by Norman Todd - March 2000
In five year’s time our chapter will be hosting the Spring Convention of the ARS. We did this once before in 1989 and it turned out to be a great success. We were blessed with salubrious sunshine, a renovated Empress Hotel, a brand new Conference Centre and a great esprit de corps. All of our members – about 100 all told-banded together and worked with a common purpose. It was hard work. We set a record for the number of delegates attending any ARS conference - with close to 1100. At the time I remember thinking as I walked - or ran – from auditorium to the Crystal Ballroom for the thirty-fifth time that day, that I was living a Satanic nightmare – the simple but unforeseen consequence of wanting to grow a few miserable rhododendrons in my own backyard.
In 2005 our club will be celebrating its silver jubilee. We will be in a celebratory mood and will want to share that bonhomie with ARS members from all over the world. Our club has to start soon to get down to the nitty gritty and do some work but before we do I thought it might be amusing, certainly nostalgic, maybe even provocative. To record some of the memories of that harried, stimulating, debilitating last week of April 1989.
I don’t recall who first broached the preposterous idea that the Victoria Chapter should host a major convention. For years local politicians had talked about the need for a convention center in Victoria. In the mid 80s these plans started to gel and a site was chosen and plans drawn up. The Centre would abut the Empress Hotel which simultaneously announced it was undertaking a multi-million dollar renovation. Completion of the Centre was projected for late 1988 or early 1989. Our group believed it would happen. Expo 86 had been a success. I personally was involved with building the Institute of Ocean Sciences and that was coming in pretty well on time and close to budget. So I, at least, was full of what was, in retrospect, flimsy faith. It was a good thing we didn’t have the Multiplex or the fast ferries to jinx us. As it turned out Opening Day was too close for comfort… And as I recall we did not have a good contingency plan for using alternative accommodations if the opening date was delayed. We did talk about the possibilities of the University and the Newcomb Auditorium and even the Coliseum but only in a very superficial way – we just believed it would all work out – no earthquake or labour dispute would put the kybosh on the Victoria Rhododendron Society. Our convention was the first major one held in the new complex. It still smelled of wet paint and freshly laid carpet when we christened it with the aromas of rhododendrons and the b.o. of our members.
There were lots of problems. No one knew how the audio-visual systems worked. Getting photocopying done meant scurrying off th Monk’s on Fort Street. Having a phone installed involved major engineering. Portable phones or pagers were only dreams back then. Even getting tack boards took hours to arrange. The heating and ventilation were still somewhat experimental. The Empress kitchen had yet to meet the challenge of preparing a meal for 900 people.
Our planning committee met pretty well every week for two years. As I recall the first major task was to establish a program and get the speakers lined up. We adopted a theme of ‘The Old and the New’. The convention at Eugene, Oregon, two years before had set a standard we thought would be difficult to match and one of the first things we did was to contact Harold Greer who was a prime mover of that event and was the incumbent President of the ARS. Asking him for suggestions on speakers (he was the first we asked to give a talk) he waid we whould try to get Edmund de Rothschild. Hamish Robertson was in charge of Program and it now seems, although I am sure it was not that easy, among those the Newfies call ‘Come from Aways’ we lined up Edmund de Rothschild, Kenneth Cox, Warren Berg, and Brian Morris from New Zealand. And our ‘Old and New’ keynote speaker was Gwen Bell. Locals included Ian McTaggart Cowan, Ted Irving and Richard Hebda, Jennifer Lort and Fred Hook, Bill Dale, Sue Mowat and Hamish Robertson. Diane McLaren accepted the huge responsibility of Treasurer. For drawing up a good itemized budget, with all the fixed and variable costs, Diane enlisted the help of Robin Reddicop of the Art Gallery. The breakeven attendance number was set at 600. We did a very competent job of identifying income and expenditures but a lousy one of projecting cash flow. The club had scant funds. I don’t remember how much we had but I think we had less than $2000, and we soon realized that we had printing costs of twice or three times that amount and we had the cost of booking the yet to be completed meeting space, plus a myriad of other small items. We thought we needed a software program for registrations. I remember approaching one source and the up-front cost was going to be over $2000. It is hard to recall just how computer illiterate most of us were a dozen or so years ago. I also recall Dave Dougan, with me as seconder, saying we would co-sign loans to get us over the hump. In the event, we went to the fall regional conference at Everett, WA, and much to the embarrassment of some of our members, asked (pleaded) with the attendees there to fork out their registrations six months ahead of the convention. The response there and the response of our own members was overwhelming and we had enough cash to pay our bills.
