None of this happens by accident. Dr. Jan Sneegas, director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly and Conference Services office, and her staff, make it happen. Every year.
Putting a GA together for 3,000 to 4,000 people is a giant logistical puzzle. Beginning four or five years out, the staff, in cooperation with the GA Planning Committee, picks a site then begins to assemble the pieces. “It’s amazing for us to see a GA come together,” said Sneegas. “By the time GA comes around I will have already walked into that convention hall four or five times when it was empty. And then to see it transformed to a spiritual place with thousands of people singing, it’s just a wonderful thing.”
Though the meetings are temporary, the office has been known for making permanent changes in the cities where GAs are held. The UUA often makes special requests for recycling, composting, and local food options within the convention centers. It works with hotels to conserve water and electricity. In some cities, the changes the GA office negotiates become ongoing options for convention groups that follow.
Most of the GA office staff has been together 11 years. Don Plante is the meeting planner, Stacey Dixon is office administrator, and Steve Ransom is housing and exhibits manager. Ransom has been with the office a year.
Although GA is the staff’s primary function, it also does more. As it has time, the office also helps UUA staff plan other large-group meetings. “We know a lot about hotel contracts, catering menus, and housing issues and we try to help where we can,” said Sneegas.
As GA prepares to get underway each year, the staff focuses on setting up. For the first few days of GA, staff members know they’ll be primarily occupied with answering questions and listening to, well, complaints. “Most of what happens at GA for our office is problem-solving and exception-handling––people who want to do something outside the normal procedures,” she said.
The GA staff is always prepared for problems—whether it be a medical emergency, supplies that didn’t arrive, or a right relationship issue. GA is a few days longer for the GA office staff than for everyone else. By the time GA starts the office staff has been at the convention center for three days.
Plante said he thrives on the challenges that go with putting a GA together. “Every year there are challenges with the different convention centers that keep the job interesting. We’re putting together a big jigsaw puzzle. I just love logistical planning.”
This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of UU World (page 47).