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The third story of the month, but this one took the longest, because I could not for the life of me figure out the ending. Still not a fan, but done is better than perfect. This did not have a prompt, I just wondered what it would be like to go to a disorganized planner conference.

The Planner Con

If you don’t plan, you plan to fail.

That was the quote going through my head as I stood in line at one of the two registration tables in the Hilton lobby. Two tables didn’t seem like enough – all of the conference literature I received promised over five thousand attendees. Could these three people really handle the crowd?

“Usually, the vendors have their own check-in table,” the woman in front of me was telling the young volunteer at the table. The branded polo gave her away as a vendor, even if I had not heard her complaining.

The volunteer just shrugged. Ms. Branded Polo called out to similarly dressed minions who were pulling carts of moving crates. “Go on in, I will meet you there. If these people have any sense of organization, the tables will be labeled.”

As I watched the volunteer scan through the piles of paper in front of her, (what? No computer to scan in a QR code? Was I back in the 1980’s?) it occurred to me that, no, these people had no sense of organization.

Ms. Branded Polo sighed as she stood in line. I could never be that dramatic, I thought. Of course, maybe if I had a branded polo, I could see myself as playing the role of a stationary store owner. But I had no polo, a logo that was about three days old, and a small shop that operated out of my linen closet. I would love a physical store if only to be able to get my towels out of my dresser.

But that could be changing. I had just gotten the exclusive rights to see the latest Japanese techo, the Jujubobo. I knew it really wasn’t a Japanese word, but the planner was great, it was the hottest thing right now, and it could be the product to move me out of the linen closet.

The registration volunteer finally looked up. “Name?” She asked Ms. Branded Polo, not looking up.

Another dramatic sigh. “Elaine Carter. The Ink Cartel.”

The Ink Cartel! That was the Nordstroms of the planner world. Huge, both physically, at the Chicago flagship store that was three stories high, and on-line, where one couldn’t check their email without an ad from the Ink Cartel tempting from the side bar. This was my business dream, a multimillion dollar stationery business and Elaine Carter, the mastermind, was one of my business idols.

And now there she was standing in front of me at my first national planner convention. This was my chance. Maybe I could find a way to sit with her at lunch and pick her brain. Maybe by the end of the weeks we could be business best friends?

“Next!” Elaine had left the table and now the volunteer seemed to be talking to me, although her eyes never left the pile of paper in front of her. I told her my name and she started rifling through the stack.

“Nope, no Becca Carlisle here.” She looked past me, “Next?”

“Wait, wait, I know I paid my vendor fees.”

“Oh, you’re a vendor. You should have said that. What is the business?” She pulled another stack of paper over.

“Carlisle Cards.”

The volunteer skimmed the lists with her finger. I did not see how anyone could do anything with nails that long, but that was me. “Here you are,” she finally said.

Relieved, I took my packet from her and fished out my credential and one for my best friend, Keri, who was waiting at the side with my rolling suitcases of product. As I walked over, I pulled out the conference agenda, looking for opportunities to meet my idol.

Keri pulled the agenda from my hand. “Oooh, Laura Vanderkamp, Sarah from Best Laid Plans, the girls from Planners and Wine, they did manage to get all the biggies here, didn’t they?

I looked at the list of break outs, then glanced at the two keynote speakers. David Allen and Michael Hyatt. No wonder this conference was so expensive. These were the big boys of planning and productivity. Still, I didn’t see how the two tables, centered below a large banner that proclaimed the first annual “Planner-Con” would handle the thousands of people that were supposed to be here to see my products.

“Did you see who was in line ahead of you?” Keri asked. “Elaine Carter! Ink Cartel goddess herself.”

“I may have noticed.” I was going to at least try to be cool.

“You may have noticed,” Keri snorted. “You are already planning how to usurp me as your BFF.”

Keri tried to sound like her teenage daughter.

“BFF?”

“Best Friends Forever.”

I glanced over to the entrance of the trade show, where Elaine was pointing directions to several women dragging dollies with plastic moving crates. “She doesn’t look like she has friends, only staff.” I was suddenly thankful that Keri cleared her weekend to come with me, even is planning was not her jam. She was my friend since college, who stuck with me boyfriend after bad boyfriend and business scheme after failed business scheme. This was the thing that was going to make me though, I thought, looking at the double doors leading to the trade show. This Planner conference and Jujubobo planners.

***

Keri and I found my little table in the corner. I could look across it and see the Ink Cartel staff setting up. They had half of the center area, sharing with Staples, the national office supply vendor. That is how big Elaine’s company was. That was how big I wanted my company to be. Next year, I thought, I would be sharing that space with the Ink Cartel, I just knew it.

