Mercedes-Benz meetings, Calgary to Chicago

I hate waking up before 6:00. There’s just something fundamentally wrong with it. Today, though, it was necessary. Today, I fly to Chicago.

Was ready for my 6:30 pickup. Allard was collecting me for the trip to the airport. I wasn’t sure if he was going to show up on time, since we’d had no actual solid confirmation of the pickup. At 6:25, I started formulating a backup plan, in the event that Allard was running a little late. His car appeared in front of my house at 6:30, right on the nose, saving me additional grief.

Why are we going to Chicago? Every year, usually in January, are the annual kick-off meetings. This is when the account team gets together with Mercedes-Benz USA’s team and goes over the high-level plans for the year. It’s also a chance to do some team-building (important when your teams are a couple thousand kilometres and two time zones apart). Normally, these meetings are held in Calgary, but due to the rather frigid temperatures of last year, a more central (and likely warmer) location was chosen: Chicago.

Due to the distance, Mark and I weren’t originally considered for the group to go. It’s expensive to send people out that way, as we have to pay for airfare, hotels, food, and so forth. The Critical Mass team is considerably larger than the Mercedes-Benz team, and we want to keep costs low. However, due to the fact that Allard has to leave tomorrow night (the meetings go until Friday afternoon), there is a bit of a desire for some additional technical team presence. That, and we want to try and push the Client-Side Rearchitecture project as much as possible.

This is the first time I’m be on an actual business trip since 2000, when I went to Cincinatti for the project. I don’t count the Search Engine Strategies conference in August as a real business trip — that was more of a glorified, all expenses paid vacation. (Okay, yes, I did learn a lot, but that’s not the point.) I wasn’t really looking forward to this trip (mostly because I don’t have a lot to contribute), but I know it will be information and useful.

Allard and I checked in and ran through U.S. Immigration. I was half-expecting problems, after hearing all the stories of all the problems our staff has had trying to cross the border for work. As I’m realizing, so long as you’re there for meetings, it’s not a problem. It’s only when you’re going down there to work that you have a problem. We crossed the border and headed to security.

Allard proclaimed, as we neared the security lines, that he usually zips through without trouble. For once, Murphy was following someone else, and they immediately pulled him over to randomly inspect his bags. I headed to the x-ray machines. It was the usual: jacket, carry-on bag, pull out the laptop, run through the metal detector, Allard, in the line next to me, not only set off the detector, but had to remove his shoes, had his bags thorough poked around in, and even got the dreaded full-body pat-down.

Serves him right for saying he always zips through security.

Christine, Casey, and Rich were on a different flight, with United Airlines. They had a direct flight to Chicago (the bastards!) while the rest of us poor plebes (Allard, the two Marks, Mabel, Jules, Bill, Jamie, and myself) had to take a two-legger with Northwest. Our first leg went to Minneapolis, and the second to Chicago. The first flight had been an Airbus A319, a comfortable, partly-full flight. The second leg was a DC-9, which was a little more full, relatively-speaking.

Although I’d been to Minneapolis before, on my way to Cincinatti, I didn’t really remember the airport. It was much more appealing this time, since I was travelling in a group (which, I have to say, is a lot more fun), and I didn’t have to run around trying to find a moved flight. We grabbed lunch at Chili’s Too (a grilled chicken sandwich) before heading for our flight to Chicago.

The flight to Chicago was short, barely over an hour. Approaching Chicago was interesting. I’ve never been there before, and had no idea what to expect. It’s a big city, about the size of Toronto. We could see the airport as we approached it, and while it looked close to the city, I could tell that we’d have a bit of a drive into the downtown core.

Dad used to travel a lot in his line of work, and went through Chicago periodically (he once met Mr. T and got his autograph … for my sister), and told me about how large it was. I expected a grand environment with vaulted ceilings, bright lights, shiny surfaces, and glitzy storefronts. Instead, it’s like walking through a series of low-roofed tunnels. How the mighty perceptions fall… However, O’Hare is HUGE. While I only got a quick glance at it, there is no question about it holding several records for being a large and busy airport.

Walking through the airport, Mark (the Account Manager) mentioned that we should give Stuart a call in Montreal. (Mark used to work with Stuart at Parallel and at McCann in Calgary.) Give him a ring at, say, 3:00 in the morning and scream:

“Hey Padley, you suck!”

I had to laugh, mostly because I knew the only one who would appreciate that any less than Stuart would be Therese.

Allard, Jamie, and I hopped in the first cab to downtown. From O’Hare, it’s about a 30 minute drive to downtown, providing you don’t get caught in too much traffic. (I almost wish, though, that we could have taken the CTA trains, which run to O’Hare. I don’t know why Calgary hasn’t got that plan on the books — every major city should run light rail to their airports.) At the time of day (approximately 14:30), traffic inbound is fairly light, and rush hour outbound is just beginning (or at least that’s how it seemed). We chatted amongst ourselves (the cabbie probably wondered what we were babbling about — I often wonder if they understand the conversations that go on behind/beside them), and I looked out the window to see what we were passing.

Chicago is an old city. It’s been around since the late 1600s (in one form or another), and it shows. As you near the downtown core, the highway runs right next to (or possibly through the middle of) neighbourhoods that have been around for maybe a hundred years or more. Beautiful old buildings, some left over from a more industrial era, some probably still in the midst of production, spitting distance from working-class brownstone houses. Heavy iron bridgework is everywhere.

