Flipchart Flipout: How to Organize a Successful Conference in Kazakhstan (nobody said anything about surviving it)

In my few but tortuous years as a babysitter for adults high-level international event organizer, I’ve found there is no such thing as a standard conference package for conference attendees. What may seem to be extreme nit-picking when it comes to spelling out what contracts cover has stood me in good stead. Yes, MICE salespeople the world over hate me, and their hotel accounting departments even more, but as long as my bosses love me keep me employed and conference participants slip Swiss chocolate into my pockets, I must be doing something right.

There’s no such thing as a standard conference, so there is no such thing as a standard conference package. Take that pillar of presentations and group discussions, the flipchart. There was that conference where I had to ask the hotel staff to put a flipchart in each discussion group room. Then I had to ask them to bring the sheets of paper that go on the stand. Then I had to ask them for markers just in case we, you know, actually want to write or something.

In KZ I flipped out about flipcharts again. The charts were there, the paper was there, there markers were there, but I learned we were to be charged per sheet used. Tree-friendly? Yes. Strange and not very professional? Yes.  Next thing conference organizers are going to be charged by kilowatts burned or sugar cubes consumed (actually here the staff would come in between coffee breaks and hide the sugar so we crazy sugar-addicted Americans wouldn’t resort to ingesting it during powerpoint-induced sugar lows. I swear!)

There is no such thing as assuming the temperature in the conference room will be standard either. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say the “I can see my breath freezing” comments were abundant, and I really had a hard time blaming participants for surreptitiously chugging alcohol from flasks hidden in their coats. The situation was hardly remedied by a little heater which warmed maybe 2 people out of 100. At first I didn’t really believe that the hotel manager couldn’t turn the heat up because it was impossible.  But it turned out his claim that he really couldn’t turn the heating on before October 15th was true – that is the government’s arbitrary  start date for central heating systems.

I am no longer surprised by many things. I was tough and brave when it transpired that our ‘conference office’ was to be located a kilometer away from the main conference room, down one of those infernal hallways. I didn’t flinch when it turned out the key to the office was tied onto a scalp (=disgusting piece of leather with a bunch of other keys tied to it) and we were told that if we wanted to lock the conference office, we would need to carry the key back to the reception desk (another kilometer down the hall). I bit my lip when I went into the ‘business center’ after paying a few thousand tenge for internet access (so I could check my work email, nothing less) and the only page it would open to was Russian porn, and I couldn’t click my way out of it because I don’t understand Cyrillic. I didn’t say anything when we had the same snack for mid-morning break as we had had the day before.

I finally managed to drag my exhausted self down to the ‘aquapark’, after a full 12 hours of running down Soviet hallways with a scalp in my hand, trying to fend off insistent Russian-speaking participants looking for a working toilet, and even managing a slight smile at an Armenian’s translated-into-broken-English avowal in an isolated elevator that he would kidnap me and bring me back to his village (it was only when I reached normal, vile-image-less internet access days later I realized he may not have been joking). And then it was, when my fatigued body jumped into the cold water of the swimming pool only to realize it was being drained out from under me, while pool attendants smiled benignly and chattered to me in Kazakh, that I broke down and decided that organizing conferences in Central Asia is just too much for me.

I mean, was I wrong in supposing there would be aqua in an aquapark?

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2 responses to “Flipchart Flipout: How to Organize a Successful Conference in Kazakhstan (nobody said anything about surviving it)

  1. Difficult experience but humorous. We organized an event here in Minneapolis, US in March this year and they wouldn’t turn up the AC because they are not allowed to do that in March since usually its cold here but guests were sweating so it was anything but cold. So i guess its not about the place/country but about common sense or we can blame it on weather patterns.

    • I thought it was just because the facility managers hated me 😉 But I guess you’re right, it’s about common sense versus ‘it has to be like this, because.”

      Nice blog title, btw!

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