Sondra Lynnette Williams has been asked if her idea came to her in a dream. But no, she said, it just seemed to make sense: Instead of cutting a check for the hotel where an American Benefits Council event was to be held next month but was canceled due to rising COVID cases, Williams had another thought: Why not give “COVID essential heroes” the opportunity to fill in for the attendees, and enjoy a dinner and an overnight stay at the hotel instead?
“We were facing the same things other planners are coping with, which was that we had a meeting that was originally planned for fall of last year, that we did a lift and shift to this year,” said Williams, who serves as manager, member & staff engagement, for American Benefits Council, a Washington, D.C.–based trade association that advocates for employer-sponsored benefit plans. “And then Delta came along and moved our cheese again, so we decided to do virtual,” she told Convene. “And rather than simply cutting that big check for canceling,” she said, she came up with the idea that maybe the event — planned for about 110-120 people at The Ritz-Carlton, Pentagon City, Oct. 13 — could still go on, but with different participants.
“A lot of our members are East Coast–based, a lot of Fortune 500 companies. So some would just come in for the day, they would need sleeping rooms,” Willams said. “So basically, once I calculated what our sleeping-room minimum was and what our food-and-beverage minimum was,” she said, she figured “we could repurpose the meeting and use the money that way.”
The Ritz-Carlton, she said, gave her idea a “very enthusiastic” thumbs-up. “It gives their employees a chance to work. And that’s the most important thing we can do to help at this point,” Williams said. “The food-and-beverage minimum will be used for our essential heroes — who run the gamut from medical personnel to the person whose job it is to mop inside the hospital, because that’s an essential job too.”
There isn’t a complicated process to determine who to “gift” for dinner and a stay at The Ritz-Carlton. The 13-member American Benefits Council staff is basically reaching out to their personal networks. “For example,” Williams said, “one of the groups that we’re honoring includes people who work with the homeless. So, my next-door neighbor is the liaison for DC Public Library to the homeless, so he was easy to find. And then I found out that my neighbor on the other side of me works with homeless youth.”
Another find: Williams happened to be gazing outside her living-room window when she saw her neighbor walk by in scrubs. “I had no idea she was a nurse,” she said. “The rest of the council staff, some of them have elementary school-aged children, and teachers are definitely on that list — they should get hazard pay and a therapist!”
Williams said that she is now working on her rooming list of recipients — “this is actually my first face-to-face in 18 months that I’m planning,” she said, “but it comes back to you.”
And what has been the reaction from the people who have been selected to enjoy a meal and hotel stay on the American Benefits Council? “Surprised and confused,” Williams said, and they’re “a bit leery. I mean, that’s the heartbreaking thing. They’re just not used to [someone] being kind and thoughtful, and that’s surprising to me. There are a lot of people who feel under appreciated. And a night at The Ritz-Carlton, especially a free one, tends to cheer one up.”
Williams has been working for the American Benefits Council for 30 years, so she said that she’s thrilled, “but not surprised that the board would elect to do something good with this repurpose” plan benefiting both COVID heroes and the hotel workers. “You just think about writing a big check and all the people in the industry who only get to work” when there’s an event, she said. “It’s an industry that has been hit unlike any other. And as we strive to move forward, whether that’s going hybrid or postponing an event, in the meantime, there are so many lives that are still hanging in the balance. I don’t think people realize how many people in our industry were and still are negatively impacted.”
Since the American Benefit Council event’s food-and-beverage minimum was based on two days of meetings, “the other thing we’re doing to hit that food-and-beverage minimum is getting boxed lunches from the Ritz that we’ll then take to local homeless shelters,” she said, “for their staff.”
Williams — she’s a planner, after all — has left no stone unturned, also arranging reduced guest parking. “The owners of the parking garage at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon Center, Denison Parking, are discounting the overnight parking rate to $10 which is much cheaper than the $45 valet parking at the Ritz,” she said, “and you can enter the hotel from the shopping mall.”
Williams said that she hopes her example will have “a snowball effect.” When she has shared this idea with other planners, they tell her they love that she has found a way to make a difference. “That is just so sorely needed now,” she said. “I think everybody could use a little boost.”