I just returned from the 2017 Rotary International Convention in Atlanta, Georgia. The presentations were inspiring. The new and renewed friendships touched me deeply! My thanks to Rotary and the Atlanta host committee for their tremendous work. Attending an international convention makes me proud of our organization and fires up our members to do even more good in the world. I especially recommend Convention attendance to incoming club presidents. The energy you will find there will supercharge you to lead your club. There were 43,000 people present for this Convention. Hearing amazing speakers like Bill Gates, John Cena, Ashton Kutcher, Jack Nicklaus and Brittany Arthur left me in awe. Personally, I was mesmerized by former Atlanta Mayor and UN Ambassador Andrew Young. It may have been the greatest speech I ever heard and it would NOT have happened had the Convention not been in Atlanta. I arrived the Wednesday before the Convention to participate in the Rotaract Preconvention. It is my favorite part of a Rotary Convention! In addition to plenary sessions, interacting with these energetic and enthusiastic people gives me great hope for the future of Rotary. They “get it” and they WILL both carry on and expand our legacy.
After pondering what I experienced at this, my fourth Rotary International Convention, I recommend we stop having them. Not stop having conventions; just stop having one, ginormous global Convention. The reason for my recommendation is simply this: The enormity of Rotary. Atlanta has a massive convention center which can easily accommodate an even larger group. However, I would never want to attend that large of an event. Just moving the crowd through the corridors toward the main event hall, getting them into dining rooms, breakout sessions, moving them through the “streets” in the House of Friendship, getting them fed at lunch and letting them purchase items from the vendors had to be overwhelming for the staff. The large crowds were frustrating and disappointing for those of us in attendance who were trying to experience the Convention. To get a good seat to hear Bill Gates, I arrived at the plenary session nearly two hours before the event started. Even then, I was seventy rows away the stage. There were breakout sessions I wanted to attend. However, the rooms were filled before I arrived. Some of them started before ticketed-lunch events ended making them impossible to attend. One that I did attend ran out of handouts. The presenter said she planned for 85 people attending but ended up with more than 400. I would have liked to have purchased Rotary clothing in the House of Friendship. However, most booths selling Rotary-themed merchandise were stacked four to six customers deep throughout each day.
Please understand I am not blaming anyone for these problems. They are simply the result of the passion our members have for our amazing organization. But, if we logically ponder our desire to see our organization double in size, the Convention might double as well. As a result, the gargantuan task of herding 43,000 through the Convention could then mean guiding 80,000 or more. My suggested solution is Regional Rotary Conferences (“RRC”). I suggest having one of these annually on each continent. Of course, Rotarians could visit more than one. If you want to travel and have the time and money, you could attend several of your choosing. Although I live in North America, I might decide to attend an RRC in Australia or in Europe. Multiple venues could reduce travel costs to members. Additionally, if we spread 40,000 – 80,000 attendees among six venues, Rotary would have 5,000 to 15,000 attendees to accommodate at each RRC putting less pressure on hotels, transportation systems, food services, vendors, and conference planners. A smaller group of attendees would make more moderate-sized convention sites available and make the flow of traffic for events, breakout sessions, and meals more functional. It would be easier for vendors. Those who market to various parts of the world (e.g., vendors who sell specifically to Asian, African, Australian or American members and clubs) could choose to either attend only the RRCs where their main customer base might be, or they can attend all of them. Speakers could either appear in person or by live video or simultaneous appearances at several of the RRCs held at the same time. Although it was an honor to hear Ambassador Young and Bill Gates, quite frankly I watched both of them on the jumbo screens because I could not actually see them from my seat. It is somewhat of a “stretch” of the Four-Way Test to say I “saw” Bill Gates. What I “saw” was a small man on stage in the distance while I watched a video projection of Bill Gates.
As I considered this recommendation, I knew there would be responses such as, “We’ll lose our international flavor.” “I won’t be able to see my international friends.” “The Convention just won’t be as impressive.” My response to each of those is emphatically “No.” Any Rotarian can attend one or more of the RRCs. You and your “international friends” can choose to meet up at any of them. I truly believe these smaller conferences could be MORE impressive since they will be interactive and more “up close and personal” for those in attendance. I estimate I either passed by or bumped into more than 5,000 people at the Convention. However, the number of those I actually spoke with, shook hands with, or interacted with, was less than 500. I would expect that at an RRC I would meet and interact with more than that.
Between travel, lodging, meals, events, and entertainment, attending a Convention costs a lot of money. However, I cannot imagine the cost of traveling from Asia, Australia, Africa or elsewhere. Making a Rotary Regional Conference more local will lessen these costs while still allowing members to experience Rotary on an international stage. I mentioned how much I enjoyed the Rotaract Preconvention. There were around 700 Rotaractors, Rotarians and guests registered for that event and, aside from their main sessions, they also planned some great social events attended by 100 or more. Much like my suggestion for Rotarians, Rotaractors could decide each year where they will all meet for their annual Preconvention. In that way, with this smaller, more closely knit group, they can be at the same venue if they so choose. I know of many Rotaractors who didn’t come to Atlanta because of lack of time and money. As we all know, the cost of the convention registration is just the tip of the iceberg. For college students and young professionals, the cost of convention attendance is prohibitive, even with a stipend from their sponsoring club or district. As a result, they were unable to experience the wonders of Rotary in a conference setting.
Probably my main reason for this recommendation is that smaller conferences can be more “hands on.” In a breakout group of 400 like the one in which I sat, it was difficult to exchange ideas. I spoke only with a young Rotarian sitting next to me. When you are more than a five to ten minute walk from the stage, it is difficult to engage a speaker even when he or she is on a jumbo video screen nearby. Having to endure getting out of a venue with 30,000 of your closest friends is…challenging. Surely, technology can bring us closer even when we are not in the same room. I encourage Rotary to think outside the convention box and find more ways to accomplish that.