February 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Do the right thing February 1998 Current Issue
February 1998
Do the Right Thing

In doubt about what's proper? Just ask a Protocol Expert


Alvin 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.

Title Trackers

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 SCHOOLING 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 fast, 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.
    (888) 946-5265
    Fax: (301) 933-3884
  • Motria's Image and Etiquette Services
    Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
    (204) 275-7360
    Fax: (204) 269-4958
  • Protocol Advisors, Inc.
    Boston, Mass.
    (617) 267-6950
  • Protocol International
    San Francisco, Calif.
    (415) 673-5311
    Fax: (415) 673-9058
    (Note: This Web site also provides international protocol tips.)
  • * L.G.

    Seating Sticklers

    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 administration.

    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.

    Corporate Keepers

    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 COPE 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 Hotel.

    "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. * L.G.

    Gift Givers

    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 says.

    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 the visitors.

    Local Authorities

    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 PRINT 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 answers.

    Debrett Peerage and Baronetage
    by Kidd Williamson
    St. Martin's Press
    New York, N.Y.
    (800) 321-9299

    Everyday Business Etiquette
    by Letitia Baldrige
    Barron's Educational Services
    Hauppauge, N.Y.
    (800) 645-3476

    Back to Current Issue index
    M&C Home Page
    Current Issue | Events Calendar | Newsline | Incentive News | Meetings Market Report
    Editorial Libraries | CVB Links | Reader Survey | Hot Dates | Contact M&C