This article will be a little different from my usual musings on volunteer management and leadership. I thought it might be interesting to give you a glimpse at what it is like doing an overseas work trip as a volunteer engagement consultant.

People often say how lucky I am to be able to travel with work, and I am. It’s a privilege to work with passionate Volunteer Managers around the world and to learn from their experiences. But travel overseas isn’t always the glamorous experience it might appear. So here is a warts and all summary of six nights away in the USA last month for the 2019 Points of Light conference.

16 June 2019

Arrive at Grantham railway station in Lincolnshire around 2pm for my train to London. Thanks to it being a weekend, first class is a cheap option so I won’t have an issue cramming my suitcase into limited the limited bag space down the back of the train. If only my flights were first class too!

Grantham station
Grantham station

London Kings Cross to Heathrow via the tube and Heathrow Express is blissfully uneventful. London is so much nicer at the weekend without all the commuters striving to be the first into the office (seriously people, what’s the rush?). The struggle comes in finding the Hotel Hoppa bus stop at Heathrow Terminal Three for the service to my hotel. The Hoppa service is a great idea but so confusing to understand for a UK resident and seasoned traveller like myself that I’m amazed foreign visitors, unfamiliar with the airport, can use it at all.

After waiting for 30 minutes the bus finally turns up and a short while later I am at my hotel and getting settled in for the night, knowing I have an early start in the morning.

17 June 2019

Alarm goes off at 450am. Another wait for the Hoppa bus back to terminal three, thankfully not half-an-hour this time.

The Novotel Heathrow, Terminals 1, 2 & 3
The Novotel Heathrow, Terminals 1, 2 & 3

Slightly worried to receive an email from American Airlines that my connection from Chicago to Minneapolis-St Paul has been brought forward. It was already a tight one hour and 45 mins, and that’s now been reduced by 20 minutes.

Breakfast and coffee at Heathrow before boarding a lovely new 787 Dreamliner to Chicago. I spent almost 17 hours on one of these from Perth (Australia) to London last year, so today’s eight hour flight time across the Atlantic will be a breeze.

Happily my flight leaves on time and, even better, looks likely to arrive 30-45 minutes early at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Unfortunately, as we are about 100ft off the ground the pilot has to go around because the plane landing before us hasn’t cleared the runway. That means another 30 minutes in the air and the hopes of making my tight connection take a blow.

As is typical at O’Hare, the border control queue is huge and takes ages to get through. I grab my suitcase and head for flight connections where they tell me I need to leave 45 minutes to get to my next flight as the usual train between terminals is closed for maintenance and I’ll have to re-clear security (TSA). With only 35 minutes until the connecting flight leaves, I reluctantly change my plans, re-checking myself and my bag to be put on standby for a 5pm flight (instead of my original 120pm departure) and confirmed on an 840pm fight. Endless additional hours at an airport await – such fun!

The replacement bus service (it isn’t just the UK that does these then) gets me to terminal three where I jump on the free wifi to: tell the person in Minneapolis who is picking me up that I’ll be later than planned; and advise my keynote co-presenter (the brilliant Beth Steinhorn) that I will miss that evening’s technical run through.

But what’s that airport tannoy announcement saying? Turns out my 120pm flight has been delayed to its original departure time of 145pm, about ten minutes from now. I rush to the gate and explain the situation to the gate agent – who puts me on the flight! Happy days. Much frantic messaging ensues before takeoff to rescind my earlier delay notifications.

After all that stress I arrive at Minneapolis-St Paul pretty on time. Sadly, my suitcase doesn’t, having been re-checked for one of the later flights. American Airlines make arrangements to get it back to me, hopefully that evening, and I head off to the hotel.

Hotel 340, Cedar Street, St Paul, MN, USA
Hotel 340, Cedar Street, St Paul, MN, USA

Checking in I explain the bag situation and ask them to take the bag in for me, even if it arrives in the middle of the night, so I don’t have to stay awake – no point making the jet lag worse. No time to rest though, as I head straight out for the technical run through with Beth and get first sight of the room where tomorrow morning we’ll be doing our keynote address to 750 people.

The main plenary hall the night before the conference, mid-way through the tech run through
The main plenary hall the night before the conference, mid-way through the tech run through

I then connect with my friend Barry Altland for an early dinner before heading back to the hotel for some sleep. At this point I’ve been up for about 22 hours, it’s 9pm, I have no suitcase and I need to be up at 5am as we have a final technical run through at 7am ahead of the main session at 830am. All of which means I am delighted to see an email telling me my suitcase is due to arrive at 330am!

Please make the glamour of overseas travel stop!

18 June 2019

After a few hours of bad sleep I wake at 145am having dreamt my suitcase has arrived, but was empty. I check my email and see a message that my bag has indeed been delivered. I dash down to reception where I am re-united with my clean clothes and other essentials! I unpack at 2am and grab three more hours of sleep.

