Meetings & Conventions: Do the right thing February
Do the Right Thing
In doubt about what's proper? Just ask a Protocol
BY LISA GRIMALDIA
lvin Harvey's day-to-day job is, in most
ways, not all that different from a conventional meeting planner's.
Harvey oversees the nitty-gritty details of his boss' meetings. He
holds pre-cons and post-cons, selects vendors, makes housing
arrangements for attendees and pores over the fine print of
contracts. For special events, he painstakingly chooses wines,
adjusts menus and fine-tunes seating charts at the 11th hour.
But Harvey, as the protocol official for the government cabinet
of Bermuda Premier Pamela F. Gordon, also has to perform one or two
duties a typical member of Meeting Professionals International or
the Professional Convention Management Association wouldn't: He may
be asked to coordinate the guest list for a dinner held during a
state visit by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, or even be called
upon to decide a matter of which of two national flags should have
the top spot on the flagpole.
These duties may sound more befitting of Perle Mesta (the famous
U.S. ambassador on whose life the musical Call Me Madame
was based) than, say, Anna Lee Chabot (the current president of
MPI), but they're all in a day's work for Harvey and other members
of the Council of Protocol Executives (see related story, "They've
Learned to COPE," on page 88). This corps of 200 professionals
makes their respective livings minding the p's and q's of
government leaders and the top executives and other employees of
corporations and associations, in addition to planning high-end
meetings and special events.
The specifics of their jobs vary according to the nature of
their employers. Alvin Harvey, for example, performs the
traditional tasks of a diplomatic functionary -- handling such
minutia as which dignitary gets which seat for the Queen's
[Elizabeth] Birthday Parade and keeping track (for his boss) of who
in Bermuda is divorced from whom. Others, like Sandy Steinberg,
director of corporate meetings for New York City-based Chase
Manhattan Bank, must dictate correct form and etiquette to top
brass for their dealings with international leaders of business and
politics, as well as plan events that are attended by dignitaries
and their entourages. And some, like Barbara Benedict, protocol
officer for Basking Ridge, N.J.-based AT&T, and Sally O'Connor,
chief of protocol for Boston-based BankBoston, serve as their
firms' in-house Amy Vanderbilts, making sure their traveling
executives don't lose face when conducting business with or
entertaining clients from different cultures.
Perhaps you're enticed by the prospect of planning events filled
with titled heads, politicians, CEOs, swanky dinners and
free-flowing champagne (all of which are generally just a fraction
of the job). Before dusting off the résumé, consider that the
organization you now work for might benefit from protocol advice,
either through a hired consultant or through your own efforts to
become a self-made expert (see "Good Schooling," below, and
"Protocol in Print" on page 89).
Glamorous images aside, as the following tales will attest, the
duties of protocol execs -- similar to those of meeting planners --
are generally far from the klieg lights and CNN cameras.
What's in a title or name? A heck of lot when the names are of
rich, famous, and/or powerful VIPS.
Chase Manhattan's Steinberg deals with foreign heads of state,
government cabinet officials, governors and mayors, all of whom may
be customers, guests or speakers at a bank-sponsored function. "The
most important way of showing respect to these folks is to know how
to address them." She and her staff get that information from
sources such as foreign consulates, embassies and the U.S.
Department of State.
"My department also keeps files on what they like to eat, the
names of their spouses -- you name it," she says of her high-placed
guests. Steinberg then holds informal briefings for the company
personnel who will be in contact with these leaders, to make sure
they're on top of the details.
Page Kjellstrom, a 15-year protocol veteran who is currently
vice president of meeting services for NIMA International, a
Washington, D.C.-based association that represents the electronic
retailing industry, also knows the power of proper titles. She once
served as a protocol consultant for a furniture company that had a
"Stately Homes of England and Scotland" collection. Lord and Lady
Astor were on hand to launch the products in the States. "The
people who were going to meet them -- employees of furniture stores
and design centers -- wanted to know how to address them ("Viscount
and Viscountess Astor" in writing, but "Lord and Lady Astor" in
person). They also wanted to know proper etiquette -- should they
bow or curtsy upon introduction?" (The answer: no.)GOOD
How does one become a
protocol pro? A background in planning and/or special events is a
good springboard. The rest is generally learned by on-the-job
experience. But for those who want to learn business p's and q's
, several firms offer courses that school individuals
in the finer points of protocol -- as well as offer their protocol
expertise for hire. Among them:
The Lett Group
Silver Spring, Md.
Fax: (301) 933-3884
www.lettgroup.comMotria's Image and Etiquette
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Fax: (204) 269-4958
www.motria.mb.caProtocol Advisors, Inc.
San Francisco, Calif.
Fax: (415) 673-9058
(Note: This Web site also provides international protocol
While banquet seating is a royal pain for most planners, it
takes on new significance when foreign or high-ranking officials
are in attendance, as Sandy Steinberg well knows.
"Asians are very status-conscious and always want to be seated
at the best table," she says. "In the Western business world,
tables are numbered in a random fashion and numbers usually don't
correlate to how important a table is.
"The first time I arranged a big dinner in Hong Kong, the tables
were numbered and -- guess what? -- everyone wanted to sit at Table
1. I ended up having to seat 24 people there," she laughs. "Now I
use letters of the alphabet to mark tables, and no one can quite
tell which table is 'best.'"
