Mercedes-Benz meetings, team building

Allard and I hit the restaurant in the main atrium for breakfast, joined shortly thereafter by Christian and a very tired-looking Jules. Powdered eggs aren’t exactly the breakfast of champions. Jules has been up late working on presentations for today. Allard and I are thankfully exempt from any actual presentations. We’re more or less along for the ride.

Actually, me more than Allard. Allard, at least, is the Technical Director. He needs to be there because the client knows who he is. He needs to be there because some of MBIT will be there. Why do I need to be there? Well, I can’t say for sure, because I really don’t know, but I think it comes down to the Client-Side Rearchitecture project that I’m spearheading, and that Allard won’t be here tomorrow (he’s only here for a day).

We hit the office briefly, just long enough for a quick email check and my morning run at the comics. We were starting at 9:00, and soon we were off — just across the road, mind you — to the Chicago Tribune building. The Tribune is one of Chicago’s oldest and most respected newspapers. Its head office is a massive neo-gothic edifice hovering near the shore of the Chicago River. It’s not huge, at least by modern standards. The outside is adorned with ornate stonework, flying buttresses (or at least would be, were they on the ground), and even has 500 stones from various places around the world (and the moon).

The inside is almost as impressive as the outside. The main lobby is condensed (the footprint is about the size of a regular squash court), but with a high, wood-lined ceiling, and etched stonework (containing a variety of quotes by a lot of people I don’t know). This is the sort of stle that used to be put into buildings. Everything is pre-fab, now. They just don’t make ’em like they used to. Opposite the doors is the security desk. The building is secure — you can’t enter without an employee or guest pass. We went to the desk, one at a time, got our guest passes, and found our way to the elevators to take us to the meeting rooms.

The Huron meeting room is in the second sub-basement. No windows. No fresh air. Complete, total, and utter isolation from everything. In theory, a great location for a meeting. (In reality, it’s a tad harsh.) The Mercedes team was a bit late arriving, no doubt due to traffic (air and ground). Before long, we were set up and ready to roll.

First up on the agenda were introductions. Most of us knew the rest, either through previous meetings or through email and phone conversations. When you have over 40 people in a room, it often helps to know who each person is, what they do, and how they’re going to contribute to everything. One at a time, we went around, saying our names and what we did. It was Jerry, Critical Mass’ CEO, who had the best opening:

“Hi, my name is Jerry, and I’m an alcoholic.”

I’d been waiting for years to hear someone say that during introductions. I’d debated many times on saying it, myself, but had never got up the gumption to do so. ‘Course, now that someone has said it, I’ll have to refrain from using it for a while, lest someone think I’m trying to copycat Jerry.

The meetings were long and a little dull. The same can be said of any meeting I attend that I’m not directly involved in. In fact, I’ve been known to fall asleep in them. (I nodded off at one point during today’s.) Why? I’m not sure. Could be stimulation, or more importantly, the complete lack thereof. It doesn’t even matter how much sleep I get. I found university exceptionally hard, because few of the professors really cared about the students, and preferred to ramble on and on about whatever topic they liked talking about. (Thankfully, I had a number of professors who were quite engaging.) It might explain why my marks weren’t exactly stellar.

The meetings ended with the introduction of the team building event. Last year, we engaged in the Amazing Freeze, which I found to be quite directed. This one was much more free-form. We didn’t really have the same level of competition, either. This time, we split into groups (four to five people, not unlike last year), and were given a topic upon which to “research”. My team (Andrew, Eric, Jules, Lark, and myself) received “Integration of Experience”.

If you’re looking at that and wondering what on Earth that means, you’re not alone. The five us were thinking the same thing.

Our first stop was the hotel. We wanted to dump off our bags (laptops, and in Lark’s case — her bags, she hadn’t checked in yet) and get changed for the dinner after the event (we were told to dress nicely). We met in the lobby along with a couple of the other teams (we weren’t the only ones with the idea) and rolled out.

We had been given several potential locations to go to in the process of working out our topics. They included the Sears Tower, Millennium Park (not be mistaken with Calgary’s skatepark), the Zoo, and Navy Pier. We decided that we didn’t want to run into the other teams, and chose the John Hancock Tower, the little brother to the Sears Tower. We piled into two cabs (Andrew and I in the first; Eric, Lark, and Jules in the second), and promptly lost track of each other.

Yeah. So not a way to start off a team-building event.

The problem is that our cabs didn’t really coordinate with each other. Our cab stopped on the north side of the building, while the other cab stopped on the south. We looked all over for each other, but never caught sight while we were at ground level. Andrew and I decided we’d hit the Observation Desk in a vain effort to find them. Even doing what Andrew called a “Keystone Cop” (starting at the same point, walking in opposite directions, meeting at the opposite side), we couldn’t find them. Back down to the ground floor, we tried the 96th floor, which has a bar. Tucked away in a dark corner, we found them.

