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Conferencing made easy

Author: Maaike Ammerlaan, Conference Sales and Services Manager – University of British Columbia Okanagan

I just came back from our CUCCOA National Conference held this year in Halifax, NS and I have picked up some great ideas again from my colleagues at universities & colleges all over the country and from the very inspiring speakers we were able to listen to.

What always spikes my interest are new electronic gadgets that help make my life as a conference planner a lot easier. At the conference I learned about ‘mobile check-in’, where guests check- in online (like on a flight) and just have to pick up their keys when they arrive at your campus. Off they go to their room with no time to waste at the front desk filling out forms or handing over credit cards. How easy and quick is that?

Or how about at your next big dinner event, you have a large touch screen in the room showing the lay-out of the tables and chairs, and the guests can select their seating by touching the screen and adding their name based on the other people they would like to connect with socially. Social tables it is called. Throws the painstaking time of putting a seating plan together out of the window!

And what if you can see on one map where the hot spots of your conference are by showing the ratings of each event as a colored dot: blue= not much interest, yellow= medium interest, red= lot of interest. By having your participants rate each activity, it instantly shows what is hot and what not at your conference. Cool!

Also getting more popular is the conference app where all the information about your conference can be found on the app. At our National CUCCOA Conference we tried out a conference app called Guidebook. They set-up a simple (free) version where everyone who would download the guide to their smart phone, ipad/tablet or laptop could see the program, speaker information, who was attending, sponsor information and maps of the conference facility and the local and regional area. You could also fill out a to-do list, set-up your own schedule, connect with other attendees by sending your electronic business card through the app and (very popular) upload pictures taken during the conference (of social events mostly!).
Instead of having to find your paper schedule to see what’s on at what time, you just open your app. The upgraded version of the app also gives you the opportunity to download presentations and have interactive maps. That definitely helps you make your conference become a lot greener!

Because attendees can rate each session instantly, as an organizer you do not have to send surveys to participants after the conference, who then have to think back about all the speakers they have listened to (and not mix them up). You can see your stats right away per event and know they are pretty accurate.

All these new technologies not only make going to a conference more fun, as a conference organizer, it makes putting on a conference a lot easier.

Maaike Ammerlaan, Conference Sales and Services Manager, University of British Columbia
Telephone:250-807-9804
Email: maaike.ammerlaan@ubc.ca

From a Student’s Perspective

Author: Jena Lewis, Student, University of Lethbridge (Melissa Wiebe, Conference and Event Services,  University of Lethbridge)

From an outside student perspective, everything at a university seems to run like a well-oiled machine. It is only once you get behind the scenes that you can see how much time and effort (and occasionally panic) it takes to ensure that every event runs smoothly, and every hotel guest leaves happy.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is that not all panic and stress is bad, but rather it can help create quick “on-your-feet” skills. Not only are these skills useful when empathizing with customers over lost keys or when they can’t find a specific classroom, but they also come in handy when giving a presentation in class, or when you are being peppered with questions.

Another skill I have been learning, albeit slowly, is time-management. This is crucial when planning any kind of event, especially when multiple university departments are involved. Time-management is a necessity when it comes to blocking off study time for finals, or finishing that crucial term paper while still maintaining a social life, and juggling other course work and commitments.

Ultimately the most important skill I’ve acquired is effective communication. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received that helps work through problems in my work and my life is to always repeat a question back to the person asking it. This not only allows you time to think of a quick response, but also shows the customer that you understand exactly what it is that they are asking about.

All-in-all the experiences I have had while working for the Conference & Event Services department have helped me develop skills necessary for school, as well as other skills that will translate to life after school. The high-stress daily activity of this field may come as a surprise to those new to the field, but eventually most students (or other new staff) adapt to the work-pace and are able to deftly accomplish complicated tasks, both at work and beyond.

Jena Lewis, Student, University of Lethbridge

Melissa Wiebe, Conference and Event Services, University of Lethbridge
Email: melissa.wiebe@uleth.ca
Telephone: (403) 329-2650

Change is All Around Us

Authors: Susan MacKenzie, Laurier Conference Services and Susanne Keppler – University of Waterloo Conference Services

In the conference industry, CHANGE is the name of the game. As professionals we deal with change on a daily basis. Whether dealing with rooming list changes that are sent at the last minute, meeting room venue changes due to lack of air-conditioning, or residence changes due to a construction, we all deal with change each and every day of the conference season.

Change comes in many other smaller forms as well. While not causing as much impact to the guests, behind-the-scene changes related to computer and equipment upgrades, lock system conversions, signage, etc. can cause a lot of disruption to an already hectic conference operation. Often the conference staff are the last to find out about campus changes which can result in slight panic when trying to deal with the issues at the last minute or just as a large group is arriving.

One of the hardest aspects of change is a change in staff. All campus conference operations hire students for many different roles. We have heard past blogs about the difference an excellent student can make and we all have stories about students who have had an impact on our lives. It can definitely ease the manager’s load when a seasoned student returns for more than one summer. A student who is able to step into the role with minimal training just makes life a little easier at the start of the season. We build strong relationships with students and other staff as we train, mentor and guide them through the ups, downs, ins and outs of conferences. They grow and mature and leave our operations with a solid skill set that they will build on in their future career paths.

