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It was in the summer of 1976. I was a young teacher in a prep school in New York and was four days into a 30-day school tour of the United States--14 high school kids in two Ford passenger vans. Another teacher and I had organized the 8,000-mile road trip as a Bicentennial experience for our relatively well to do students. One traveler’s father was a famous New York banker who arranged to get us onstage during the 4th of July show at the Grand Ole Opry. I didn’t like Merle Haggard or Minnie Pearl and most of the kids considered it cruel torture (“we could have been at Opryland!”), but none of us will ever forget that afternoon sitting in church pews in clear view of the huge audience, slightly behind the performers. Well, one kid may forget it because he fell asleep during an especially long Roy Clark ballad. I’m pretty sure it was about a horse and a woman, or maybe a pickup. A hundred other adventures ensued over the following weeks: rain the first 12 days in a row, red ant attack in Iran, Texas, sleeping on the red rock formations under the stars in Moab, sending the kids off to explore the French Quarter on their own, Hollywood, Sedona, 50 yard line in Nebraska stadium, White River Junction, an everything store that sold guns, baby furniture, alcohol, prescription drugs and authentic tacos in the attached café. A month and many adventures later, we got home safely from this crazy trip. As my fellow chaperone put it: “It was great! Nobody was hurt, sick or pregnant.” P.S. 5 years later, the banker mentioned above helped get me my first job in chamber work.
“Let the Pros Do It."
My best 4th of July holidays were as an adult, not as a kid. When our kids were young, my attorney brother bought a 20-acre gentleman's farm. Driving 400 miles home for Independence Day included a mass sleepover for 20 or so folks in his great country house on Snake Run Road in East Otto, N.Y. (no kidding). Each year, after a day spent splashing in the muddy pond, and hiding in the corn field, a do-it-yourself fireworks show was the holiday climax, followed by a big campfire. It was right out of a Norman Rockwell painting . . . most of the time.
One year, the brother-in-law assigned to purchase contraband explosives (in New York state) was ripped off at the pop-up fireworks stand in Virginia. Those were some OLD roman candles! At least half were duds, which were disposed of in the boxes they had come in. Later in the evening, as the last song faded by the dying fire, my always-efficient sister cleaned up the yard, throwing papers and other trash into the barely glowing embers, which was the way we dealt with farm garbage in prehistoric times.
A few minutes later, our tranquil evening resembled a scene from Apocalypse Now. Violent explosions erupted in and above the fire, sending tracers and flames between the screaming, crawling family members. I spotted my two kids in perfect boot camp position on bellies and elbows. Nana had flung her walker and shuffled away from the duds coming to life with remarkable agility for 92. My eldest nephew shouted without a trace of irony: “Mom, I’ve been hit!”
Of course I can tell the story now with such relish because we all escaped without permanent scarring. Psychological damage to young’uns appears to have been temporary, though I still wonder about one niece. And the lesson (I always need a lesson) for chamber folks from this story from the Fleming family annals? Let the pros do it.
The work you do requires skill and wisdom. You can’t trust just any volunteer to spend the money carefully, handle the project properly, put on a good show and wrap things up without a hitch. You’re the pro. At least supervise to avoid explosive situations for those around your campfire.
Mick's Thanksgiving Message
“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” A.A. Milne
Reading to a grandchild provides wonderful insights. Like Winnie the Pooh’s fluff-stuffed friend, I’m surprised that my inadequate heart can hold the gratitude I feel for members, directors, allies, dedicated staff, long-suffering family and dear friends. Thank you. No, really! Thank you.
Am also grateful to George, a friend serving in Afghanistan, or maybe Iraq or Kuwait (never sure from week to week), for the personal reminder of those who won’t be with families on Thursday.
My little heart also has room for a few dreams. I pray that one of these Thanksgivings, I will express my gratitude to courageous leaders who somehow restored civil discourse and compromise to American politics. All of us may need to pitch in a bit on that one. Oh bother!
