The day before our recent 130 person, 3-day multi-stakeholder workshop, we were excited to learn that not one, but three VIPs would attend our opening session – two ambassadors and a minister! This was great news in terms of national visibility for the event, demonstrated buy-in on our topic, and support for follow-up on the outcomes. In addition to these benefits, such situations also give organizers and facilitators the opportunity to pull out their VIP checklists. What’s on yours?
Here’s what was on mine: Press, Protocol, People and Programming.
With VIPs come Press, cameras, lighting, cables, microphones and all the people holding them – which interestingly don’t have the same feature of transparency that they hope their news promotes. Is there a dedicated place for Press so they aren’t blocking everything? Can you leave a front table free and reserved for “Press”? Or can you make plans for one of those many cameras to be projecting your VIP speaker on a screen so that the people in the audience can see the speaker and not just hear her?
In addition to potentially significantly restricting views, Press will also come and go at will. Think about their movements. Is there a side entrance they can use? A safe place for their gear? Can you brief them in advance as to where they should stand and set up?
With VIPs come Press, that’s a fact of life, and as a facilitator you can acknowledge them and ask your group to pause for a moment if need be to let them set up and do their work, so their movement isn’t disrupting you, the previous speaker(s) and activities, or absolutely everything.
Involving VIPs comes with other implications – in particular protocol about speaking order, which is one way unknowing hosts and facilitators can accidentally put their foot in it. This can be different country-by-country and even sector-by-sector. If you have an international set of VIP speakers, you might run into this confusing mix of protocols. However, go with where you are – most will defer to the host country in case there is any discrepancy in norms between who goes first and who goes last, for example. In some countries, the most important ranking official goes first, and in other countries, this person always has the last word. Don’t make any assumptions here, get advice!
Not only speaking order, but official titles can also be sensitive. Whether it is the honorific, or the longest possible form of the Ministry or High Commission’s official name, you need to get this just right both in the programme and orally when introducing them. Name cards or “Table tents” for the speakers can be very helpful in this case. If you don’t have them and if you are not local, or have less than 200% confidence that you have exactly the right information, invite the local host to introduce them, to make sure that everything that needs to be said about them is said in their speaker introductions, following the right order. This is protocol, respect and also – oh, yes, remember the Press? – this is all being recorded for posterity.
Almost always, the VIPs will want to see the speaking list BEFORE they come, which is good, because correcting a speaking order or an official title has caused many a hurried agenda reprint in the past, and you don’t want this to hold up things or take up all your time (especially in hotels where printing big numbers can be a major roadblock).
VIPs’ packed schedules also can mean uncertain arrivals, with minute-by-minute SMS updates from aides about traffic and ETAs, necessitating one dedicated point of contact on your team standing by, phone in hand. Even before your VIP arrives, there is the need to communicate and check all these important elements with necessary briefings which also must fit into the VIP’s crowded timetable and thus might literally happen outside your workshop door while participants await your guest(s). And there can be LOTS of people waiting for them…
Legions of followers are another feature of welcoming VIPs, swelling your ranks for the opening session and providing big numbers for room size and catering (and the group photo if you take it quickly enough!) But these people normally disappear at the coffee break, leaving many half-empty tables and seats, and your room feeling a bit barren. You want to welcome them, and at the same time, keep your core participants together. Can you have a couple of rows of empty chairs at the side, back or front, to seat these guests and then remove them at the break? This is often not 5 or 10 chairs which you could easily stack in the corner by yourself during coffee, but can be more like 30 or 50, so alert the hotel conference staff in advance about this to get help. Remember to bring these chairs back in for your closing, particularly if there is a high-level element, as there often is when you start with one.
The organizers might also offer an opportunity in the registration process for people to indicate if they are coming only to the opening/closing, or staying the whole time, so that you can adjust your participant count numbers accordingly – not printing too many worksheets, or job aids, and adjusting catering for the rest of the workshop. Sometimes the numbers of this category of participant, coming to support and hear from the VIPs, is surprisingly large and can make a big difference to, and impact on, different aspects of your workshop.
Taken together, this means that your programme and facilitation design needs to be highly flexible, not too tight and rigid. You can still have your timing planned out and a logical sequence. But you need a firm Plan B, particularly for delays (from short to really long) or even last-minute changes or no shows. Do you have some blank name plates and an appropriate black marker that you can use to quickly write in a new name? Do you have an activity that can be done with the group while they wait? For example, can you “officially” schedule table introductions for just after the high-level opening, and then move them up if your VIPs are VLPs (Very Late People). Can you have a discussion/ reflection question ready? One that can develop into a rich conversation or be cut off quickly and picked up later when the door swings opens and the security and aides walk in, to a hail of flash bulbs, preceding your much-anticipated speakers?
VIP participants can influence your workshop, meeting or conference in many useful and distinctive ways, don’t let them also be unexpected!