An Unforgettable Week

The drama that unfolded
Around CorelWORLD ’01

Reprinted from Oct 2001

The events that overtook our country on Tuesday, September 11, had a profound effect on the conference that I host. It became far less important in the larger matters of life, and at the same time, it became far more important.

Was it bad luck or good luck that the attack on our freedom took place on Day Two of the CorelWORLD User Conference? How can one speak of luck at all, in the face of deeds more evil than our generation has ever known? One week earlier and the conference would have never happened. Two days later, and some of our patrons might have been on those flights. Instead, three airplanes turned into missiles during CorelDRAW Program Manager Tony Severenuk’s keynote address. The financial center of the western world turned to rubble while I was introducing to about 60 people how Corel R.A.V.E. works. And from that moment on, the worst terrorist attack in our country’s history became the conference backdrop for the week.

There is more irony in our experience to fill conference memories all the way back to our first one in 1989. All was right with the world, as my traditional pre-conference ritual was right on schedule. Happily holed up in my suite upstairs, long before any patrons or staff arrived, I reveled in blissful peace and solitude the week prior to the conference. Just me, 12 computers, three printers, a local area network, room service, and 14 hours of U.S. Open tennis on cable each day.

Throughout Sunday and Monday, the question I addressed most was why we were in a town 15 miles north of downtown Boston, where the nearest sign of culture was from the cheese churned at the farm down the road. I could go on auto-pilot for this one…about how the patrons had been requesting Boston since 1995…and how we have made a covenant to keep room rates below $150/night for as long as possible…and oh by the way, do you know that a room downtown goes for $379/night in September…?

Monday evening, we enjoyed an elegant dinner cruise on Boston Harbor, highlighted by a close-up view of departing planes from Logan Airport, banking peacefully directly over our heads and out to sea.

And the next morning, the missiles came. At once, the serenity of my pre-conference solitude seemed a century ago, Burney’s commanding presence an overnight distant memory, the serenity of our cruise shattered, and our position well outside of town suddenly a blessing. What irony…

On that morning—a date that displays as 911 on the calendar—word spread in horrific and disjointed splinters of cellular telephone reportage. But when we placed a television in Conference Central, there could be no denying that our little conference would not be the same again, not this week and perhaps not for years to come. Help Center maestros Jim Hart and Wayne Kaplan wasted little time taking advantage of the technology at our disposal: They connected one of our XGA projectors to the television and converted Conference Central into Crisis Central. The South Tower collapsed upon lower Manhattan on a 12-foot screen while we looked on in dumbfounded silence.

Collective shock is a powerful tonic and we got a vivid taste of it. Surely you recall the sick feeling in your stomach, the rage of helplessness, the utter disbelief. When you are in a room of almost 200 people when those feelings set in, the range of emotion is beyond description.

We hurriedly called a staff meeting. Grieve? Mourn? There was no time—we had to decide whether to continue with the conference. “I don’t see how we can go on,” came the first opinion. “This is so much more important.”

“If we don’t,” I replied, half-rhetorically, “where would these people go? They’re not going to get home. They’d sit in their hotel rooms all day watching the news, feeling even worse.”

“They paid for instruction,” said Sue Blumenberg, conference manager. “Shouldn’t we at least give them that?”

Indeed we should, the consensus quickly became. As far as we were concerned, it would be the first public response to the brutality. Would America succumb to terrorism? Would we accede to fear? CorelWORLD would not: the show would go on. I walked quietly throughout Conference Central to inform people that they could stay and watch…but if they wanted to return to session, breakouts would resume in five minutes. To our surprise, many—most—chose instruction over horror.

And as far as we were concerned, the first heroic acts were about to be witnessed. While innocent people were jumping from 110 stories, could you imagine leading a course on color management? Bob van Duuren did. And while the Pentagon was ablaze, could you teach R.A.V.E., or show how you created your last masterpiece? Tom Anzai and Paul Huntington did just that. In the face of unimaginable distraction, these three professionals planted the first seeds of defiance. Terrorism might take down buildings, but it gave rise to a collective spirit that was the driving force in getting us through the week.

