I hosted the first conference of my career some 35 years ago in Costa Rica.
It was a tour, too. The group spent a few days in San José and then a few days on the coast at Guanacaste. My co-hostess for the event was a friend and colleague at the time named Josianne.
Our first morning at the hotel in Guanacaste, Josianne and I woke early and walked over to the hotel’s open-air dining room on the beach. The door to the kitchen behind it was locked. Looking through the windows, we could see inside. The tiny kitchen was dark and empty. Where was the staff? The cook? Our group would be arriving for breakfast anytime.
At this time on this coast, options, including dining options, were limited. Our group needed a morning meal, and there was nowhere other than the dining room of the hotel where we were staying for them to get one.
Josianne and I walked back to the hotel lobby. The young girl at the front desk didn’t know where the kitchen staff was or why they were late showing up to work. She did, though, have a key to the kitchen. By now, a couple of our tour-goers had found their way to the dining room. They had seated themselves and were looking a bit annoyed. No wait staff in sight, and the air was hot and still. The control for the ceiling fans was inside the locked kitchen.
Making Do With What We Had
Josianne and I unlocked the kitchen door, turned on the lights and the ceiling fans, and took inventory. We had eggs, butter, bread, and orange juice. There were tea bags but no coffee… sugar but no cream… pepper but no salt.
“Do you want to cook or serve?” Josianne asked.
“I’ll serve,” I replied, reaching for a towel to tie around my waist as an apron and a pitcher to fill with water.
By now the dining room was full, and our tour-goers were obviously unhappy.
I set the tables as quick as I could with the mismatched china we found in the kitchen cabinet, poured water all around, and took orders (fried versus scrambled), while Josianne fired up the gas stove. We served eggs, toast, juice, and tea that morning to our 40 guests and made it out the door in time to meet the bus scheduled to take us on our first property-viewing appointment of the day.
If you were among the 40 participants at that long-ago event, thank you… and I’m sorry. You’re a good sport.
The Adventures Of The Belize Conference
I hosted the second conference of my career a year later in Belize. Again, Josianne was my cohort.
Infrastructure isn’t Belize’s strong suit, even today. But 35 years ago this was a seriously undeveloped, unappointed little country. After two days of meetings in Belize City, we wanted to take the group south along the coast to look at beachfront lots and houses for sale. We needed a bus to transport the 50 of us.
The bus we’d organized in advance was promised to be “modern” (that was the actual description on the invoice). The bus that showed up outside our hotel that morning was an old U.S. school bus with broken windows, torn seats, and balding tires.
The best thing that could be said about the bus was that it was there, on the scene, as expected, at 8 o’clock that morning. The same was not true for the real estate agent who was to act as our tour guide for the day. The guy finally showed up an hour-and-a-half late and, Josianne and I realized quickly, drunk.
We knew Belize well enough to know that substitutions were not an option. The bus was the bus and the agent was the agent. We either went off with them for the day or we canceled the day.
We loaded the group and set off.
The road we traveled was dirt (today it’s paved). As we had no air conditioning, we opened the windows for ventilation. With the windows open, the bus filled with dust from the road. With the windows closed, temperatures became unbearable. So we pushed the windows down when the air became stiflingly hot and back up when the air became stiflingly dusty.
Josianne and I reviewed an itinerary for the day with our agent guide, who we positioned in the front seat so he could give instructions to the driver. Then we wandered up and down the aisle chatting with our tour-goers, trying to keep spirits up in spite of the transportation discomforts.
The things I didn’t know back then about managing conferences and leading tours could have filled an encyclopedia. One of the things I didn’t know but have learned since, for example, is that you don’t, at any time, hand over control of the group to a drunk real estate agent.
After an hour had passed, Josianne and I became concerned and walked up front to check in with our intoxicated friend. The guy had passed out. We shook him awake and asked how much longer until we’d arrive at our destination.
The guy looked at us, at the driver, at his lap, out the window…
After a few long minutes, something finally registered and the guy began yelling at the driver. We’d missed our turn, Josianne and I came to understand, which was 45 minutes back up the dusty road we’d just traveled down.
Now what? Turn around? No. Better to continue on to our next stop. This, the agent explained, was another hour in a different direction.
“Where can we go for refreshments?” I asked the guy. “We need to take the group somewhere they can use a bathroom and buy drinks and snacks.”
He knew a place, he said, and gave the driver new instructions. About 20 minutes later, we pulled up to a roadside shack alongside a river. We unloaded the bus. Our group used the facilities and ordered bottles of Coke and water, then stood in the shade of a mango tree. The morning had been a bust, but the drinks and the shady respite cooled and calmed everyone down.
But where was the real estate agent? He wasn’t in the shop. Our male tour-goers assured us he wasn’t in the bathroom.
Josianne and I stood, with the group, at the door to the bus trying to figure out what we’d do if we’d lost our guide altogether.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the guy walking toward us. He was stripped down to his underpants and dripping wet. He’d gone for a swim in the river.
The agent, carrying his clothes, climbed back on the bus and took his seat. Josianne and I looked at each other, shook our heads, and followed our guide back inside the vehicle, along with the rest of the group.
By the time we arrived at our next destination, the guy had put his pants back on and sobered up enough to explain to us all what we were looking at. We toured for several more hours that day then returned late, dusty, and exhausted to our hotel in Belize City.
I have more stories from those early years. Ask me about them next time you see me. Some are best told over a cold rum and Coke while watching the sun set.
Founding Publisher, Overseas Opportunity Letter