On This Memorial Day: A Quick/Long Message
Is it proper to wish someone a ‘Happy’ Memorial Day? I’m always a little confused about that, but I do hope everyone has a wonderful long weekend. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we relocate. Actually, next week we move to new HQ across town. If phone service interruptions occur during the move (not anticipated), please dial temporary ACCE backup line: 202-596-1081.
IF YOU HAVE AN EXTRA MINUTE VERSION:
When it comes to a day devoted to visiting both cemeteries and barbeques, my feelings get muddled. Am I supposed to be popping a cold one on the back deck with friends, watching Pork Chop Hill on AMC, boosting the local retail economy, or posting genuinely sincere patriotic feelings on Facebook? Do I visit Arlington?
And what about this week’s tragedies affecting our members in Shawnee, Moore and suburban OKC? The stoic and optimistic survivor stories make my heart soar like a hawk (old movie reference), even as my eyes leak a bit when stories of those who lost a baby or a dad appear on screen. It is a comfort to know that the best problem solvers on the planet are on the job in OKC region. (Watch for imminent message re. Oklahoma business recovery from ACCE Chairman Roy Williams!).
In spite of my perennially confusing Memorial Day feelings, I’ll stay positive. My Oklahoma friends will figure things out. No doubt. We will each find our personal ways to remember those who have fought and died protecting us, but we won’t let that remembrance dampen the joys of life in America 2013. No doubt. And, we can each remember that there is a time for working hard and time to shut it down for a long weekend. No doubt.
ACCE Alleviates Pain From ABC Demise
It was impossible to address the declaration of bankruptcy by one of ACCE’s travel sponsors, ABC Destinations, without encountering problems and friction for members and hundreds of travelers. When ACCE senior staff received the news from the company’s president in early October of the impending financial meltdown at ABC, they took deliberate steps to alert members and craft workable options for the 18 chambers that had reservations pending for more than 600 travelers.
The stakes were high, with $2+ million in payments made by travelers and chambers in jeopardy. One chamber alone had nearly 100 paid reservations at roughly $2,500 per ticket. It wasn’t just the money; many travelers had made plans with friends and families to extend their travels, based on the “core” itineraries of the ABC trips. Some of the departure dates for ABC’s fall schedule were less than three weeks after the company’s demise. The avenues to pursue were limited, given that the entire ABC staff had been terminated. Phones and computers were “locked” on advice of legal counsel.
ACCE’s Senior Vice President Chris Mead went to work immediately, serving as a one-man information clearinghouse for affected organizations. He arranged conference calls, sought answers from legal counsel and consulted with travel experts. He tirelessly sought ways to ease the pain for chambers that were first exposed to ABC through ACCE marketing channels. He tried to find alternatives to massive cancellations, traveler outrage and financial liability for chambers. The most important lifeline he grasped during this period was extended by former ABC employee Carl Monticelli. Despite losing his job, Carl wanted to help the chambers that he had introduced to ABC. He was answering chambers’ questions on his cell phone from home, without any expectation of compensation for his efforts.
Through Carl’s behind-the-scenes efforts, Chris was introduced to the Sakkara Group, an Egyptian-based travel conglomerate that had recently entered the North American market through acquisition. As chambers attempted to communicate worst-case scenarios and faint rays of hope to hundreds of hundreds of travelers, Chris Mead and Carl Monticelli brought the principals from Sakkara and Central Holidays (US subsidiary) to the ACCE offices. They hashed out a go-forward solution that ensured viable options for all 18 chambers and almost every traveler.
Central Holidays/Sakkara agreed to run every trip as close to identical to the originally booked tours – on the same timelines – as those originally booked through ABC Destinations. There would be almost no additional costs for either the chambers or the travelers. They didn’t have to do any of this. They were not connected to ABC and certainly had no responsibility or financial obligation. Central Holidays wants to establish itself as a group travel company that is committed to the chamber community. Through their exceptionally generous support and skill they demonstrated during the post-ABC crisis, they’ve done just that.
