A Presidential Peek Into the Cat Writers’ 25th Anniversary Conference and Awards Banquet

Tick, tock – the clock strikes noon and I grab my purse in frazzled haste, heading to my car where I sit in the sweltering South Florida heat to make some phone calls during my lunch hour in the parking lot. I sweat; loose papers are haphazardly strewn on my makeshift desk, which in this instance are my blue jean clad knees, while I frantically try to take notes amid the disruptive roar and rumble of afternoon traffic, rendering it nearly impossible for me to hear. Did she say the room would be for seating of eight, or we’re meeting at a later date?

I’ve been a member of the Cat Writers’ Association since 2011, back when I was a completely green, naive, wet behind the ears newbie to the publishing and writing industry, to present day – the newly inducted, never done this before, President of the organization and the person responsible for the success (or lack thereof) of our 25th anniversary conference and awards banquet. We have record attendance expected, major sponsor participation, and big-name speakers and presenters. I have a demanding fulltime job in-between it all and I’m in panic mode trying to finish all the last-minute details before I depart to St. Louis.

Emails endlessly populate like rabbits in my inbox…how many books do you think I’ll sell…can I bring a friend…is there a shuttle to the hotel? I have to-do lists on top of to-do lists and I still must pack, as my flight leaves in the morning. I also have to find my gavel. Gavel? Who travels with a gavel and where did I put it after it was handed off to me last year? I still haven’t looked over the Secretary’s or Treasurer’s report for our annual CWA members meeting and I need to write my speech for Thursday’s opening day comments, as well as for Friday when our Emerald Sponsor, Purina, headlines the day, along with our renowned keynote speaker, Dr. Debra Horwitz.

These adorable CWA logo cookies that were given out at the swag stuffing party were one of the many small touches I already had in place before I left for the conference.

Posters I designed and had mounted on foam board were already waiting for me at the hotel, which was a huge relief.

I’m terrified of public speaking as it is – I’m a writer, not a speaker – and the pressure of three full days of me standing at a podium in front of a crowd has me nauseous. I need to have something prepared to read from. Thankfully, the bulk of everything has been done – badges printed, banners and promotional items shipped, menus in place to accommodate everyone from gluten-free to pescatarian. Flower arrangements, cookies, and cake scheduled for delivery, graphic materials designed and printed, editor appointments booked, and more.

No need to panic – I would print the reports before I left for the airport and bring them with me on the plane to study. I would also write my speeches. I’d be uninterrupted by the ding of email and social media notifications and since I was scheduled to arrive around noon on Wednesday and the conference didn’t start until Thursday afternoon, I had all the time in the world! I could do this!

Waiting at the airport, thinking I had all the time in the world for speech writing. How wrong I was, and who knew the flip flops I was wearing would become so important a couple of days later.

Great plan, until I boarded the plane, squishing myself in the first available seat I could find – a middle seat between two, who I hoped would be soundly napping shortly thereafter, women. I settled myself and took the reports which were boldly emblazed with the CWA logo out of my carryon. The woman to my left, the very wide-awake woman to my left, peered at my papers and said, “Oh, do you like cats?” A sane person would have said no. But without restraint, my mouth opened and these words gushed out:

“I loovvvee cats! I have seven of them! I’m President of the Cat Writers’ Association and I’m heading to our 25th-anniversary conference in St. Louis. How about you!?”

Two and a half hours later, I landed in St. Louis. No notes had been looked at, no speeches were written. Instead, I had an animated conversation with the woman, who it turned out, volunteered for the Humane Society of Broward County, along with the woman to my right who caught on to our conversation and chimed in, regaling us with stories about her rescue dog.

With my trademark leopard print, there was no mistaking it was me who had just arrived at the Drury Plaza hotel.

When I arrived at the hotel, I barely had a second to drop my leopard bags before I was greeted by Traci, the event coordinator for the host hotel – the Drury Plaza at the Arch – and my Godsend, main contact. I asked for a quick minute to bring my bags up to my room before I came back down for a walk around with her to see the setup for our sessions, the sponsor hall, the break area, the editor’s appointment room, the book signing/fundraising room, and the swag/general storage room.

Most of it worked, but some of what I had requested on the phone over the past several months didn’t translate and modifications had to be made. Add a table here move a chair there. Now move the chair again, but over there. Change the lapel microphone to a handheld. Can we put a sign on this door? Do you have another easel?

Getting ready to make some sense of all the great swag donated by our generous sponsors.

This continued for about an hour and when I could finally break away, I parked myself in the swag room to manage the daunting mountain of boxes filled with goodies from our generous sponsors. I lifted, I moved, and I used muscles I didn’t know I had. One of the boxes held the agenda and awards programs that I had printed in St. Louis to save on shipping costs, rather than having them done in Florida. New CWA member, and St. Louis resident, Ruth Thaler-Carter had graciously offered to pick them up and we couldn’t wait to have a peek at them.