Eric had spied a sign outside of the Contemporary Art Museum a couple of blocks away on the way to the tower. We hiked over, and the four of them posed in front of the “Experience” sign while I took the picture. A strange sculpture of a Yugo towing a trailer, jacknifed vertically, gave us the inspiration for Jules playing the role of Superman.

From there, we walked over to the Water Tower, one of Chicago’s landmarks. The Water Tower sits in a traffic island. One side is north-bound traffic, the other south-bound. To the east is a large sandstone building (which was related to the tower at one point in its history). From what we could tell, it was a pumping station. Curious to see if it was still a pumping station, we peered in the windows. This lead us to our epiphony.

Integration of Experience: Every municipality of any size needs water. It’s one of our basic needs. The infrastructure that supplies that water is complex and so necessary that deprivation of mere hours can be troublesome. The water pumping station was old — probably dating back to the earlier days of Chicago. It’s definitely 1800s or earlier. Yet the equipment inside is much newer — maybe only a couple of decades older. Somewhere along the line, they had to rip out the old equipment and insert the new without depriving downtown Chicago one of its primary puming stations. And so we have our integration of experience: without the ability to integrate the old and the new, a lot of people would have had a lousy experience.

Hey, we’re a marketing company. We’re paid to bullshit well.

We celebrated our successful venture with drinks at “Iron” Mike Dytka’s bar, a few blocks away. After the libations, the five of us crammed ourselves into a very small cab (it certainly felt like that in the backseat — Eric, the Chicago native, sat in front) and we found our way to Marche, a very chic little joint west of downtown. It’s in the old warehouse district, now completely refurbished into the chic restaurant district.

Marche was described as being French. I don’t think that’s a particularly accurate description, since it doesn’t really look or feel French. I’d say more nouveau cuisine than anything else. The interior matched the style of the food — eclectic and funky, and making use of the features inherent to the building. High ceilings were decorated, the old elevator shaft doors decorated (or removed entirely). The inner courtyard to the complex (which we could see through windows) still bore the names of the companies that had once lived here.

Like I said before, Chicago has a lot of history. I could come to love this city.

Returning to the hotel after dinner, we adjourned to the BiG Bar, the lounge in the atrium of the Hyatt. It runs the full width of the atrium, about 100 metres or so. Along the glass wall that looks out onto Wacker St. and the Chicago River were four levels of various kinds of booze. It looks very impressive on first glance; when you look closer, you’ll see that there are duplicates.

A small group of us grabbed a table and began to settle in for a nightcap. Martinis — chocolate ones — were the main order for the first round. I have to admit that I didn’t particularly like the one I had (I’ve had much better), and switched to a beer afterwards. Elenor and Mabel went for what I can only call a bad idea: the BiG martini. A 48 fluid ounce, gut-busting monster that shocked the both of them. I don’t think anyone had really realized just how humungous this drink was going to be.


A live band took to the stage, playing some of the great Motown tunes, only very badly. (Well, not really badly, but I’ve heard them much better.) Christine, already quite into the groove, decided that she was going to run up on stage and dance very badly — y’know, to fit in with the music. Mabel declared that she was following. Taro, just to make things interesting, bet Mabel $50 that she couldn’t. So the two of them pranced off to prove Taro wrong.

At first, it looked like Taro’s bet was safe, as the musician nearest to the edge of the stage wasn’t about to let them up. A couple of songs later, though, we heard a distinctly familiar, albeit quiet, “Hi!”. We turned around to see Mabel leaping into the air, trying to speak into a microphone that was a good two feet higher up than the top of her head (the musician was quite tall). Returning triumphant, Taro presented Mabel with her winnings.

The betting didn’t end there. Next up, Mabel was then challenged to drink the remaining 47 oz of the drink she had left. In less than two minutes. This caused a huge round of “you gotta be kidding!” laughter. Mabel, of course, stepped up to the challenge.

Using her hands, she scooped out all the ice in the drink (there was quite a bit of it), and the clock started. You’ve never seen such a serious look on someone trying to drink so much so fast. We joked that Benno was falling in love. I held mostly-official time by the clock on my cell phone. Christine recorded the entire event for posterity with her digital camera. We all egged Mabel on.

One minute, 45 seconds. With a belch to boot.

The table rotated its compliment a few times before Mabel convinced Benno to go clubbing. The rest of us carefully backed out and made a run for the elevators to our rooms. We still have another day of meetings to live through.