Monday, July 2, 2012

Dancing to a Different Drumbeat

A fortnight ago I participated in the national conference of the Cohousing Association of the US, held July 15-17 at the downtown Marriott in Oakland CA. It marked only the second time that this mostly annual event has been hosted at a commercial hotel. Prior to 2011 it had typically been held on university campuses, which are often eager to rent out their facilities in June when the bulk of their student body is elsewhere.

While I've always enjoyed the feel of off-season college campuses, with their casual ambiance, funky decor, and no long lines at the cafeteria, I have to admit that I've appreciated the greater professionalism of a venue that's primarily dedicated to hosting events. When it's a sideline—as it necessarily is at universities—it's always a little hit or miss whether they have their shit together around equipment, security, or even finding the person who knows stuff when you need them.

Last year, for instance, I loved that it was possible to simply pull up to the hotel entrance and unload countless boxes of books onto a stable cart that could be easily wheeled into the lobby, onto a convenient elevator, and from there directly into the room where I'd be setting up the conference bookstore. (This in contrast with our bivouacking on the main floor of the student union at UNC Chapel Hill in 2006, where we had to schlep every box by hand more than 100 yards just to get to the building entrance. Ufda.)

This year, while the Marriott support staff was front and center doing what they could to make our stay memorable, we encountered a vexing venue variable I hadn't encountered before: noise pollution. 

When you're paying a premium for a premium venue, you expect premium treatment. We didn't get it. To be sure, a major facility such as the Marriott can accommodate multiple clients at a time, and the exhibit areas are cleverly designed so that sections can be partitioned off and used simultaneously in a bewildering variety of configurations. So, while Coho/US was hoping for attendance near 400 (we got 349), that wasn't anywhere near Marriott's capacity and they gladly accepted an Herbalife promotional event concurrent with ours when the opportunity came up.

While there was plenty of room in the lobby and elevators for both groups to maneuver between sessions, it turned out that it's Herbalife's habit to pump up new recruits with a steady, pervasive bass drumbeat that they intermittently call upon from morning to evening for 30-60 minutes at a time—which is apparently an essential element in eliciting the proper entrepreneurial frenzy. This company is a big time distributor of nutritional and dietary supplements that has successfully recruited 2.3 million individuals worldwide to be independent distributors of their goodies. Thus, even though Coho/US had contracted with Marriott first, Herbalife was a big fish and we were a small one, creating delicacy for the Marriott staff in how they responded: they owed us, yet wanted repeat business from Herbalife.

The Marriott folks could instantly appreciate the problem when Herbalife's bass line (it evoked for me the mines of Moria in Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, as the main characters gathered around Balin's tomb) easily penetrated the thin folding walls that separated our portion of the East Exhibit Hall from theirs (causing the Friday night plenary speaker to pause in his delivery to let the unusual Bay Area thunderstorm pass over—only to discover that the atmospheric disturbance was emanating from inside the building, and not likely to end during his talk).

When approaching Herbalife with the request that they tone it down proved ineffectual (hey, we've been doing this for 30 years and know what works), the Marriott staff went to Plan B: more acoustical separation. Overnight—and at no cost—they moved all of Coho/US's stuff from the ill-fated kettle drum of the East Exhibit Hall into the Main Ballroom, which was a nicer venue anyway (think Academy Awards, in contrast with the airplane hangar that was the East Exhibit Hall). While that shift didn't eliminate the boom booms altogether, they were more contained—excepting in some of the breakout sessions, where rooms were too close to the pulsing vibrato, causing some participants to give up in frustration.

In short, it was tense coexisting with the 500-pound Herbalife gorillas who couldn't keep their hands off the djembes.

• • •
The energetic highlight of the Coho Conference was the Saturday night banquet, which included an up-tempo benefit auction and the honoring of Katie McCamant & Chuck Durrett for a lifetime of work developing and promoting the concept of cohousing. Part of the ceremony was a string of testimonials from people who know Katie & Chuck well and it was touching that the final speaker was their daughter, Jessie, who secretly flew in from college to be the frosting on the cake. Both surprised parents were in tears—and nearly speechless. It was a lovely moment.

After the banquet ended, most of us (including me) went to bed—there was still Sunday to go and I needed to recharge my battery. The hard core however, repaired to Katie & Chuck's hotel suite where an impromptu gathering continued the celebration of their achievements, friendships, and inspirations into the wee hours. 

The party didn't break up until hotel staff knocked on the door and asked them to quiet down. There were guests in nearby rooms who were having trouble sleeping through the racket, and they should be more considerate—those Herbalife folks down the hall needed their rest for Sunday's big finale.

[May I have a drum roll please… ] 
• • •
OK, so I've had my fun with the delicious irony of people who make a lot of noise being intolerant of others who make noise.

There is another side of this that is not so funny. The Coho/US crowd was overwhelmingly white and middle class. It happened that the Herbalife crowd was overwhelmingly Latino. (I say it this way because I'm sure that there are other Herbalife conventions where the racial and ethnic mix is completely different.) Where we were a jeans and shorts crowd, they were dressed sharp—women in heels and makeup; men in ties with pomaded hair.

We were pretty different from each other as a group and that made it far easier for us cohousers to see the Herbalifers as "other." This is all the more interesting when you take into account that in community we're expressly trying to learn to see and work constructively with differences. In Oakland that weekend, we didn't do so well. 

If you take a step back, the Herbalife bass intrusion wasn't that big a deal. It only rarely actually interfered with hearing. Sure, it wasn't considerate, but who wants to go through life angry because everything isn't perfect? Coho/US had a great conference—they had good attendance, they raised a lot of money, and people had a terrific time. Why give so much energy to an irritant?

How hard would it have been to have imagined the positive reasons for the steady bass beat? Music is a good fit with Latin culture, and camaraderie is something to be purposefully cultivated in managing a successful event. What Coho/US did with a gourmet appetizer buffet and easy access to alcohol, Herbalife did with bass percussion. What's so different? 

As I was packing up the books Sunday afternoon, I spent a lot of time passing through the lobby where the Herbalife folks were congregating for charter buses back home. Observing all the laughter, hugs, and group photos, it was clear that they'd had a good time as well. It was just a different good time than ours.

I think we still have some serious work to do in being OK with different. And that's not a joke.

1 comment:

Michelle Wolfe said...

Ouch. Fantastic observation.

I'm going to slink onto the yoga mat with some soft pillows and pout that I'm not there yet. Tolerating and even celebrating "other" doesn't always fit so nicely with our self-directed humanity.

So. . .how DO we work on this?

I'm open to all suggestions.