My programme for the 2019 Points of Light Conference
My programme for the 2019 Points of Light Conference

After a final early morning tech run through, the keynote address kicks off on time and is a success. We showcase examples of volunteer managers as catalysts of change, featuring three stories on video and two in person thanks to our guest speakers, Jess and Joanne. Feedback is overwhelmingly positive, which is gratifying after six months of preparatory work to pull the session together.

Meg from Points of Light opens proceedings as Rob and Beth look on
Meg from Points of Light opens proceedings as Rob and Beth look on
The opening pleanry in full swing
The opening pleanry in full swing
No idea what I said here to make Beth laugh
No idea what I said here to make Beth laugh

After lunch at the food truck festival outside the venue I get to attend a session by the amazing Dana Litwin on dealing with volunteer problem behaviour, by way of cuddling penguins (or stabby footballs as Dana calls them) and a bit of singing (I said Dana was amazing).

Next up is meeting my friend Tony Goodrow, CEO of Better Impact, to discuss two possible work projects over a beer and dinner. Then straight to the Al!ve and Better Impact networking reception. I get to meet in person a few people I have known online for a while as well as re-connect with fellow blogger Meridian Swift.

Sleep comes easily when I finally reach my bed.

19 June 2019

Oooh, I get a lie-in this morning – until 6am!

Given the six hour time difference to the UK I spend breakfast dealing with email and social media before the three block walk back to the River Centre in downtown St Paul.

American conference centres are huge!
American conference centres are huge!

The morning is more sessions and networking following lunch at the food trucks again, catching up with fellow Volunteer Managers in the sunshine to the sounds of an esoteric DJ who the conference organisers have hired.

In the last session of the day I go from attendee to presenter, delivering (for the first time) my workshop, “All Volunteer Mangers Are Liars”. It seems to go across well with the 150 people in the room with yet more lovely feedback. I do like the willingness of American’s to be effusive with their praise if you do a good job.

Well branded podiums in all the rooms
Well branded podiums in all the rooms

That’s the formal programme done but it’s straight to the Intercontinental Hotel for a reception hosted for funders to which I have been invited. From there, Beth and I head out for dinner to reflect on yesterday’s keynote and discuss the thorny issue of payments for volunteers and how the rules and practices vary between the USA and UK.

Once again, I don’t struggle to sleep!

20 June 2019

Up at 6am again, clearing messages from back home before heading to the conference venue for my 830am “Philosophy Of Volunteering Workshop”. This is one of my favourite sessions to run. 150 of us have ninety minutes of fun, challenge and great conversation about the values and beliefs we have about volunteerism.

Over coffee I have a revelation in event catering as the snacks provided are maple glazed doughnuts with bacon. How have I lived for 45 years without these?!

Maple glazed doughnuts with bacon. Yes!
Maple glazed doughnuts with bacon. Yes!

Before we know it the 2019 Points of Life Conference concludes with a very American closing session featuring cheering, a singer, a TV news anchor, the brother of a former US President and the announcement that the 2020 conference will be in Washington DC. I’m left wondering how that style of closing event would go down at home.

The conference may be over, but work isn’t. I catch up with fellow Energize Inc. Associate Betsy McFarland who I had the privilege of seeing present a workshop earlier in the week. Betsy heads off for her flight home and I get stuck into work I need to catch up on after three days at the conference.

Betsy McFarland working the room earlier in the week
Betsy McFarland working the room earlier in the week

I treat myself to dinner at a restaurant I like in St Paul which happens to be next to the park where the city’s jazz festival is kicking off. Despite the wet weather a big crown has turned out for a rather good latin jazz band.

21 June 2019

Rising early again means I have the best part of a day until I fly home. So getting to experience the St Paul legend that is Mickey’s Diner for a late breakfast with Meridian Swift is a welcome distraction from hours of boredom before meeting my lift back to the airport.

The scenic panorama outside Hotel 340
The scenic panorama outside Hotel 340

My flight to Philadelphia passes uneventfully and I easily make my connection to a British Airways flight to London, even having time for a quick meal before the scheduled departure at 10pm. All of which means I’ve spent 15 hours awake before I even get on the plane that will take me back to the UK. There is nothing more glamorous than sitting in hotels and airports on your own waiting to go home (disengage sarcasm mode).

22 June 2019

BA do their thing and get us into Terminal Five at Heathrow nicely ahead of schedule. The connections to Kings Cross go smoothly, too smoothly in fact as I end up with over an hour to kill before my train home.

I finally make it back home about 2pm, six days from when I left. By the time I go to bed I have been awake more than 36 hours and have just the Sunday to recover before I drive to Liverpool on Monday to run some training for a client. This trip may be over, but the next is about to begin.


Movies watched in flight on this trip:

  • Flags Of Our Fathers – very good
  • Fighting With My Family – amusing
  • Captain Marvel – best Marvel movie so far, imho
  • Bumblebee – meh
  • Widows – excellent
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