From an exorbitant bill for porn movies in a hotel in Broome that she never watched to running meetings for The World Bank in PNG, Margaret Reid’s life as a PCO has been anything but Groundhog Day.
When you’re a working mum you know how to get things done. And that goes double when you’re single. There’s no time to pull any punches, which is probably why neck-deep in a pathology conference in Broome she talked her way out of the big bill for unwatched porn movies and the fact that she hadn’t watched Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day six times.
Her young son, who she’d just asked her very recent ex-boyfriend who was minding him at the time to put on a plane to Perth, may have had something to do with the mysterious movies. No matter. It was time to start planning the next conference, son now firmly part of the Margaret Reid PCO package deal.
From the age of eight, Lucas helped Margaret in the meeting planning game, doing everything from running to the bank with cheques, packing satchels, posting letters and faxing documents. Today, at age 33, he continues to help out on her bigger events, albeit with added responsibilities.
Her start as a professional conference organiser began well before Lucas arrived on the scene. It was 1966. Margaret was working at the University of NSW and had to have her appendix out. The doctor she saw said he was helping organise The XIth Congress of the International Society of Blood Transfusion and wanted Margaret to run it for him.
Just 20, she said that she’d do it if they paid her a senior wage which meant that she was supposed to be 21. The doctor agreed.
“The man above me was a retired bank manager and they employed him, obviously, because he had the financial background, and they thought that he would be able to run the event,” she recalls.
“After two weeks he went to the committee and said that he would do the finances and I
would be better doing everything else. So I got promoted and became a PCO before anybody knew what one was.”
That meeting was held at Sydney University from August 24 to 29 in 1966.
It was a different time. With no computers, everything had to be done manually. Everything was logged in a book.
Someone would register as a delegate – by mail – which would be logged in. Their registration payment would also be tabled (in another book); and the conference sessions they were attending would be logged in another. Everything, Margaret said had to be cross-referenced, checked, placed in alphabetical order, and re-checked.
“Everybody paid by cheque or international money order (for those from overseas) which we had to take down to the bank to get processed. If I receive a cheque today I feel like pulling my hair out.
“Then replying, we’d have a confirmation letter – done on a typewriter – which was sent to the delegate. I can’t even remember whether we used airmail because in those days airmail was so expensive.
“We were hardly ever allowed to make phone calls because they were too costly. We could NEVER make international phone calls. Communication with invited speakers was done through telegrams.” (Google that to find out what one was if you don’t know.)
“I had books as high as me covering every minute aspect of the meeting.
“In those days the scientists and doctors would enlist the help of their wives who would run the social side of the programs. They would come to me and say who’s going to this dinner? Who’s going to this cocktail party? All this would be somewhere in my stack of books.”
Part of her role on that first conference was also to be the welcoming committee at the airport. She would wait at a small desk with a sign and welcome the delegates as they arrived, providing them with details on how to get to their accommodation.
“Those early days taught me so much about how precise you had to be with your record keeping
“Later, in the 1980s, I would regularly meet with Trevor Gardiner (now EventsAir) who was developing a software program for managing meetings and we’d talk about the kinds of reports that I needed.
It was so exciting when computers arrived. I remember I bought myself one of the first Apple computers. I actually flew to Taiwan to buy it because it was cheaper.”
Show me the meetings
Up until 2009 Margaret was keeping a record of the meetings she had organised. On average she’s done up to four a year.
There have been many highlights.
“I did one of the first HIV conferences in Australia when HIV was at its height, and have worked on quite a number of Indigenous conferences, which were very rewarding. I also found conferences about women’s issues enjoyable.”
A seven year period overseas working at the Australian Embassy and The World Bank in Washington DC provide great memories.
“The World Bank hired me to do four events for them including in Papua New Guinea which was extremely challenging. Trying to get 250 very high-profile people in a remote village, getting them accommodated, bringing people from around the world, getting equipment and supplies in – computers, photocopiers and presentation equipment – was tough.”
One of these was just after the 1998 PNG earthquake which triggered a tsunami. More than 2000 people died as a result.
“Many of the delegates weren’t well off but they dug deep and we raised $10,000 at the conference for the relief fund.
“One venue I was working at [on another of these meetings] promised me there would be an AV screen. I got there and there was none so we had to put a bedsheet up on the wall and make do. Electricity would go out so we had to have generators to make sure we could continue.
“I also feel good about the staff and people I have trained and mentored who have gone on to start their own businesses or run their own meetings.”
At the height of activity, business was booming. She had a handful of full-time staff and was debating whether she should grow more. She could have if she wanted to. Then, on September 11, 2001, things changed, as they did everywhere in the world.
“After September 11 a lot of my work was postponed or cancelled. I suddenly went from being busy all the time – with event after event – and it stopped and I was forced to lay my staff off. It was so serious. It took about a year to recover and I decided then that I wouldn’t employ full-time staff again.
Aside from her regular clients she juggled contract work including the massive Sydney APEC meeting in 2007.
Today, and with some realisation that she turns 70 next year, she picks and chooses what she does.
This month (December) she is running a meeting at the Sydney Hilton for around 1400 delegates, with 54 trade exhibitors, sales in sponsorship of $400k+ and around 80 speakers. It’s the same hotel that she and her son have spent almost every year in – organising meetings and celebrating his birthday – since he was eight years old.
“I look back and can’t believe our way was so antiquated compared to events today.
“The tools we had in the early days were so restrictive. Technology has been the biggest change. The older I get I think “gee I don’t know enough”. I try to keep up as much as I can. I haven’t really engaged in Twitter and some of the other things and I know I have to.
“What has also changed is that there is much more competition; everybody is going for the same dollar. It’s getting harder and harder to get sponsorship. Even in the last 10 years I was able to approach certain companies seeking their sponsorship. Now that’s all dried up. Australia Post, AMP, Telstra, all those kinds of companies gave money for good causes. Now the money’s just not there.
“Also the delegate. Where we used to get people from council and government – often four or five people from the same organisation – you’re lucky now if you get one. Money’s tighter and people say they are busier.”
She also selects clients who listen to her advice. She recalls a conference where the organising committee wanted to hold the event in a particular venue because the food was good.
“I said that’s fine but if we get a strong uptake on delegates for this meeting we’re not going to be able to accommodate them. I think we ended up turning over 100 away and could have sold double the exhibition space that we had.
“I can’t imagine not working. It’s not all over at 70. I wouldn’t mind retraining myself in a new career. I’m not sure what but I could if I wanted to.”