by Bruce Myint | September 01, 2004

Army Reserve Lt. Col. Lou Leto and Diane Markham

Wartime planners:
Army Reserve Lt. Col. Lou Leto,
public affairs director for the
Reserve Officers Association,
and Diane Markham, ROA’s
manager of meetings and events

Everyone can appreciate the disruption caused by a cell phone ringing in the middle of a banquet dinner. But rarely have cell phones been as disruptive as on the night of Jan. 22, 2003, at the Mid-Winter Conference of the Reserve Officers Association. 
    Tension already was high when the ROA’s executive procession marched into the International Ballroom at D.C.’s Washington Hilton and Towers. With the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq only two months away, many of the 850 people in attendance already were on alert.
    As board members took their seats at the head table, ROA’s manager of meetings and events, Diane Markham, noticed an empty chair. After a quick search, Markham learned the missing board member was outside on his cell phone: He was being called to active duty.
    Soon, a chorus of pagers began ringing around the room. “Everybody knew what was going on,” says Markham. “There was a big war gearing up. By the time we left, several people had been told they were being deployed the next day.”
    As for the board member, says Markham, “He was back 15 minutes later. And then we didn’t see him for a year and a half.”

Bunkering down
For event organizers at military associations, working around deployment has been one of the biggest challenges in planning conventions. At press time, reservists and the National Guard comprised nearly 44 percent of U.S. forces deployed around the world, or roughly 156,460 soldiers. What’s more, according to the ROA, at least 5,529 members of the Reserve have had their duties extended past 12 months.
    This summer, Diane Markham was still adapting to the ripple effects of the nation’s troop mobilization. In June, one week before the ROA’s national convention in Salt Lake City, Markham told M&C preregistration levels were low only about half the anticipated 1,100 attendees had signed up. (At the time, about 168,316 reservists and National Guard were mobilized.) When Markham flew to Salt Lake City from ROA’s D.C. headquarters, organizers still were hoping to make up the shortfall with a last-minute rush of on-site registrants.
    That rush never materialized. When the four-day ROA national convention launched on June 9 at the Grand America and Little America Hotels, attendance lagged far below normal levels. A golf tournament was canceled due to lack of entrants. Empty seats dotted sessions. Even a nightlife city tour aimed at younger members had to be nixed.
    “We speculated that a lot of the younger people were gone due to the deployment,” says retired Air Force Reserve Col. Steven Lowe, chair of the convention’s host committee.
    After the final count was tabulated, Markham saw the convention had about 300 people fewer than in previous years. “We had never faced what we faced this summer,” Markham says. “Even during Desert Storm, our attendance went down, but not like this time.”
    The past two years have been a learning experience for the ROA. Recently, the challenge of unpredictable attendance loomed so large that members nearly voted to do away with the group’s summer convention, relying instead on a single annual convention in the wintertime. In the end, the association decided to keep its summer event a course that has prompted daring changes in the status quo of the planning process.