COPE Eventpower 2012: 4 Planning Tips From U.S. Protocol Chief Capricia Marshall

By Anna Sekula February 8, 2012, 11:35 AM EST

Candid and witty, Marshall spoke during the COPE Eventpower conference's luncheon, providing tips for creating successful, engaging, and purpose-driven events. The crowd gave the United States chief of protocol a standing ovation.

Photo: Anna Sekula/BizBash

On Friday, a delegation of in-house event and meeting planners packed the Pierre's ballroom for the Council of Protocol Executives' Eventpower 2012 conference, attending sessions that covered a broad array of topics—from trends in private entertaining at restaurants and the value of digitally based communications to the intricacies of event production and destination management in Brazil.

Perhaps the most illuminating was the keynote during lunch, a talk given by ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, chief of protocol of the United States.

Responsible for orchestrating diplomatic events, including state visits, international summits, and bilateral meetings for the president, secretary of state, and other officials, Marshall emphasized the important role protocol plays in foreign relations and how she tries to create successful, engaging, and purpose-driven events. Far from being a somber, dry speech, the ambassador's presentation was peppered with personal stories and embarrassing moments, including her slip on the White House steps just before Mexican President Felipe Calderon's state visit in 2010. (She also had a stint as White House social secretary during the Clinton administration.)

“What we do is truly behind the scenes; however, that is only the case if we put our best foot forward, which I learned the hard way,” Marshall said, before describing the fall, which was captured on camera and later posted to YouTube. “I think it proves that things can go wrong, but it's the getting up, the moving on, and the moving forward that really counts and matters. And in this instance, President Calderon and first lady, Zavala, were very grateful for the delegation and felt very welcomed and well respected, so protocol did its job.”

Here are Marshall's four tips for planners to keep in mind when organizing an event:

1. Fail to plan, plan to fail.
“Rehearse and rehearse every movement of your event. No detail is too small, leave no stone unturned, so that you have no surprises,” Marshall said. The protocol chief explained that any event has a number of moving parts, and if planners check and recheck all these elements—in her work that includes positioning official photographers and lining up the delegation in correct order—even the smallest mishap can be avoided.

2. Flexibility is key.
That said, even the best-laid plans go awry. “Even with all the planning all of us do, we know that we will be thrown a curveball every now and again, and we have to be flexible. We have to manage things at a moment's notice,” she said. Marshall illustrated her point by describing how she scrambled to put a wreath back together after it fell apart shortly before a wreath-laying ceremony in Canberra, Australia, with Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

3. Do your homework.
Beyond learning the likes and dislikes of attendees and clients, the idea of using colors, shapes, food, and items that speak to a guest of honor's interests or a company's heritage was a concept echoed throughout the conference and one that producers, designers, and Marshall emphasized as the key to creating memorable and relevant experiences. “It is, for instance, incorporating influences from President Calderon's hometown in the table settings,” Marshall said, adding that gifts can be equally as important. “Gifts are one of the most tangible ways that we express our respect to a foreign dignitary. A thoughtful and meaningful gift can instantly create a positive vibe between leaders as it relates our interest and appreciation of their culture.”

4. Engage with your guests.
“We use menus, we use hand outs, and any tools that we possibly can, to educate people on what an event is all about. We think it serves two purposes—it drives home the point and purpose of the event and gives guests something to talk about,” Marshall said. The ambassador and her office developed the diplomatic partnerships division, which is designed to directly engage the diplomatic corps through events. One program, dubbed “Experience America,” takes foreign diplomats to cities throughout the country, connecting them with a diverse array of local communities and businesses.

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