Were the solutions perfect for all parties? Given the timing and scale of the challenges, no plan could have been. Even given problems with re-booking hundreds of flights, lining up new guides and securing accommodations in Italy, Israel and other countries, the dreaded no-trip/no-refund outcome was avoided for almost every traveler. The chambers involved worked hard and successfully to make necessary adjustments in order to keep their travelers on the promised trips.
ACCE thanks Central Holidays/Sakkara for its wonderful work and hefty investment on behalf of our members. Virtually all of the revised arrangements were made under intense calendar and communications pressure. Many of the arrangements were carried out and adapted as the firm’s headquarters building in New Jersey was swamped by Sandy. Carl Monticelli’s personal commitment was unprecedented. ACCE is proud to welcome Central Holidays/Sakkara as a Corporate Sponsor and preferred provider of the Association.
This experience provided a powerful reminder to Fleming’s first rule of business: We can’t always control what happens, but we can control how we deal with what happens.
Onward With Gratitude
So, there I was, hunched over my keyboard on the day following our fall Board meeting. I was making lists of new assignments we had accumulated during the two-day gathering. "Sooo much to do sooo busy yadda yadda." I was spared from the pitiful abyss when someone in the hall casually mentioned their Thanksgiving plans. Thanksgiving?!?!
I can't say that I dropped my moaning then and there, but I was at least aware that I should. After all, why should I fret over an aspirational to-do list? Don't I want one? Worries and pains in the butt? Of course, but in comparison to my old friends and members in Sandy's path, or neighbors whose kids are eating Turkey under a tent in the desert, what am I moaning about?
Only one thing for me to do: Click a favorite YouTube of an old Highwaymen concert. A young(er) Kristofferson growls: "Why Me Lord? What have I ever done, to deserve even one, of the pleasures I've known?"
Hope you notice your pleasures and blessings this Thanksgiving, including the privilege to make a difference in the lives of people and communities. If you can't be with the people who care about you, reach out to them this weekend.
Onward with gratitude.
Lest we forget
When talking to my active and retired military friends in this region, I’ve asked what the troops would ask of us as they go about their deadly serious business. The answer? “Think of us. Remember that we’re out here.”
Lest we forget, U.S. Army Captain Jesse Ozbat was the latest (as of this writing) combat fatality in Afghanistan. He was a native of Prince Georges County, Md., across the Potomac River from ACCE’s office. He died during an attack in the provincial capital of Tarin Kowt. He was 28, married, with a BS in mathematics. This was his second tour.
Once before in my holiday message, I asked you to remember a specific fallen soldier, as both an individual and a symbol. This weekend, in between parades, lawn furniture scrubbing and beer pong, I hope you’ll join me in taking just a minute to mark Captain Ozbat’s passing.
Mostly, I hope that you have a wonderful holiday weekend with the people who are closest to you. You deserve a break, so enjoy every bit of the long weekend! Onward.
Reflections on Brazil
The sights, tastes and sounds of Brazil will take a lifetime to process and digest. The visit to the statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado Mountain. The small night club in a Săo Paulo neighborhood. The ever-present caipirinha cocktails overflowing with limes. The massive equipment on the docks serving container ships cued up across the entire horizon off Ipanema Beach in Rio. It was a lot to take in over our six days on the ground.
Two dozen chamber folks and guests accompanied me on the Brazil awareness tour. This was the fourth such trip for members in the last nine months, the others having visited Israel, Croatia, and China (with Citslinc International). Of all the trips ACCE has sponsored for members over the years, this one featured the most business meetings -- seven in all.
During the informative meetings with venture capitalists, local chamber leaders, business owners, consultants and government developers in one of the hottest economic markets in the world, a handful of themes emerged.
First, the country is blessed with enormous resources. They have huge oil and mineral reserves and are the second largest food exporter in the world. Our perception was that the largest opportunities have yet to be tapped or even discovered.
Second, the country isn't in debt. They are in an enviable position as a developing nation to not have a current or accumulated deficit. Think of the opportunities and freedom to expand!