The covers were deceivingly lovely – brightly colored works of graphic art, printed on thick stock, gloss. I opened the interior, excited to see the composition and they were printed in a dull, black and white and I nearly had a heart attack! I did not order black and white. We had sponsors – BIG SPONSORS – who were expecting full-page ads, in color, and this was a disaster.

The conference was less than 24 hours away and it was already late in the afternoon. I telephoned the printer, explaining the urgency of the situation, and they agreed to reprint the job – at a significantly higher dollar amount than originally quoted – which I was unequivocally not on board with. My initial purchase order was clear – it was a 4-color job, inside and out – they made the error, not me. After prayers, nail-biting and some very firm words, I got them to admit they had made the mistake and they agreed to reprint the job in time for the conference at no additional cost.

Just in the nick of time, programs arrived to be handed out with our custom-created anniversary neck wallets, courtesy of sponsor, Sturdi Products. Photo credit: Larry Johnson Photography.

By the time Thursday afternoon arrived and the first session was scheduled to begin, my thoughts of having a prepared speech went out the window. Since it was a bonus day for those that could get to the conference early, I decided to keep it casual, like a conversation with old friends, which it was, and I somehow babbled my way through it.

Thursday night was the swag stuffing party (click here to see some of it live-streamed on Facebook) and when it was over I crawled into my bed to get some much-needed sleep, as the entire day was an endless parade of me being pulled in a hundred different directions and I was exhausted.

All I could do was get up early on Friday morning to cram in notes on what I hoped would be coherent, opening remarks for a room full of very impressive people – new members, old members, non-members, speakers, sponsors, and more – all expecting a professional sounding leader of the CWA to kick off the event. I was just hoping to make it to the podium without fainting. Coherent would be a bonus and professional a miracle.

I had a jumble of papers with notes haphazardly scribbled on them and placed them on the podium. I picked up the microphone, took a deep breath, and the unplanned words rushed out. I welcomed the crowd, told everyone I had a great speech in mind until I got asked this question on the plane, “Do you like cats?” and well, it snowballed from there. The room laughed and the ice was broken. I still wasn’t comfortable, but at least I didn’t faint – and somehow Purina presenters, Dr. Kurt Venator, and Dr. Janet Jackson, made it up front for their session, so I must have spoken words that made sense.

I must have done something right because after Dr. Venator and Dr. Jackson of Purina finished their presentation, I went up for a photo op with them.

The same held true for the keynote introduction – by then, one of my high-heeled shoes had broken, clearly not used to such rigorous exercise from me and I had to go back to my room to throw on a pair of flip flops (thankfully they were sequined, appearing as if it was part of my fashion plan all along). I was able to joke that yes, I actually am that short, and again the ice was broken.

The wonderful Dr. Debra Horwitz. Not only was she an amazing keynote, but she also looked smashing in a pair of my hand-crafted cat ears!

By Saturday evening, the night of the awards banquet and the final hours of the conference, I had learned a valuable lesson. Actually, two lessons – the first – make sure next year to allow for more time between the last speaking session and the awards banquet because there is actually a lot more behind the scenes coordination that happens than I realized, and secondly, being the president of an organization allows little mercy for fear or trepidation, especially when it comes to public speaking and sometimes you just have to go with your gut.

I had a script written for the awards banquet; it was the one thing I had done weeks in advance. Once again, the terrific Arden Moore was the emcee for our event and she and I had coordinated it together. But when I walked up to the podium, cat ears held tall and proud, I told Arden there was a change in plans and I was going off script.

Sharing the awards banquet podium with emcee, Arden Moore and her handsome assistant, Pet Safety Cat Casey. Photo credit: Larry Johnson Photography.

The reality of the conference had caught up with me – the camaraderie – friendships of old and new, the generous, top-notch sponsors, the stellar speakers, a successful book signing fundraising event for the Humane Society of Missouri (we raised over $4000 in product and monetary donations), and the pride of pulling something very special off. I was overcome with emotion for an organization that had changed the course of my life and I needed to speak from my heart. Rather than recite something, I thought about where I was in 1992, back when the CWA was founded.

Speaking off the cuff, and from the heart, here.

Back then, I was raising my two boys and I had a job in a floral shop. Writing was never on my radar, or cat welfare, let alone a path in which I’d be publicly speaking. I was terribly shy as a child, bullied mercilessly, and am an introvert as an adult. I thought to myself as I peered at the crowd, look at where I am now. Three books to my name, the President of the Cat Writers’ Association and standing at a podium, publicly speaking.

I made the impression if I could do it, anyone could, and really, that’s what the CWA is about – following our dreams and bettering ourselves so we can better cat-welfare. After my impromptu speech (watch it here on Facebook live), I handed the microphone back to Arden, I felt the weight of the world lift from me, freeing me from my fears and it was a splendid evening. So many talented people won awards and I was especially humbled to win the Senior Cat Well-Being Award and a MUSE medallion for my article, Stairs, Safety, and Senior Cats – 10 Tips to Help Ease Your Cat Into His Golden Years.

