Well, not really. What it was, was a week spent in gorgeous Virginia Beach, attending a humongous convention and learning the fine art of corporate schmoozing and all-out networking, in order to refine my skills in the perplexing but engaging world of group travel. ABA stands for American Busing Association, and it is made up of the people who get groups (students. senior citizens, adults) to travel across the country, mostly by motorcoach, and go sightseeing & travelling & spending their hard earned money. It is a multi-billion dollar business, and it encompasses thousands of people - this convention had 3200 delegates present. It happens every year in a different city, and each year grows larger and more extravagant. The convention lasts a week, and is chock full of leadership seminars, website optimization lessons, sightseeing around VA Beach, evening events with free food and open bars, broadway showtune lunches, and speeches by corporate honchos while one stares into their grilled tuna salad. The entire thing leads up to the extremely important 7 minute speed-networking sessions. But, lets start at the start.
After almost missing my plane down to Norfolk, I sat down in one of the many available seats and took out my book for the 45 minute flight, when the nice middle-aged couple next to me turned and said "Excuse me, are you Matt Levy?" to which, in my absolute incredulous disbelief, I responded "Of course I am. Do I know you?" It turns out that their 12 year old son, from Fairfield, CT, was on one of my Ellis Island Immigration Heritage Tours last June, and my grinning face made it into their 8th grade yearbook, and my tour was one of the highlights of the year, and I'm something of a minor celebrity back home. The grinning parents insisted on taking my picture via cellphone, as their son "Simply wont believe we ran into you." It was an auspicious beginning to an awesome week.
Picked up at the airport by one Rick Feneis - a totally awesome 40 year old party maniac and graduated Beach Bum who lives with the love of his life Cheri, and the cutest dog in known existence, Tiki Joe. They live in this perfect re-creation of a Miami Beach Bungalow with brightly painted walls and mosaics, they also strive to spend as much time as possible on OTBs (other people's boats.) Their 3 kids (from previous marriages) are all off on their own, and Rick & Cheri are hosting a Somalian "Lost Boy" named Yakk in their pad for 6 months and have been to many of the Caribbean and Pacific Islands, including a bunch I didnt even know existed. I met them through Couchsurfing, and they are quite simply dolls and darlings. They treated me as one of their own, with my own bedroom and bath, an ample supply of beer, and they also were so kind as to drive me around to the convention on certain days when they could afford to, as well as take me out to local seafood joints where I stuffed myself stupid on steamed shrimp and snow crab, tuna tacos, and the best Oysters Rockefeller I've ever had.Sunday was sightseeing day - I opted for a hiking & biking afternoon in which a busload of 40 were zipped out to First Landing State Park, near the site of Christopher Newport and the Virginia Company colonists when they arrived in the New World. It was nice, but probably not nearly as awesome as the offered adventure of Biking & Kayaking. It was just too cold that Sunday (60 degrees, normal for February in VA Beach.) After the hike & bike was the POLAR PLUNGE!
A Polar Plunge is where a group of people, for whatever reason, decide to charge into the Atlantic Ocean wearing whatever they may choose. The Polar Bear Club does it every January down in Coney Island, they do it for chutzpah. We did it to raise money for the American Cancer Society - and I promised everybody who donated a minimum of $25 that I would do it in my Speedo (so named Blue Lightning) and send the donators pictures. Suffice to say, it was cold. 42 degrees Fahrenheit cold. Numbing the skin and the fingers and toes cold. Especially as I was wearing nothing BUT BLUE LIGHTNING. The pictures and movie do a far better job than my chattering lips and frozen tongue could do.
Sunday night was a Superbowl party in the company of Pittsburg Steelers fans. And even though I'm a native New Yorker, I went to college in Boston and became a Red Sox fans while there, and therefore my heart was with the Pats, and it broke just as easily in those last two minutes.Monday came along, and it was business-time. The Convention building has two floors - the ground floor is divided between the Marketplace Trading Floor and the Meeting Floor. The Trading Floor is where CVBs (Conventions and Visitors Bureaus - basically the selling team for any small town, city or state) and attractions (anything from the Colonial Williamsburg camp to Broadway Showtix to Blue Man Group to Atlantic City Casinos setup their info tables, chock full of free crap - grilled Spam, courtesy of the Minnesota Tourism Board? Have a can of Dr. Pepper, thanks to San Antonio, Texas! Free mini shredded chicken sandwiches, by way of Birmingham, Alabama. Drive a mini-racecar, paid for by Charlottesville NC, host of the 2009 ABA convention.The Meeting Floor is the heart of the convention - where buyers (motorcoach operators and tour companies) sit behind tables and listen to sellers (sales people like myself) pitch either a city, hotel, attraction or service. The second floor is all small meeting rooms for the free conferences, like High Five Strategies for Website Optimization, and Are You a Poser or a Closer? inspirational talks (which, despite its twerpy name, was awesome and highly motivational.) I attended a fair share of these, some while hungover, over the next few days. I also found time to drive my rental car over to Colonial Williamsburg and wander their 18th century streets for a few short hours.
Along with motivational speakers there was a lot of research to do when my turn came in front of the Buyers. When one can whip out some information about their company in the middle of an interview, it makes the interviewee sound sharp, prepared, and ready for a business relationship. In order to bust out with "I see that you send approximately 50 groups to NYC a year, 65% of which are seniors and the rest are split between students and adults," well, it makes one sound like a damn good business prospect. And it worked (we hope.) During the 7 minute networking sessions (in which the sellers have to scurry between 8 different rows of Buyers sitting behind tables and leave some sort of lasting impression as these people meet thousands of sellers over 4 days, all pitching essentially the same product - either a hotel, a restaurant or an attraction - well one has to stand out somehow. Luckily for The Levys' Unique New York! we happen to have two excellent things going for us.1) People will always come to NYC. We arent some tiny little town in the middle of the Ozarks trying to sell their Appalachia Bluegrass Festival (which sounds awesome by the way). People want to come to NYC, will always come to NYC, there's no sell needed for that. And
2) We're selling ourselves, selling New York. And who is better at being Matt Levy and selling Matt Levy than Matt Levy? It's what I made my Graduate thesis out of, people! Being Matt Levy! We happen to sell a product (young, energetic, enthusiastic, entertaining and educational tour guide) that syncs well with my personality. So it just came naturally. The most important trick I had to remember was to eventually shut-up and listen to the Buyer to see what they needed, what they wanted in a tour guiding company. I walked away from my 20 + 7-minute appointments with a sense of confidence and pride that I love what I do for a living, and I'm working hard at making a living at it. And with some serious follow-thru and a continuation of all the things I've done so far, this convention should turn into a rousing success for LUNY!
Along with some more boozing, schmoozing, stacking up on free stuff (Wisconsin cheese stickers anybody?) manic dancing, losing car keys, finding car keys, enjoying a day with 82 degree weather, hitting an awesome Salvation Army and buying some badass felt fedoras, and impressing the hell out of everybody with those manic dance moves, that pretty much rounded up the week in Virginia Beach. I flew home with my head high for the family biz.