‘Please Don’t Call Me Shirley’

Expect the unexpected, and other lessons from a CU meeting planner.

April 20, 2011

Meeting planners don’t like surprises, and I’m no exception. As I was planning for the West Virginia Credit Union League's 75th Annual Meeting (held earlier this month), I thought back to a surprise encounter that would be categorized as an exception to this “no surprises” rule.

It was 2004, and I had the fortune of a chance meeting with funnyman/actor Leslie Nielsen at the Charleston Marriott. He was in West Virginia performing at a Marshall University Alumni fund-raising event and was a guest of the Charleston Marriott.

Sadly, Nielsen died last November after a long and successful career in movies and television. His deadpan humor in movies like “Airplane!”and the “Naked Gun”series is a comedy style I most enjoy.

The departing Marriott sales manager asked me to stop by his office at the end of the business day to meet his replacement. This gesture was not unusual from the Marriott staff. A clean hand-off was necessary, so I suspected nothing.

I was also a hotel guest and was preparing for the league’s 68th Annual Meeting. At the correct time on that April day, I rounded the corner inside the Marriott’s 3rd floor offices. There, standing 15 feet away, staring at me was Mr. Nielsen with his head slightly cocked, along with the Marriott sales manager with a wide grin. Nielsen introduced himself in a serious manner much like the Dr. Rumack character from “Airplane!”

The voice in my head was that of Nielsen’s “Police Squad” character, Lt. Frank Drebin (“It was a sunny, spring-like day, the kind of day that you makes you squint hard if you look directly into the sun’s rays with a powerful telescope”). I was surprised, but instinctively didn’t break character either.

As soon as the handshake occurred, Nielsen employed the use of a whoopee cushion hidden in the other hand. “Surely, you have to get that thing tuned up,” I declared without missing a beat, much to the delight of the Marriott staffer.

Nielsen stayed serious and replied, “It sounds fine, and please don’t call me Shirley.” There it was, his signature line delivered to me, in the deadpan manner that made him famous!

We chatted for a few minutes about the purpose of each other’s business at the Marriott. Sensing that he would be leaving soon, I asked one favor of him, “Call our league president [my boss] and order him to the third floor offices.” I knew he would stay in character. I dialed his number and handed him the phone.

“Yes. Mr. Watts, this is Leslie Nielsen here at the Marriott, and I need you to come to the third floor immediately,” he implored in an authoritative even tone. “Yes… Yes… ummm… I see…,” the actor said inquisitively as if carefully pondering a line from fellow “Naked Gun” cohort George Kennedy. “He wants to talk to you,” handing the phone back to me without explanation.

Needless to say, my normally mild-mannered and unflappable boss wasn’t pleased with the prank. He told me we had interrupted his meeting. Clearly, this could be an unfortunate turning point in my career.

But luckily, I persuaded him that it was in fact Nielsen. Although he never made it to the third floor, my boss asked me to apologize for his “abruptness,” which seemed to please the actor. Before hanging up, I asked if I was still employed thinking that other lodging arrangements may be in order. With things patched-up, the Nielsen entourage including myself, headed for the nearby elevator.

Nielsen, now wearing dark sunglasses and a whoopee cushion still hidden in hand, boarded the elevator. Asking me in a “Drebin” voice “What floor, please?” other passengers looked on without a clue. “Two, please,” I requested.

As the doors shut tightly, the whoopee cushion was once again activated and I had the longest one-floor ride of my life as the other passengers unaware of the gag or its perpetrator, didn’t seem pleased. Departing for the second floor, I nodded to him only to later say to myself, “Did that just really happen?”

What I learned

As I turned my thoughts back to planning for this year’s annual meeting, I felt surely it would be a huge success (and it was). I wonder though if “Shirley” will be watching over me, and wonder what lessons can I take away from this impromptu experience to be an even better event planner?

Here are five risk management meeting tips I’ve learned from Dr. Rumack (a.k.a. Leslie Nielsen):

1. Expect the unexpected even if the odds are against it. Meeting planners and hosts should anticipate some or all heck to break loose even though the odds are in your favor nothing significant happening. Good planners will have contingency plans in place and activate them when necessary.

During my second annual meeting at the Marriott in 1989, the staff told me that a bomb threat was called in and our banquet was delayed. They said it wouldn’t be wise to inform our guests of the details until we knew more information.

Needless to say, our hungry folks were not happy when the food was delayed and not served as advertised. Luckily, the unforeseen threat was only that—a threat, but the damage had been done.

2. Never break character. When disasters strike, stay calm and collected no matter how much you are quaking in your boots. Lt. Frank Drebin and Dr. Rumack never broke character despite the chaos around them. You may be the only cool head left standing in a crisis and your boss and co-workers will appreciate it.

I was a guest at the Washington Hilton on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, with some co-workers and association members. Our legislative visits had been cancelled and many of our credit union officials were still at the hotel.

Under the unusual circumstances, the Hilton staff invited us to sit in their ballroom during another group’s meeting. Those members were watching CNN on a large projection screen as the tragedy unfolded. I noticed the hotel staff and the hosts remained calm even though many participants were quite stressed as rumors swirled about other terrorist targets in Washington.

Later that day, we treated our guests to dinner and tried to maintain a casual tone with them although on the inside we were quite shaken by the day’s events.

3. Know your role. Leslie Nielsen easily made the transition from serious actor in his early days to comedic actor in his later years. He knew what his role was in each instance and was successful at his craft.

During our brief encounter, I instinctively knew what my role would be. Although counterintuitive, I played the straight man and set-up the punch lines for him.

As a meeting planner, know your role. Sometimes it’s as warm host and greeter. Perhaps the role of snap decision maker will require you to displease a few so the many can benefit.

If your offsite baseball game is rain delayed, do you arrange transportation back to the hotel early and feed them, or give them a rain check to a future event? Play the heavy if needed. If the hotel is missing its mark on service, communicate your displeasure in a respectful but firm tone even if your disposition is normally a pleasant one.

4. Meet or exceed expectations. Playing Dr. Rumack or Frank Drebin was not required during his down time, but Nielsen did so because his fans expected it, and I imagine it gave him enjoyment to see their reaction.

What do your clients expect of you? Do they receive a personal thank-you note and a photo of their hole-in-one after the conference? Do your clients whose spouses need additional time navigating the ballroom get seated in advance of the doors opening? Do you remember who gets the fish instead of the steak?

If the answer is “Yes, yes, and yes, then Dr. Rumack would be proud of you.

5. Playing a prank is risky business. Never play a prank on your boss unless you’re nearing retirement. I don’t like surprises, and neither does he, although the surprise encounter with Mr. Nielsen is a memory that we fondly recall about this same time every year.

RICH SCHAFFER is senior vice president at the West Virginia CU League.