February 14, 2014
Tony DiGiovanni CHT
LO executive director

Tony DiGiovanni Congress 2014 has come and gone. Despite inclement weather, forced road closings and plane cancellations, the event was positive and successful. In stark contrast to the howling wind, frigid crisp temperatures and dangerous icy conditions outside, the mood and energy inside was upbeat and optimistic.    

Congress 2014 will forever be etched in my memory. There were many unprecedented challenges and situations that brought out the very best of our staff and volunteer team (family). It was inspiring to watch the undercurrent of support, compassion, empathy, camaraderie, persistence, resilience, creativity and care that formed the foundation of the choices, actions and responses to the many challenges of the week.    

Here is some of what happened behind the scenes.  

Congress starts on a Tuesday. Because of the massive size of the event, move-in begins on the weekend. On Saturday morning, I received a call from show manager Heather MacRae. Heather started the conversation with a positive comment about how smooth the move-in process was going until an accident occurred in one of the booths, and police and ambulance had to be called. Thankfully, the accident victim was going to be fine, however, the police called the Ministry of Labour.

On the face of it, Heather was calm and in control. Congress has always been focused on safety. A safety officer (Tom Somerville) spends all his time during move-in ensuring exhibitors are wearing proper attire and are being careful.

Underneath that professional composure, Heather was wondering about the implications of the accident. Was the accident victim going to be okay? Could the Ministry shut down Congress? Were we in total compliance with the Health and Safety Act? These were all unsettling questions. Others might have panicked. Instead, Heather called fellow team member Sally Harvey (our resident safety compliance specialist) and together they reviewed our processes and prepared for the Ministry of Labour visit.

The Ministry arrived on Monday. They were impressed by our processes and actions. They were even impressed by the show. There was a collective sigh of relief. We were even more elated when we found out that the accident victim attended the show on the last day.      

Monday before the show, the weather could not have been worse. It was the last day of move-in. A few exhibitors could not make it because highways were closed. Our Warm-up Monday educational events (IPM Symposium, Landscape Designer Conference and Effective Management Workshop) were slow to start, but picked up by the afternoon.

And then at about 8 p.m. the power went out at the Toronto Congress Centre. Move-in was not complete. At first the emergency generators would not work. This meant that the building would have to be evacuated and the rest of the move-in could not proceed because of safety reasons. Thankfully, the building manager was able to start one of the two generators. This meant that although it was still very dark, the work could proceed carefully.
However, what would happen if the power did not come back by Tuesday? Would we have to close the show? Washrooms don’t work without power. Food cannot be prepared without power.   

When I heard about the power outage, a number of us were in a nearby restaurant hosting a speaker who had come in from Ireland. We walked over to the Congress Centre and proceeded by dim light to the show office.  The office was dark. Huddled (some seated, others standing) in a circle with their winter coats on, I could barely see the outline of staff team members Heather MacRae, Sally Harvey, Linda Nodello, Darryl Bond and representatives from security, building operations, transportation and logistics. They were already planning strategy in the event the power did not come back.

It was a wonderful sight to see. It was like watching a symphony. Instead of panic there was positive action. They called the hotel to see if they could quickly accommodate the hundreds of seminar delegates who would have to be transferred from the Congress Centre. They had already spoken to the transportation company to arrange for buses if required. Food and beverage arrangements were made. The first words to come out of my mouth were, “Isn’t this fun?” There was polite silence. It was decided that Plan B would be put in motion at 5 a.m. Thankfully, by midnight power was restored.  

Tuesday came. Congress was fairly slow but still very positive. Exhibitors and attendees were upbeat. The Awards of Excellence ceremony on Tuesday night was one of the best. Over 600 were in attendance. Frank Ferragine did a wonderful job hosting. Producer extraordinaire Jennifer Howe from Perfect Sphere worked her legendary magic in partnership with event manager Kristen McIntyre. There was great staff team support from Kathleen Pugliese, Shawna Barrett and others.

Just before the event, we found out that the winner of the prestigious Dunington-Grubb Award (The Landmark Group) could not attend because the highways were closed in the area. Someone asked if we could live stream the event and recognize the winner using Skype. Ian Service is LO’s manager of digital communication. His eyes lit up at the thought of meeting this challenge. In the end, the presentation was live streamed. It was just like looking at a professionally produced Hollywood awards presentation. Another challenge wonderfully met.

Wednesday and Thursday the crowds came. Everything proceeded smoothly. Behind the scenes, the staff team and committee were relieved. We had experienced enough excitement and bonding opportunities to last a lifetime.

However, on Thursday morning another unfortunate incident happened. A visitor experienced a heart attack as soon as he entered the show. Thankfully volunteers Paul DeGroot and Cees Braamse reacted quickly. Paul called the ambulance right away and radioed security/first aid and show management. A defibrillator was used. CPR was performed. As of this writing, the individual is still in hospital. We are all praying for a speedy recovery.  
In the face of another unexpected challenge, the team reacted once again quickly, professionally and with empathy. I have never been more thankful to be associated with such a professional, positive, resilient and most of all caring team.  
Tony DiGiovanni may be contacted at tony@landscapeontario.com, or at 1-800-265-5656, ext. 304.