By Mary Westbrook, for Bisnow on Business
Event planning isn’t what it used to be, what with cruise-ship annual meetings and Tahoe corporate retreats. Over 40 years, Sheila Stampfli, president of Courtesy Associates, one of Washington’s best known event planning firms, has seen it all – or an awful lot of it. “What I liked about the work when I started out is what I still like about it today,” she says. “You get to be so creative and see a project to completion." Courtesy has 40 staff members and multi-year contracts of more than $90M. We caught up with the Rochester, N.Y., native earlier this month to find out more:
You just got back from running the annual meeting in Rwanda for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). What was that?
We put on an event for 1,700 in an underdeveloped country, and did it in less than five months. It was a challenge! We brought additional flights into the country, and there were only three hotels in Kigali, the capital, so we housed people in 100 different locations–private homes, schools, bed and breakfasts -- and we created a tent compound that became the convention center in a “Central Park” setting in the middle of the city.
Setting up facilities in Rwanda.
How many people worked on the meeting?
12 staff had specific meeting assignments, 9 of which were on site in Rwanda. We did 3 site visits leading up to it.
When did you arrive?
I’m usually the last person there. My staff is doing the job day in and day out on 700 events a year. I’m involved in strategic planning and problem solving, but they are doing the work.
You came to work at Courtesy in the ‘60s right after college. Did you ever think about trying another job on for size?
No. I had opportunities along the way but the variety of Courtesy’s client base makes this job totally expandable -- you could be running a black tie dinner in DC one day and then heading to Africa the next morning. It’s different for young people today – their job growth seems to come in changing jobs every few years.
How much of your time is spent traveling?
I only travel two to three days a month. In the past it was more. I’ve got 40 best-in-class folks who are moving in and around the world on any given day. But I’m hands on and in the office most every day by about 8:30.
What other projects are you working on now?
Between now and October, we will be running Project Safe Neighborhood for the Department of Justice; The Economic Club dinner with American Express CEO Ken Chenault; and hosting a Fuel Cell Seminar and Exposition in San Antonio. Flying back from Africa I was thinking about an African Meeting and Event Division to share our expertise. I’d also like to work with Oprah on her school initiatives for young women in South Africa.
What do you do in your free time?
I love ballet, opera and theater and Mozart. Washington is a fabulous city for the arts. With the Kennedy Center, all the theaters and museums, the need to go to New York is really diminished.
And, when you’re not working? What are your favorite kinds of events to attend when you’re off the clock?
The best non-work event is a weekend in the country sailing on the Rappahannock River with friends … priceless!