One of our strategies that worked out well was of approaching four hotels we had chosen and blocking off a number of rooms. In return for assuring these bookings, the hotels agreed to give us enough free rooms so we could accommodate our speakers. These hotels varied in price so delegates had a choice. I think recent conventions have had low attendances in part because the hotel costs have been so high. This arrangement was not without the odd problem. I recall one speaker being upset at not being in the Empress and when the '‘light'’was compounded by sending him to the wrong hotel our diplomatic skells were tested to the limit.
The renovations to the Empress had not been quite completed, especiall at the reception area and there were a few mix-ups with registrants’ accommodation. For example, the Dougans were given a key/card to a room already occupied by a very amorous couple. But the Old Lady looked resplendent. Mrs. De Rothschild was overheard admiring the new carpets and saying they made the carpets at Exbury look like dish-rags. Jim Smith was Convention Manager at the Empress and if ever a person gave 110% to a job it was he. We almost cost him his job. The stained glass dome in the Palm Court had been uncovered and restored and the entire décor of the Palm Court and the Crystal Ballroom was of renewed elegance and refinement. In our agreement with the Empress we had secured the Crystal Ballroom for, of all things, the plant sale. The pile on the new carpet in the Ballroom was an inch thick and in we came with 6,000 plants. We came in carrying each plant by hand after completing a tortuous commando course from the loading dock at the new Convention Centre. One detail the architects had overlooked was how to move 6,000 plants into the Crystal Ballroom. The route from the loading dock involved a descent in an elevator into the bowels of the hotel, along a narrow doglegged passage several hundreds of yards long and eventually up into the splendour of the Ballroom. No wonder some pots slipped from the exhausted grasps of the army of helpers, spilling their contents onto the luxuriant pile of the yet virgin carpet. Mr. Barber, the hotel manager, arrived on the scene. On seeing this devastation he almost went through the stained glass of the dome and his outburst easily downed out the pealing of the clarion across the street. Jim Smith was really ‘on the carpet’. Operations ceased until several rolls of 6 mil polly were purchased and spread from wall to wall. Another memory I have, is of Clint Smith arriving with his truck stacked to the roof with plants, and reasizing the enormity of the task of getting them to the place of sale, venting his anger. I can still hear him asking which idiot had dreamt up such an impractical arrangement – I still smart at its acerbity and accuracy. Among the many who heard his tirade was an unknown passerby – a fairly elegant lady who immediately downed her handbag, climbed into his truck and spent thenext few hours unloading. Her identity has never been discovered – the ‘in extremis’ blonde angel.
I think the plant sale was our weakest endeavour. At an early stage we realized we were being stretched to the limit and we did want to involve the other BC chapters so we asked the Vancouver Chapter to assist us with the sale and we would split whatever profits resulted. In terms of quality, the plants offered for sale were of Chelsea Show standards. Back then, for example, yakushimanum was still a rare plant and there were lots – at $25 for a yearling named variety. Les Clay had done a marvelous job but we sorely underestimated the number or people that were needed to set it up, sell the plants (acquiring a Visa account took days of negotiation), and tear it down. An associated headach, one probably remembered by many as the nadir of the Victoria Convention, was the issuing of Phytosanitary certificates to those returning to the US. This problem had been foreseen; we had discussed it with Agriculture Canada; we had trained twenty-four members of our members on filling in the forms; all the plants had been inspected beforehand. But every plant had to be recorded on the forms and Doug Kyle, the chief inspector (God Bless him – and he is still filling the same top job. I think he guessed what would have happened had he asked one of his staff to do the job) had to sign every one. The Palm Court looked like a combination of Ellis Island at the time of the Irish potato famine and a U Vic examination hall with two dozen graduate students writing finals, as rhodo buffs clutched long sought for treasures and waited for over three hours. I remember Diana Whitehead, particularly, using all he school teaching ixperience to try to bring order to this feverish, frustrating fiasco. The Shearmans worked so hard that I am sure Dough Kyle wanted to offer them jobs as Ag. Canada.
We had our triumphs too. With a setting sun radiant on a green sward that stretched bucolically down to the lake, over 400 sat down to a salmon barbeque at Peter and Pat Stones’ magnificent garden at Duncan. Organized by the North Island chapter, lead by Joanne Foster, the delegates had a truly West Coast meal whose digestion was aided by the stirring skirl of bagpipes – a thoughtful extra provided by the Stones. One of the secrets of a good convention, I think, is making each day varied and leaving just a little time to relax and be able to talk to your neighbours. I don’t think we had a delegate from Africa but we did have one from South America and thirty-three from New Zealand, several from Australia; there were delegates who were Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, French and even some from Scotland. There were lots of interesting people to talk to. We are fortunate in Victoria, as the gardens being visited are fairly proximate and lengthy traveling times are not involved. Thus half day tours are practicable. Each day divided itself into talks in the morning, tours in the afternoon and some social function in the evening. This is still a heavy schedule and I was always amazed to see thirty or more people assembled on the causeway before breakfast eager to participate in our Early Bird Walks.
