What It's Like Planning Events in Alaska

Alaska meeting planning Bridget McCleskey|Alaska meeting planning Bridget McCleskey

Growing up in Nebraska, Bridget McCleskey never dreamed she’d one day be living—and thriving—in Alaska.

More than two decades ago, after being drawn to The Last Frontier as a military wife, she found herself a single mom looking for work. Staffing company Kelly Services called on her to coordinate an international indigenous conference. What began as a one-time job turned into the opportunity of a lifetime.

Today, she runs her own business, Conference Coordinators LLC, out of her home in Anchorage.

But she doesn’t have to worry about feeling isolated; she’s on the go often, planning conferences for indigenous groups from around the world. Among her roster of events: Alaska Breastfeeding Coalition Conference, Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program and Alaska Rural Providers’ Conference, among many others. Her job has led her to make the best of unique situations, like utilizing church basements and school auditoriums as venues and housing attendees in boarding school bunk beds.

“Alaska is an adventure in meeting planning,” says McCleskey, who also plans events in the Lower 48. For example, she’s served as conference coordinator for the National Indian Nations Conference: Justice for Victims of Crime in Palm Springs, California, for the past 15 years.

“I started working on this conference when my son was 2 years old,” shares McCleskey. “He’s now 17 and has been dubbed the conference mascot.”

Managing events in a state with fewer resources than most has its fair share of challenges. For one, the time zone (four hours behind Eastern Standard Time) makes scheduling calls with clients based in, say, New Zealand, difficult; and when it comes to sourcing vendors, audiovisual providers are few and far between—not to mention pricey. But the most trouble stems from the sheer size of Alaska.

“The biggest challenge is travel,” says McCleskey, who used to have a terrible fear of flying—but quickly had to get over it. “It’s very expensive and it’s almost all by air.” Even the state capital of Juneau does not have direct road access, and therefore requires a flight or boat ride. Most of the villages McCleskey travels to around Alaska are accessible only by bush plane, as the state doesn’t have a big road system.

About 18 years ago, she worked on a series of state-funded conferences held in villages (population: less than 100) and hubs (about 300 to 1,000 people), rather than having the people come into the city. “We paid people per diem to come to the events, so I would get on planes with thousands of dollars in cash in my purse,” recalls McCleskey.

Situations such as these might sound crazy to U.S.-based planners, but McCleskey embraces all of it a s a trade-off to living in Alaska. “Anytime here is so beautiful,” she says of her home state, famous for snow-covered mountaintops, abundant wildlife and bluebird skies. “As I tell everybody who comes here, ‘Just look up.’”

McCleskey's Musings on Alaska

On her favorite Anchorage venues...

“I love the Hilton here. They’re so easy to work with, and the venue is right for a larger conference. We also have a primo convention facility, Dena’ina Center.”

On misperceptions of Alaska...

“The biggest misconception is not knowing how truly rural it is. Some communities are still working on getting indoor plumbing. It’s amazing. I always say if I’m working on a federally funded conference and managers of the fund have never been to Alaska, they need to come see where their money is going.”

On limited connectivity...

“Until recently, remote Alaskan conference sites had internet challenges. We traveled with binders and papers. Now almost every site has internet capabilities so we can use my favorite app, Guidebook, which allows all conference materials (presenter bios, conference schedule, descriptions, etc.) to be viewed electronically.”