If you haven’t already guessed, I’d never been to Chicago before. It’s one of those cities that I’d always been moderately curious about, but didn’t really feel any pressing need to visit. Even before we got to the hotel, I’d made up my mind that I need to come back here when I have more time. This is a vibrant city with a lot of history. And one thing Chicago definitely has in volumes over Calgary is architecture. Chicago boomed in the 1920s, and it does very well — there is a tremendous abundance of gothic, neo-gothic, and art deco styles. Many buildings here are from a time when form was just as important as function — maybe even moreso. Today’s modern buildings lack the grace and elegance of the days of yore. I often wonder if I was born a few decades too late, as I seem to want to live in a world where art deco is still popular, where steam rules the rails, and where the bizarre complexities of our modern world rarely affected the average person. Odd, since I regularly try to live on the cutting edge of today.

The Hyatt Regency is a massive hotel — I’ve never quite seen one its size (outside of Las Vegas, anyway). It’s got two 35 storey towers (the East and West), joined by bridges and linked by a large glassed atrium. It’s not very ostentatious (at least from the outside), but it is comfy.

Allard and I are sharing a room. But only for one night — Allard has to go back to Calgary tomorrow. Since I’m here for two nights, I’m checking in and getting the keys. It’ll be the only expense I incur on this trip, if I can help it. Cabs here don’t seem to take credit cards, and since I’m out of American cash, I’ll be bumming rides as much as possible.

We dumped our bags at the room and headed downstairs to meet up with the rest of the group in the reception area. Then it was off to the Critical Mass Chicago office, about a five-minute walk away. To get there, we walked down Wacker St. to Michigan Ave. This crosses over the Chicago River, passing both the Wrigley building and the Chicago Tribune building. Both are classic examples of 1920’s glory. Oh, how I wish Calgary had anything like those!

The Realty Tower, a modern 12-storey building across the street from the Chicago Tribune building houses the Critical Mass office. We have only about a dozen people there, so the space is shared with another Omnicom company that deals primarily in print. Jerry, Critical Mass’ CEO, has the corner office to himself. Christine, Rich, Casey, and Melanie were already in one of the meeting rooms. Benno had also arrived from Toronto, having had to take a detour to get his passport renewed (he’s a Japanese citizen) before entering the United States.

Jules, Andrew, Allard, and I took up shop in a boardroom in the far corner of the office. It took us a moment to connect to the wireless network, and were soon checking in on events of the day (that we’d partly missed). Allard, Jules, and Andrew came and went. The advantage of being the straggler on this show is that not much is expected (or demanded) of me. So I could stay put and get some email sent. Andrew came back after a while, and it was just the two of us. And it was us who were privy to the funniest thing that I’ve heard in a long time.

Neil (our Sr. VP of New Business) had popped in the room for a moment to chat, and was on his way out when he ran into Rich. I couldn’t see Rich from where I was, but I could hear him. He was having difficulty with some of the office equipment. (Rich doesn’t come to the Chicago office all that often.) He was trying to photocopy a page.

“How long does it take for this thing to make a copy?”

There was a pause of a second or two, before Neil, in his ever-chipper, happily matter-of-fact manner, replied:

“That’s a printer!”

I could not see Rich’s face, but Andrew did — the look of tired frustration is one he’ll not forget anytime soon. It took me many minutes to stop giggling (let alone laughing) about the error.

We had a quick staff meeting, mostly to get everyone there on the same page for what we had to do. Some of us were going out for pizza, while others had to stay in and finish up presentations. But no matter what, we all had to be at Second City at 19:15 for the show. Those who had to remain behind were identified, and the rest of us shuffled off to the hotel (to drop off our laptops).

Along the way from the office to the restaurant, I got a history lesson from Stephanie. She lived in Chicago for seven years, and has the same Cliff Claven gene I do. She told us about how the Wrigley building was built by the Wrigley chewing gum company (same name as on Wrigley park). The guy sold chewing gum only after laundry soap had failed. She mentioned the Chicago Tribune tower has pieces of rock from the Taj Mahal, the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramids, and even a moon rock embedded in its walls. And the one that impressed me most: the US Army Corps of Engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River to combat pollution. Now how’s that for obscure bits of trivia?

The destination was a place called Gino’s East. This is a Chicago institution, home of one of the best deep dish pizzas in the city. And it is darn tasty, not to mention filling (two slices, and I was done). It’s also a bit of an odd place. Having moved to their current location only a couple of years ago (the old location was too small, so they took over the vacant Planet Hollywood building), I simply couldn’t believe all the graffiti on the inside. This is one of the neat things about Gino’s East — almost every surface of every wall, table, chair, mirror, window (you’re not allowed to draw on the TV, though) is covered in graffiti. Not the bold paint that you’ll see on alley walls, but writing. Lots of it. So much that it’s often difficult to make any of it out. If nothing else, the place has ambiance.

Second City is a legend. Most of the biggest names in comedy in the last 30 years have come through here. SCTV, one of the great Canadian television comedy shows. Chicago’s Second City is the original, and probably the largest one. I’d never been to the one in Toronto, and coming to the original is one tremendous opportunity.

We saw a show called “Red Scare”. It was a group of six actors: three men, three women. This was a play made of short skits, less than 10 minutes apiece (and usually shorter). It was particularly funny considering how the word “red” used to denote “communist”, and the fear that came along with it. Today, “red” refers to all the red states from the last election, and how neo-conservatism is running rampant throughout the United States. I find it interesting that the entertainment field loves picking on the “majority”.

We all sat in the stage right side, against the wall. Jamie, Mel, and I drank red wine and enjoyed the oddball antics. Except for the “Coach Cancer” skit, the majority of it was hilarious. We even stuck around for the post-show improv routine (the usual skits based on a word from the audience, and the “change” routine).

There was no night out for us beyond this. We returned to the hotel to settle in. It’s an odd experience staying in the same room as your boss. Given, Allard and I have a great relationship — he’s a strong leader, and is very flexible. I’ve been very fortunate to work with him. Still, it’s odd.

Thankfully, we have separate beds…