Arden Moore presenting me with the Senior Cat Well-Being Award for my article Stairs, Safety, and Senior Cats – 10 Tips to Help Ease Your Cat Into His Golden Years. Photo credit: Larry Johnson Photography.

I was so overcome with emotion after winning the Senior Cat Well-Being Award that I couldn’t resist giving Pet Safety Cat Casey a big kiss! Photo credit: Larry Johnson Photography.

Pulling off a conference is a tremendous amount of work, especially considering it’s a volunteer position, but now that I have a year under my belt and know what to expect, it’s less intimidating. I had a wonderful group of folks supporting me along the way, and I’m looking forward to 2020 when we partner with the Cat Fanciers’ Association in Edison, NJ, July 16 -18 for their Garden State Cat Show and Expo. And who knows, maybe this time I’ll have notes prepared before I get up to the podium!

Some of the many CWA members who helped me along the way this year – all CWA presidents at one point – Co-Founder, Amy Shojai, Kim Campbell Thornton, Immediate Past President, Marci Kladnik, and Fran Pennock Shaw. Photo credit: Larry Johnson Photography.

Additional helpers and part of our board and council – Immediate Past President Marci Kladnik, Councilmember Alana Greylak, Treasurer, Dawn White, Councilmember Janiss Garza, and VP, Paula Gregg. Photo credit: Larry Johnson Photography.

hearts OUTTAKES!

Hanging out with Veep, Paula Gregg and her Cuddle Clones of Truffle and Brulee before the conference kicked into high gear.

CWA attendee, Alma Buelva, came all the way from the Philippines to attend the conference.

Ellen had her selfie with her audience, this was ours! Look at this great crowd of attendees!

Enjoying some glorious fresh air after a long couple of days indoors – the moon was full and the arch in the background so beautiful!

Having a blast at our book signing/fundraising event!

This has been revamped to look as if it’s a charging station, but does anyone remember what this space really was for?

The Vanna White of cakes… Posing like this, I felt like I should have been hosting Wheel of Fortune!

Getting ready to present a check to Linda Campbell of the Missouri Humane Society for our fundraising efforts at our book signing event.

Relaxing on Friday night after a long day… ax throwing…the CWA, not your mama’s CWA anymore!

The awards banquet is over – lot’s of happy smiles after a wonderful event! Hanging with Social Media Chair, Sharon Melynk, Dr. Jason Nicholas, and Instagram queen, Jessica Spawn.

And just like that, the conference is over. A much-needed nightcap with my friends and colleagues until we meet again in 2020!

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  1. Deb, we are all so fortunate to have you leading the way in the CWA! You are one of the most awesome women I’ve “met.” I hope to get to actually meet you in person someday. Even though I probably won’t be able to go to NJ, I’m happy to help you any way I possibly can for the next conference. And here’s a thought…….maybe 2021 can be in Denver 😉 Yes, selfish on my part, but there are a lot of conferences here! 🙂

    Congratulations on your awards – they are well-deserved!! I hope you can get some rest before you have to start planning for next year! You deserve a break!!

  2. Brian Frum says:

    That was a wonderful Presidential look at all you had going on. Congrats on a most successful conference!

  3. Deb, all I can say is if all that stuff was going on, none of us knew it. The conference was flawless in my opinion…one of the best ones I attended. Thanks so much for all your efforts.

  4. BJ Bangs says:

    Great blog post. I can only imagine how
    stressful it was. Sorry I could not be at
    the conference this year. You are doing a great job as Pres of
    CWA.

  5. What a great walk-thru of the converence! Looks like everyone had a great time and an overall success – congratulations!

  6. Sandee says:

    Looks like everyone had a great time.

    I love your flip flops and I love the color of your polish.

    Have a fabulous day and week. ♥

  7. Great post, Deb. I love the photos. It was a wonderful conference, and I’m looking forward to next year.

  8. Robin says:

    It looks like you did an amazing job pulling the conference together. You are an inspiration. I hope that I will be able to be there next year and see your work first hand. 🙂 Thank you for being so dedicated to the CWA and its members.

  9. jmuhj says:

    Looks like a great time was had by all –thanks in large part to you! And how exciting to hear that a member travelled all the way from the Philippines to attend — cats and writing are truly global interests!

  10. Ellen Pilch says:

    Great post! I hope to be a member and attend next year.

  11. I can’t believe we didn’t get a photo together! I’m so glad I could help out, especially when the printer screwed up initially. I hope to be more “present” at next year’s conference.

  12. You did brilliantly and looked amazing every step of the way. I am so proud you are the leader of our fine 25 year old organisation!!!!

  13. Joan Miller says:

    I was sorry I could not attend this year’s 25th CWA anniversary conference, but your wonderful post almost made up for it; I loved seeing the photos and video !!