by Michael J. Shapiro | July 01, 2008

OBT instructor Pablo Sierra with traineesInstructor Pablo Sierra teaches his students what any computer teacher would: typing, Word, PowerPoint, Excel. Somewhat less run-of-the-mill are his lessons in room nights, menus and site inspections.

Sierra works at the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, which assists disadvantaged youth and adults with job training and lessons in academics, professionalism and financial stability. One of Sierra’s pet projects -- which the 50 trainees currently registered at OBT must complete -- is to plan a hypothetical meeting. And while the gathering won’t actually take place, the legwork is real. Trainees have to plan destination events for 32 attendees, as if they had a budget of $67,000.

“Sometimes they look at you like, ‘You’re crazy -- this is a lot of work!’ But once they get into it, they actually end up having a good time with the project,” says Sierra.

Trainees draw a destination at random and must find appropriate hotel accommodations, flights, car rental and meals, all within the given budget, as well as create a fact sheet about the meeting’s location -- some of which they may never have heard of before. Potential meeting sites include Acapulco, Mexico; Dallas; Isla Verde, Puerto Rico; Las Vegas; and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, among others. Once given their assignments, trainees can communicate with their instructor by e-mail or memo -- lending a more professional air to the proceedings.

Sierra, who spent 20 years working in the hotel industry, likens the assignment to a big word problem. “A lot of people become overwhelmed by the information,” he explains. “I tell them they just have to break it down and take things one step at a time.”