“You know,” Keri said as she pulled Jet Pens out of the worn cardboard box, those plastic moving crates that Ink Cartel has are…”

“Expensive,” I finished the sentence for her. “This is my first trade show and if I don’t see some profit after paying for our travel expenses, it could be my last.”

Keri nodded. “I don’t see how five thousand people are going to fit in here.” She pointed at the narrow aisles.

“And you are the crowd estimation expert since…?”

“My two sons played high school football and my daughter plays volleyball. When you are stuck in the concession stands, you learn to estimate so you know how much popcorn to make.” She pulled some Perfect Day planners out. “I know how much space a thousand people should take up and this room is barely there. Five thousand is not happening here.”

The center booth was huge, taking up most of the expo space. While there were signs for Staples, there wasn’t anyone setting up their half of the space. There were four or five people unpacking crates on the Ink Cartel side.

“Maybe she took them over too,” Keri said.

“What?”

“I did my research. Do you remember the BeesKnees press?”

I thought a moment. How did Keri know about a small planner shop from a couple of years ago? I had bought several things from Maya Bee’s little store until she closed it up.

“So, the Ink Cartel would undercut the prices on the BeesKnees products and have ads that looked like BeesKnees, but would link to Ink Cartel. Once the little site went under, Ink Cartel bought all the stock, cheap. Your new bestie doesn’t have the nicest business practices.”

I shushed Keri. Elaine Carter was walking over to my booth. At least, it looked like she was coming my way. Why would she come to my humble space? I looked around. My booth was the only one set up in this corner. There was not a ladies’ room behind me…

“Hi there,” Keri said. She was a great wingman.

Elaine walked right up to the table and started to stroke one of the Jujubobo planners. “These are just beautiful. You were so lucky to get the contract. They told me that they would only work with small shops when I tried to carry them.” She looked up from the planner and smiled. “I’m Elaine Carter, I run the Ink Cartel.”

As if I didn’t know. As if the name tag and the branded polo didn’t shout to all around that this was the queen of the online stationery shop.

Keri didn’t do well with awkward pauses. “Hi Elaine, I’m Keri and this is Becca. She is the brains of our operation here. I just tote the boxes.”

I swallowed. “Keri is much more than a stock girl, don’t let her fool you.” I mimicked Keri and held out my hand to Elaine.

Elaine, of course, had the perfect handshake. Dry hand, firm grip, but not overpowering. I could only she would attribute my sweaty paw to work and not nerves.

“I would have no business without friends,” Elaine said, winking at Keri. “What do you think about this trade show?”

“It’s my first one, so I am taking it all in.”

Keri piped up. “I thought there were five thousand people coming to this con, but I don’t think they would all fit in this room, not with the booths.”

“Well, not everyone comes to the expo at the same time, right?” I looked to Elaine for support.

“This room is entirely too small for that supposed crowd size,” Elaine said.

Keri made a slight hrmmph sound. The “I told you so’s” would come tonight.

“Even the registration area was not set up to accommodate that many people. But maybe they didn’t get the response they wanted and the attendance was on the marketing and never updated.”

“I’m sure that was it.” I would give anyone the benefit of the doubt.

Elaine ran a finger down the cover of the Jujubobo one more time. “Well, gotta run. See you at the cocktail hour?”

“Yes, see you there.” Keri said. Once Elaine left, Keri slightly rearranged the planners.

***

The Happy Hour was in a small meeting room, with a portable bar set up in the corner. The college student bar tender tried to look interested in the women asking for chablis while clutching their leather bound planners, but his frequent yawns gave him away. Keri got us each a glass of cabernet. “We should stand out a bit,” she said, handing me the tall glass. “Besides, judging from the number of people with glasses of white wine and the cases behind the bar, they will be running out of white any minute now.”

“You are more than welcome to turn off your inner TV Cop.” I looked around the room. We did appear to be the only ones drinking red. But then again, there were maybe forty people in the room?

Keri did turn off that side of her personality. Within the next fifteen minutes, she managed to meet and introduce me to most of the people in the room. She also invited all of them to come to our booth.

“You have to at least come feel the paper,” Keri told a woman about the Jujubobo. “It’s life changing.”

“She’s right. And I would know life changing paper,” Elaine came up with her own glass of red wine.

The woman gave a little gasp and almost spilled her wine. “You’re her! Elaine!” She immediately started digging in her large tote bag. “Would you sign my Hobonichi? I bought it from the Ink Cartel!”

Elaine handed her glass to Keri and took the woman’s book and fountain pen. “And this is to?”

‘Laura.”