Helping us carry on was the discovery that nobody at the conference knowingly lost a loved one. Nobody knew anybody on board the four planes or had family in the towers or at the Pentagon. The closest shave came not from a patron but from our liaison at the Sheraton Ferncroft Resort, our host hotel. Debbie Romanowski’s brother was due at the World Trade Center that morning for a job interview. “His dog ran away that morning and he missed his flight in order to run after him. His dog’s name is Lucky…”

With the big question out of the way—to cancel or continue—many, many other considerations presented themselves. As any patron can attest, CorelWORLD is equal parts instruction and flavor. We inspire AND we entertain. We’re famous for it. But for the rest of the week, would it ever be appropriate to offer up a good time? Would anyone want that? We just didn’t know.

We went one step at a time, and all we knew for certain was that it seemed decidedly wrong to burst into a session and blow a train whistle, the customary signal for a mid-session break and prize giveaway. The prize train went silent for the first time since 1994, when someone made off with our $5 whistle in San Francisco.

Tuesday afternoon’s lunch was the quietest one in conference history. The chicken salsa wrap was delicious but most of us were just choking it down. We had to eat and it was food. “Conference Management 101 doesn’t prepare me for this,” I said during my daily lunchtime remarks. “We sense your feelings that the instruction should continue [pause ever so briefly to verify that heads are nodding in agreement], and so indeed this show will go on. But beyond that, we just don’t know. Should we hold our annual trivia contest tonight? Will we feel like socializing? The last thing we want to do is disrespect the process of grieving or tell anyone how to feel and when to feel it. But by 4:30 this afternoon, it is quite possible that we will want an escape. I can’t make this decision by myself, gang—if ever there was a time when I needed your help, it’s now.”

Forty-five minutes later, it was time for our daily lunchtime grand prize giveaway—one of several instances in which brain and heart were not on the same page. Everyone is congregated in Conference Central—as they always are in anticipation of the prize train—but this time they are riveted to the scenes of death and destruction being shown by CNN in one long commercial-free progression. “I hope you don’t find this crude or in poor taste, but we do have this Hewlett-Packard ScanJet here, we want one of you to have it, and there is no reason for us not to award it.

“Whoever wins, try not to enjoy it too much…” It was a poor attempt at humor, attempted way too soon.

In the next 15 minutes, about three dozen people approached me with urgings to continue with our evening trivia contest. Said one: “If I don’t do anything, I’ll just sit and watch, and if I sit and watch, I’ll just cry. I really, really need a break from the misery and I need to be with lots of people.”

The mandate was clear and we would do it one better: We decided to open the bar; all drinks would be free. And as host of the contest, I made the determination that the next 90 minutes would be an “America at War” free zone. There would be no talk of it whatsoever.

And so it went our gyrating process of grief, relief, commiseration, and rallying. As the host, the responsibility fell on me to: a) gauge the mood of the moment and accommodate it; and b) try to direct the mood without imposing it on anyone. These skills are simply not part of the resume of CorelWORLD Conference Host. My preferred method of directing traffic is more akin to bull in china shop. I come out Monday morning with about twice as much energy as would normally be called for, fan a big flame of enthusiasm, and pretty much keep after-burners on for the next five days. Gauge the mood? Not impose it on people? LAUGHING OUT LOUD! I have become expert at in-your-face, you’re-gonna-like-it-and-that’s-all-there-is-to-it histrionics. Never in 12 years have I had to consciously dial back energy—just ask anyone who has been to the conference, or who has witnessed my Sunday collapse once it’s over.

And as you can imagine, dialing back proved to be twice as exhausting as my typical M.O. After 12 years, we know the exhilaration when this conference goes on cruise control, but there would be none of that this year. And what’s more, there was really no time for me to grieve. Family members advised me that it was okay to let it all out in public, but I couldn’t. I was convinced that group energy would prove the essential commodity and it was up to me to help generate that.