A protocol expert's seating plan can also be put to the test for
reasons beyond social concerns. "You can't seat the president at a
round table in the middle of a room -- it would be too hard for
Secret Service agents to cover him," says Kjellstrom, who also
served as a protocol consultant for events held during the Bush
She adds, "The [Secret Service] agents also must be seated at a
nearby table -- so you have to make sure they're included when
you're ordering food, seats, etc." And remember: Security forces
need to do a walk-through of the room prior to the event.
Dinners aren't the only place where seating can get sticky. One
of the most challenging aspects of Alvin Harvey's job is
coordinating the VIP seats for the Queen's Birthday Parade (which
Bermuda, as a British Crown Colony, celebrates) so that they get an
appropriate salute from the Bermuda military when the troops march
past. "If they're not in the right spot, they let you know --
they're quick to tell you about your mistakes," he quips.
Part of Sally O'Connor's job with BankBoston, which has branches
in 25 countries, is to brief employees on the customs and habits of
the countries they visit. For a group of 23 executives who attended
the International Monetary Fund conference in Hong Kong last
September, she put together a briefing book on Asian customs, with
special attention to the ceremony of exchanging business cards. One
reminder: "Never put away the card that you've been given; keep it
right on the table the whole time," she says.
Since BankBoston has many holdings in Latin America, she's also
had to bone up on business customs in the Southern Hemisphere. A
tip she frequently shares with executives heading south of the
border: Before you can talk business, you must make inquiries about
your colleagues' families.
She also encourages executives embarking on business trips to
Latin America to learn a few words of Spanish before the trip, as
their colleagues "will really appreciate the effort."
Like O'Connor, Barbara Benedict creates briefing packages for
out-bound AT&T executives, including information on everything
from gift-giving to AT&T's history and involvement in the
country they're visiting. "Our motto is to create a
distraction-free environment for our people to meet with
international guests when they travel abroad," she says. She also
teaches a "charm school" for managers who deal with multinational
accounts and host international customers here.
When NIMA holds events in Japan, Page Kjellstrom often has to
brief North American members on sponsorship recognition. "In Japan,
you can't just lump all the sponsors of an event together. There's
a hierarchy that's followed [according to their contribution], and
they're either listed as a sponsor, endorser or cooperator, in that
order."THEY'VE LEARNED TO
Among the impressive
ranks of the Council of Protocol Executives, you'll find protocol
officials, planners and event specialists for banks, high-tech
firms, associations, museums, government offices and publishing
companies. But you won't find suppliers. "That's one of the things
that distinguishes us from the other planning and special event
organizations," says Edna Greenbaum, the New York City-based
organization's executive director.
Members, who must be employed and have at least two years
of experience in the planning and/or protocol field, get together
on a monthly basis for networking and a meal -- usually in the New
York City area, where most of the 200 members are based. The
meeting venue is always one that members might consider for their
own events -- typically upscale spots like the Trump International
"But we've also had events at places like X-S New York,
an interactive video club, that might be a great place to throw a
holiday party for young [Wall Street] traders," says Nancy Small,
director of special events at New York HospitalCornell Medical
Center, who also serves as COPE's president.
The organization also holds semiannual seminars --
full-day events with speakers and educational sessions. The most
recent, held last month in Manhattan, focused on technology and
A/V. In the past, seminars have offered courses in diplomatic
protocol and business etiquette. Occasionally, events are staged
out of town; last year, COPE sponsored a site inspection of
Atlanta, where a number of upper-echelon hotels, caterers and
venues strutted their stuff.
In addition to the networking and educational
opportunities, COPE members receive a copy of Protocol, a directory
Greenbaum compiles. The 500-plus page volume lists the best event
suppliers (based on member recommendations) in 47 international
cities. For more information, contact COPE at (212) 675-1688. *
It also helps if a protocol executive considers "born to shop" a
personal motto. Because in many cases, they're put in charge of
their organization's official gifts -- which is not quite as fun
and frivolous as it sounds.
When the recipients are not American, Kjellstrom will contact
their embassy or the State Department to determine an appropriate
present. "On a more personal level, I'll contact the individual's
assistant, or a business associate who knows them well, to find out
if they collect anything or what their interests are," she
Sometimes, the role of official shopper crosses into the role of
gift gestapo. "Our people are supposed to let me handle gifts for
international visitors," says AT&T's Benedict. "But once, some
executives here wanted to surprise a group of Chinese officials
with gifts of their own choosing -- Tiffany clocks."
Oops. "They didn't know that in China, the word for clock is
very similar to the word for death...and clocks are considered a
most inappropriate gift," she says, laughing about the incident
only in hindsight. Luckily for both parties, Benedict was able to
intercept the offensive timepieces before they were presented to
And then there are those picayune points that fall to the
protocol expert simply because no one else knows the answer. That's
how Alvin Harvey came to play his prominent role in the "Bermuda
Flag Crisis." An American woman living in Bermuda flew the American
flag in front of her home. Local police asked her to remove it or
to fly the Bermuda flag above it. She refused and became a
cause célèbre in the local press. Who was called upon to
settle the matter? "I became the flag official in Bermuda," says
Harvey. "I checked with my reference materials and found that,
indeed, the Bermuda flag needed to be on top." *PROTOCOL IN
Even conventional meeting
planners occasionally have to handle sticky protocol details such
how to address the husband of an honorary British peer, or who to
seat at the head table when all
the attendees are
presidents of banks. Protocol experts recommend consulting the
following reference books for quick, at-your-fingertips
Debrett Peerage and Baronetage
by Kidd Williamson
St. Martin's Press
New York, N.Y.
Everyday Business Etiquette
by Letitia Baldrige
Barron's Educational Services
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