Zoo Story: Behind the Scenes of a Wild Conference

Conventions and expos are hard work. But the people who perform these logistical miracles make it look easy. Welcome to three days in the life of one of the greatest shows on earth.

Melissa Howerton leans in to reveal her secret to hosting a successful six-day meeting for 1,850 attendees from zoos and aquariums around the world. “Band-Aids,” says the vice president of conferences and membership at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), on a quick pit stop in the west ballroom of the Phoenix Convention Center, the site of its 88th annual conference in September. “I’m wearing two on my feet right now.”

Of course, Howerton—a laser-focused blonde with a sly smile and speedy gait—has no time to tend to aching arches or blisters. Less than an hour ago, she gently assured legendary animal scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin that her slide presentation would go smoothly. And it did. At the moment, Howerton is overseeing the elaborate setup for an awards luncheon later in the day.

The attendees don’t see all the back-end work that we do.

“The attendees don’t see all the back-end work that we do,” she says.

Meeting that goal—and the larger one of having the meeting come off seamlessly—requires a lot of foresight. Or everything must seem like it’s coming off seamlessly. With limited resources, big agendas, changing technologies, high member and exhibitor expectations, and miles of meeting space to cover, how do association pros like Howerton pull it off year after year? Hint: It includes many behind-the-scenes teammates with their own endless to-do lists.

Howerton and AZA meeting planner Cheryl Wallen first visited this 24-acre glass-and-steel convention center in downtown Phoenix five years ago. Programming the event, with provocative moderated panels like “Rhinos in Crisis,” happened about six months out.

“We all wear multiple hats, being a smaller association,” says Howerton. Twenty-six of the 28-person AZA staff are here working. “They are our eyes and ears in the hallways,” she says.

Her conference wing women—Wallen and Director of Integrated Marketing Muri Dueppen—check in throughout each day to confer on the flow of the meeting. This year’s expo hall boasted 141 exhibitor booths, ranging from one with a 5,000-pound
animatronic Mexican redknee tarantula to another touting a high-tech hurricane simulator.

To close the conference out, attendees and staff enjoyed a day at the 125-acre Phoenix Zoo. After the months of intense prep and planning, Howerton and her team couldn’t wait to meet the family of Bornean orangutans that call the zoo home.

“It was time to let our hair down, take a deep breath, and enjoy the animals. We felt like we were 10 years old,” says Howerton.

(Photographs by Cody Pickens)

Monica Corcoran

By Monica Corcoran

Monica Corcoran’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles magazine, and InStyle, among other national publications. MORE

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