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
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
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
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.”
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.