Third, the gap between rich and poor is huge and the rapidly growing middle class is still relatively small. Historic lack of equity is a burden for the country and has contributed to extensive criminal activity -- both gang-related and white collar, including government corruption and banking "irregularities." Some of the favelas (huge organized slum settlements) are under complete control of drug lords. In an attempt to relieve the worst poverty of the group of citizens called the "E" class, the government simply provides a minimum base salary to everybody. No housing allowances or food stamps -- just cash.
Fourth, they view the opportunities to host World Cup 2014 and the 2016 Olympics as game changers for Brazil's reputation and future investment potential, but also as an immediate boom to infrastructure (and related jobs). There's only one small problem -- they aren't anywhere near ready for either global event. Necessary facilities, venues and transportation infrastructure are barely even at the drawings stage. Everyone we met, however, remains supremely confident. Baffling to visitors from a nation that can take four years just to check for endangered species on a development site!
Fifth, business support networks and civic economic development groups (chamber-like entities) are even harder to sort out in Brazil than they are in the U.S. There are chambers, business associations and industry groups of all kinds in every jurisdiction, with overlays of national chamber-like groups and Am-chams.
Sixth, the health care system is a two-tiered mess. About 75 percent of the people are relegated to the public (government supplied) provider platform, which is so overwhelmed that a seriously broken leg may take weeks to be seen or set. Inadequate public hospital hallways are jammed with prone sick and injured patients waiting endlessly for care. Meanwhile, there is a private healthcare system that anyone with a decent job pays out of pocket to access. Our briefing on this reality was a reminder that when reform advocates in the U.S. say that "most major industrialized and developing nations in the world provide government health care," they are both right and wrong.
A final note shared by all travelers on this trip, which has an impact on both doing business and touring in Brazil: The citizens of this nation live life to the fullest. Compared to any developing nation and most Industrial countries, the people of Brazil are happy. It shows on the streets, the beaches, the work sites, the rural bus stops and, surprisingly, even in the favelas. Global contentment index research confirms that they're a happy bunch, but it is evident without the numbers. I am aware that it is always unwise to judge the spirit and well-being of a nation through the eyes of a well-off tourist, or a prosperous host. But when your government is not oppressive, food is plentiful (though becoming expensive), the weather is ideal, the society is open and accepting (racially/culturally), the future holds economic hope and the basics are available (there are more cell phones than people in Brazil), the living of life is possible.
Getting Closer to Members
As some of you may know, ACCE’s lease is set to expire soon. The team has been very happy in Alexandria; it is a beautiful place and has been ACCE’s home for almost a century. But we’re a long way from a lot of our members. We’ve always thought, wouldn’t it be great to be closer to more of you all, geographically speaking.
Therefore, after much deliberation, ACCE has decided to relocate the headquarters office to beautiful Lebanon, Kansas – the geographic dead center of the contiguous 48 states.
Lebanon (pop. 218) is smack dab in between Salina, Kansas and Grand Island, Nebraska and less than 200 miles from Wichita and Omaha. Denver International Airport, one of the top 5 busiest in the country, is a mere 354 miles down Highway 36. Lebanon is, quite literally, the center of it all.
We considered cities with major air hubs like Atlanta, Detroit, and Los Angeles. But in any of those places we’d still be closer to one corner of the country. In Lebanon, ACCE staff will be equally close to Boston and San Francisco. Our international members will have great access too, Winnipeg and Monterrey are virtually equidistant. Everyone wins!
Since announcing the decision earlier this week, excitement around the office has been palpable. As you can imagine, staff are really excited about the move and the new vacation options it will open. Our sun lovers will be able to hit Pacific coast beaches just as quickly as those on the Atlantic. Office anglers can wet a line in either Lake Superior or the Gulf of Mexico, they are comparably close.
We hope you all will find time to stop by our new home base when we move this fall. You’ll pass us any time you go from coast to coast, so there is no excuse for not dropping in. When you arrive we’ll greet with a warm, “April Fools."
Have a great April Fools weekend everyone!
Profiles In Courage