I glanced over to see Elaine signing, “To Laura, may all your plans be golden, love Elaine Carter.” Wow, to have fans as a shop owner. Squad goals. Elaine handed the book back. “Don’t forget to go see the Jujubobo. The planner I would sell if I could get the contract.”

Of course she would. I gulped down the rest of my wine. “I’m getting another, anyone else?”

Keri shook her head, and Elaine was still chatting up the autograph woman.

I walked over to the bar.

“I am not normally a cocktail party person,” I said to the young bartended.

“Funny, no one ever is, but here you are!” He picked up my glass. “Red?”

I nodded.

“Good, because the organizer didn’t order enough white.” He cocked his head to the boxes of wine behind him. There were three unopened boxes of red, but all the boxes of white were opened.

“I thought there were supposed to be five thousand people here? That looks like enough for maybe a hundred.”

He put a fresh glass in front of me. “You would have to talk to the organizer.”

I took my wine. “If I knew who it was, I might just do that.”

“Oh, she’s just over there,” he said, pointing towards Elaine.

Wait, Elaine?? I put a fiver in the tip jar. “Thanks my friend.” I hurried back over to Keri and Elaine, where the latter had attracted a small crowd. I pulled Keri by the elbow. “We got to talk,” I whispered.

“That would explain a lot,” Keri said when I told her my news. “Except for us, she has the only shop here. It could be a way for her to get more business. It could be a way to get your business, just like she got the BeesKnees.”

“No, that can’t be. But..” My thought was interrupted by the announcement that the banquet was about to start. Keri and I would talk more later.

***

“Who is the keynote speaker again?” Keri asked. She was pushing the baked chicken breast pieces around her plate, but I suspected the entire breast was still there. It was dry and there was no sauce. As if this were a Weight Watchers conference instead of a planner conference.

“Laura Vanderkamp. She writes about keeping time logs and thinking in terms of weeks rather than days. I have a couple of her books, but have never seen her in person.”

“Looks like you still won’t.” Keri said. She pointed to the stage were a giant screen was lowering. “Zoom it is.”

But it wasn’t even a zoom call with Laura. It was an old TedTalk. All over the dining room, murmurs rose, voicing the dissatisfaction with the program. I looked around for Elaine, but she was nowhere to be seen. Hmm…

It wasn’t a bad TedTalk. I had enjoyed it the first time I watched it. The second and third as well. But I tried to stay quiet so Keri could watch uninterrupted.

Keri turned to me. “Still not five thousand here. Maybe four hundred. Something is not right.”

I pointed to the screen and Keri brushed my finger away. “I can watch a tedTalk at home, yanno?”

True.

“So Elaine is the organizer? Well that explains why all her helpers were paid to move all her shit to the expo. They weren’t her store employees, they are back running the store. And they certainly weren’t her friends, she told me she doesn’t have many.”

This news about Elaine though, it didn’t make sense. She was organized, she planned things out. This was a mess. People were at their tables tapping furiously on their phones rather than watching Laura talk about the best ways to organize time. Including the two women sharing the table with Keri and I.

One looked up at me. “Can you believe this? We didn’t pay $500 to watch a TedTalk from four years ago. And the expo has two vendors.”

The other woman nodded. “I am asking for the registration fee to be refunded. Not only this, but the break out session I was supposed to go to was cancelled. Everyone sat in here and watched another video.”

Keri instantly bonded with these women. “I know, right? Becca here is one of the vendors and there were supposed to be five thousand people here. The room is almost empty.”

I stood up and tried to feel brave. Wiping my sweaty hands on the napkin, I tossed it on my chair. “I am going to find Elaine. Maybe she knows what is going on.”

The door to the expo was unlocked, so I pushed it open and walked in. The tables, the booth dividers, the huge center display – all was gone. There were two small tables in the corner with my products piled on top. Where was everything? Where was Elaine? “Elaine?” my voice echoed in the emptiness.

“What the hell?” Keri came in behind me. “I think we’ve been had.”

I nodded. “Putting the Con in Planner Con, right?”

I was putting some new pens in my linen closet a few weeks later, when my phone buzzed. A text from Keri – turn on CNN right now!

I turned on the tv in the bedroom and found CNN. There, on the screen was Elaine. The scroll below…

“Online store owner indicted on federal charges of mail fraud and money laundering.”

I called Keri. “Money laundering?”

“They explained it earlier in the story, you can find it on line later. But she sold all these fake registrations so her boyfriend could get money from so foreign corporations into the country. She cancelled all the vendors at the last minute by really was planning to try to BeesKnees-cap you, so to speak.”

So much for the best laid plans.