If they need something, I make sure it gets there." He also signs and negotiates all contracts and makes sure everything comes in on budget.
Overall, Byrd oversees a staff of about 600 workers on-site, including staff and volunteers.
"It's nice going back to the same facility because you can use the same vendors," Byrd says. "They know you, you know them." Of course, you still have to deliberate and negotiate on price, "but they know what your expectations are-and vice versa," he says. And all the vendors know the facility, so they know where to go and how to get there. If Camporee moved to a new facility every five years, Byrd says it would be much tougher to coordinate.
Showers and Toilets
When you create event space from an open field and airplane hangars, even the most basic amenities have to be provided. While there are permanent shower facilities on-site, Camporee has to bring in another five to seven portable shower trailers. Overall, there are about 1,000 shower stalls on the grounds. In addition, about 500 portable toilets are brought in. And just think of all the trash receptacles that have to be deployed-and then taken away at the end of the event.
Safety and security is another concern. The event has its own director of security, who oversees a staff of volunteers. Camporee also has awith local law enforcement to have officers on the grounds at all times. In addition, Byrd works with the city of Oshkosh to have an ambulance and emergency medical services personnel on-site.
By Saturday night, Camporee has concluded, and the teardown begins. It's like packing away a small city. While they spend a week building up the infrastructure, it takes only two days to clear the site. By Tuesday morning, everything is gone, with hardly any evidence that just two days before, there were 36,000 people walking about.
Vernon Byrd on the Value of RCMA
Vernon Byrd has been attending RCMA for about 10 years, and he always comes home with new ideas about how to run his event. He is particularly interested in the sessions that deal with legal matters and contract negotiations. “Things change constantly, whether it's contract law, liability, or risk, and I think RCMA does a good job of keeping on top of changes.”
Byrd has advice of his own for meeting planners. “One of the most important things for meeting planners to do is make sure you read the contract and always leave yourself a back door, because you will always need it.”
Byrd says religious meeting planners need to be selective in working with vendors, especially in this economy. “Everyone is competing for your business, so don't put on the blinders for any one vendor. There are others out there who do just as good a job, and they might be willing to give you more of what you need, whether it's complimentary rooms or other concessions.”