Most of the almost-200 patrons were already in house, but come Wednesday morning, the list of no-shows began to surface, as displayed by a perfectly-organized collection of unclaimed badges at Conference Registration. CorelWORLD is divided into two parts, and about two dozen people chose to come just for the second half (with most people coming either for the first half or for both halves). Of those two dozen, five or six could drive in—the rest were at the futile mercy of a grounded airline industry.

Among those locked out: Jill Barringer, who had not missed a year in conference history. “Lee and Lisa finally get their wish,” she wrote, in reference to two conference buddies who trail her in seniority by one year. “I have been dethroned. But let it be known that it took an act of terrorism to keep me from being there.”

There was an equally prominent no-show that year, as Graham Brown, Executive Vice President of Business Applications, was prepared to announce development of a new version of Ventura Publisher. He just wasn’t anywhere near the Sheraton Ferncroft and wasn’t going to get there anytime soon. But hey, this group had been waiting for over four years to hear Corel even make a grunt in the direction of Ventura, and we weren’t going to let a few cowardly terrorists keep that news from getting out. We coaxed a speaker phone out of the hotel, hovered a microphone over it, and at 8:30am, Friday, September 14, our conference enjoyed its first-ever remote keynote address. And when Brown uttered those long-anticipated words—“we are actively involved in development of a new version of Corel VENTURA”—it marked another conference first: a standing ovation given to a telephone.

After looking forward, we looked backward: I had been preparing a photographic walk down memory lane all summer—including never-before-shown video footage of the first conference trivia contest from 1991—and I was going to find time to show it, even if it meant ruining the schedule.

And after looking backward, we had to return to the present: That meant figuring out how we were going to get home. Friday afternoon came and went without its usual mass exodus. Save for the few locals in the group and those who decided to take buses and rental cars home (clear across the country in some cases), most of the group wasn’t yet going anywhere. We got lots of help with teardown—we did it all in about two hours. Small favors, you know…

My mother Beverly (conference registrar since 1995) worked tirelessly collecting airline information, feeding us Logan updates, and helping people coordinate rides to the airport, once planes were flying. The hotel lounge was transformed into a mobile telephone café, with people waiting on hold before shouting out “I got Delta on the line—who’s flying Delta?”

But mostly, our time was spent just being together, and that proved to be the little miracle of CorelWORLD ’01. We always knew that we were a tight-knit group; we just never knew how tight. This year’s tragic events created bonds that will surely last a lifetime. CorelWORLD became less important than usual that week, but it also became more important. It was the collective spirit and strength of a group enduring together that allowed us to carry forward. And through the misery and horror, that was a beautiful thing to share.

Of my colleagues in the conference business, three others were holding events that week. All of them were cancelled. Not only did CorelWORLD keep its doors open, and not only did its presenting team show heroic form…in addition to all of that, conference patrons found and exhibited the very qualities that President Bush hoped the entire country would show:

We got stronger, not weaker.

We pooled respect, character, and love into connections far greater than the sum of their parts. In the last decade, this user community has shown me many times over why I have one of the greatest jobs in the world. They became the most amazing support group, and over the course of the week, a source of immeasurable pride.

The final piece of irony comes from conference regular Lee Musick. As he did two years ago, Lee rode his motorcycle to the conference, a 16-hour adventure from his home in Indianapolis. By Wednesday, when most of the group began to wonder how they would be getting home, it became evident that Lee was in the most comfortable position of all, not having to wait for airports to open, roads to be clear, trains, buses, or anything. He could just ride home. The safest form of transportation under the circumstances. Just a man and his motorcycle.

So what did he do? He came out of a turn in Cleveland, lots his traction, rode into a ditch, had to call his wife to come get him, and is home waiting for his body to turn back from black and blue.

Just one of the many memories from CorelWORLD ’01 that we will just as soon forget, but at the same time won’t dare to.

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