Single point of contact for big campus events
Organizing conferences on the WSU Pullman campus presents a special difficulty, says Kelly Newell, director of WSU’s Conference Management unit. Unlike at hotels and event centers, there’s no single point of contact.
 
“Except us,” she says. “We’re it.”
 
Newell cites the recent 4-H Teen Leadership Conference. It drew 400 teenagers and 100 adult leaders who attended 57 workshops. Newell and program coordinator Tamara Kirk handled the arrangements.
 
“We had to coordinate with dining services, housing services, CUB catering, CUB scheduling, facilities scheduling, fac-ops, the stadium, the rec center, AMS, parking services, heavy equipment, motor pool, purchasing – I could go on and on,” Newell says. “And we’re the one place on campus that can weave all those pieces together for a seamless conference.”
PULLMAN, Wash. – Five hundred people wait in Martin Stadium. The next speaker? WSU President Elson S. Floyd. Then the microphone stops working.
“It’s OK. I’ll just shout,” the woman on the field yells.
The audience shouts back: “What?”
The event is seconds away from becoming what WSU Conference Management Director Kelly Newell calls a “goat-rope,” aka a chaotic mess.
 
But Newell’s job involves another phrase: “A swoop-in moment.” And she does. She swoops onto the field and fixes the loose connection.
“We plan every detail but there’s always something that goes wrong,” she says in her office at the Center for Distance and Professional Education, which includes WSU Online. “But not much can go amiss that we haven’t seen.”

Conference Management organizes 40-50 educational conferences and events a year. Newell’s staff of nine is divided between Pullman and Puyallup.

 
“Our job is to make everything look flawless,” Newell says. “Then the client can enjoy the conference – and get all the credit – instead of running helter-skelter trying to put out fires.”
Many problems are tech related, but Newell and her staff also know who to call when gates are locked, the power is off or the bathrooms are dirty. They deal with sprained ankles, gallstones, earthquakes, cancellations, unregistered attendees and finding a mini-refrigerator for insulin. They know who to talk to about the food, and what to say.
 
“Our staff has a long-standing relationship with the back of the house,” Newell says. “We can go to the kitchen or the sales office and get the problem fixed.”
Another key conferencing phrase is “scope creep.” That’s what happens when clients realize they’re heading for a goat-rope.

“The client goes through our bid and scratches off line items to save money – ‘Oh, we’ll handle that on our own,’ ” Newell says. “Invariably, they come back and say, ‘What were we thinking? Can we add it now?’ ”

Newell says her organizers are all high energy, type A people:

“We’re always clicking.” She snaps her fingers. “We don’t have a panic mode. When we have something to do, we just go ahead and do it.” Snap, snap, snap. “And we have the connections to make sure things get done.”
 
Does that energy translate into her personal life? Sure looks like it. Newell and her husband are raising 4-year-old twin boys (“the newts”), she’s earning a doctorate in higher education administration with an emphasis in cultural studies, and she’s a triathlete who has done four Ironman competitions.
“I’m a multi-tasker, for sure,” she says.