Moving several hundred people on to buses which are sequentially going to the same locations but at prescribed intervals and which leave at a set time and return at a set time is an exercise that requries planning at a level of sophistication only seen in operations like D Day. Bill Dale was the tour manager. I’ve forgotten how many buses we used – it was something like sixteen. The weather cooperated and things went like clockwork. Weather was, however, always uppermost in our minds. February of that year will long be remembered gardeners. When I first came to Victoria I was always being regaled by the old time gardeners talking of the winter or ’55. That did terrible havoc, exterminating nearly all the Monterey Cypresses among other tragic things. The winter of 86/87 had been soft and mild – until early February. Then the temperature dropped to sub zero and the Arctic wind blew from the North East at forty knots for four long days. This was a climatic, climactic, and climacteric event that will rival the December ’96 snowstorm in the minds of most members. I know I lost quite a few plants but strangely I do not now recall many of the gardens being damaged to the point where the enjoyment of visiting them was seriously affected.
So many ‘little’ details go in to making a convention memorable. Margaret Buffam cut 1100 rieces of rhododendron wood and painted a rhodo and printed a name, varnished and put a pin on every one of them to make souvenir name tags, in addition to he donating one of her best ever paintings – one of rhododendron macrophyllum. Leslie Drew used her writing and editorial skills to produce the insert for the ARS Journal. She and Alec McCarter produced a book – ‘Rhododendrons on a Western Shore’ to commemorate the occasion. Lurana Dougan and Pat Stone collected 1100 baby food jars and filled them with their home-made jelly to put in every Goody Bag. Joyce parker tapped Nestles to stuff that bag with candy and nuts. And if the convention gave you a headache or a tummy ache Margaret Buffam had sweet talked McGill and Orme into providing everyone with a packet of Aspirin and a bottle of Mallox. Island Seeds gave everyone a package of seeds. I recall asking Butchart Gardens to give us a postcard or some small thing and getting no response. Eventually I managed to get through to the manager, Roger Wheelock, and he said "Bring everyone to the gardens as our guests." To my shame, I do not remember the name of the winery but two cases of wine were donated – and consumed. Sybil McCulloch took on the responsibility for registration which she insisted on doing manually. She was later backed up by Diana Whitehead and Carmen Varcoe on computers. From the beginning I had a nightmarish fear of ‘someone being stomped on by an elephant’ and we tried to practice Russian Engineering – 100% redundancy in all systems and a back-up for every person. I don’t think we achieved that but we tried. We had a ‘rhododendron’ quilt made by a famous quilter from Montreal and it was a money maker as a raffle prize. We had an official travel agent and an official iarline who have a bonus of a trip for two to Hawaii. We had door prizes and more door prizes. We gave our speakers Cowichan toques and Mayor Brewin, who opened the conference – half an hour late – a copy of ‘Rhododendrons on a Western Shore’. I wonder if she read it. Ian McTaggart Cowan, who was to be our speaker at the Friday night dinner, occasioned great distress to himself, his family, and all assembled when he had to be rushed to hospital. Warren Berg dicided to collaps when doing his talk. We rushed to the phone for an ambulance and it was surprising how many medics were in the audience. Fortunately Warren’s hiccup was nothing serious. A memorable sight – I wish we had a movie of it – was the entry of the Empress waiters at the banquet – in procession with laden trays, held on high. No one should have worried about the catering arrangements – except Judy Gordon. All one needed to know was that Judy was in charge. I remember only one complaint and that was from a habit-bound gent from the Deep South; for him coffee had to be served first. It was surprising how many personal items delegates left behind.
I know I have ommitted to mention many people who performed heroics and have forgotten events that should be recorded. I hope this will prompt members to correct these omissions. We made a sizeable profit. I recall Dave Dougan saying "That’s going to be our big problem now", and in many ways he was prophetic. Not all our members thought we had the capability to be successful. One even wrote to the President of the ARS and suggested he put a stop to our efforts. But most of us thought it was worthwhile. We must have – to solicit doing it again in Victoria in 2005. It can be a very rewarding experience. Any volunteers?