CUCCOA also experiences ongoing change as new members join and as great members move on to other opportunities. As members venture on to new roles, we lose their experience and comradery. Our Kitchener-Waterloo conference support system has recently experienced a change. Martha Wallace from Residence & Conference Centre-Kitchener-Waterloo will soon begin a new role at a hotel opening in Waterloo. While we wish Martha all the best, Susanne and I will definitely miss her positive attitude, determination, and willingness to always get together for a social event. We have benefited from our cohesive and supportive network and we will miss the connection. We know that Martha will take all of the skills she has gained while at work and through CUCCOA and successfully move forward in a new direction. We also know that Martha will ensure that the social events continue.

Change is always around us, and while it isn’t easy, we have to look on the bright side and discover that change also brings new opportunities, new friendships and new adventures. In the words of Gail Sheehy, “If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow we aren’t really living.”

Submitted by:

Susan MacKenzie, Laurier Conference Services
Telephone: 519-884-1970 x3958
Email: smackenzie@wlu.ca

Susanne Keppler, University of Waterloo Conference Services
Telephone: 519-888-4567 x35833
Email: slkeppler@uwaterloo.ca

The Ripple Effect

Author: Ruth Harland, Manager, Conference Services, Hospitality Services, Western University

Have you ever noticed how a small simple ripple starts very clear and precise and then continues to expand outward in an ever increasing circle with less distinct features until it becomes part of one larger pool with all edges blended and blurred?

Conferences have the same effect on us.

We recently had a conference in with several challenging requirements and great expectations. They had never held their event on a campus before and so it was going to be a learning curve for both of us.   Of course, we wanted it to go well and they wanted their members to really enjoy the experience.

After all the planning and preparation, they arrived. The requests started almost immediately and the Conference team was on the run. For the next few days, a tremendous amount of time and people were dedicated to this group. Our Conference team was short staffed and tired and they could easily have become frustrated and annoyed, but then, the ripple effect happened.

The organizers were very appreciative of every effort made on their behalf and repeatedly told all members of the team. The staff worked harder and longer just to please them. Any glitches that came up were quickly identified and resolved. What could have been a long and discouraging week, turned out to be a positive and great experience.

And so, hopefully here is my ripple effect…..

Thank you for being part of our organization. I am better at what I do, in part because of your willingness to share your ideas and best practices. Your support is very much appreciated.

Ruth Harland, Manager, Conference Services, Hospitality Services, Western University
Telephone: 519-661-2111 ext. 85974
Email: rharland@housing.uwo.ca

The All Important Bag of Tricks

Author: Dana Beaton (Problem solver extraordinaire), Assistant Director, SFU Conference and Guest Accommodations, Simon Fraser University

Like moms, wedding planners, and superheroes everywhere, every college and university conference professional has their bag of tricks full of items they’ve come to rely on for solving common (and not so common) problems.  Here’s some of the key items in mine…

Black sharpies… handy in any number of situations.  Scuffed black dress shoe?  Last minute signage?  Misspelled name tag?

Spare shoes.. a must,  have multiple pairs if you can.  Have spare shoes in your office, car, bag – whatever.  Have them ready for when the shoes you wore for fashion become too much for your poor feet,  for when you step in a puddle when out directing traffic, or to dress up an outfit for the one day you come dressed ultra-casual to work and a client shows up for an unscheduled meeting.

Snacks… can solve many problems. As the organizer you are generally the last person to eat or…the first person to skip the meal to deal with a crisis.  A snack from your supply stash might be the only thing to come between you and a full breakdown.

Cords… extension cords,  power bars, Ethernet cords,  USB cords, power cords… you name it, have one tucked away just in case.

A multiyear calendar… the calendar on a smart phone is handy to see a single date or a short date range, but that paper 10 year at-a-glance calendar is way handy when it comes to putting days, weeks and months into context.  Somehow being able to show it on paper in black and white brings home the proximity of a date in a way a digital calendar never will, no matter how many emoji’s we can fit on the screen.

Sticky notes… in a rainbow of colors.  Use them to amend to-do lists, jot down random thoughts in the middle of a meeting so they don’t distract you from the topic at hand, and to label boxes, files and people (they make handy name tags in a pinch).

Tape measure… because size often does matter. Will that table fit?  Is the doorway wide enough for a client in a wheelchair?  While I think I’m pretty good at eyeballing it, sometimes you actually do need an accurate measurement. 

Like Mary Poppin’s carpet bag, my bag of tricks is bottomless with new items popping out almost daily to deal with the unusual circumstances that are the day to day reality of my chosen career.  Now if only I could find a way to make the bag change colors to coordinate with each event’s colors…

Dana Beaton, Assistant Director, SFU Conference and Guest Accommodations, Dept of Residence and Housing,  Simon Fraser University
Telephone: 778-782-4330
Email: dana_beaton@sfu.ca

The Road to Recognition

Author: Erin Crane, Manager, Conferences,  University of Lethbridge

“Don’t worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition.”
Abraham Lincoln

Let’s face it, if you seek recognition and want to be praised for a job well done conference planning and hotel management are not the jobs for you!

Our efforts are focused behind the scenes, making sure everything is happening when and how it should.  We plan, we implement, we troubleshoot and then we pick up the pieces and put it all back together again when things don’t go as anticipated.  It takes a special kind of person to do this job and with that comes the need for enough confidence and self-awareness to know that it could not be done without you.

That being said, we cannot lose sight of how important recognition is to us and to the people who work in our departments.  My team has been lucky enough this year to receive numerous accolades for our successful conference and hotel season.  It has reminded me how inspiring and motivating it is when your efforts are recognized and praised.

Recognition is not only a great motivator for staff but it can also be a great marketing tool.  What better way to advertise your business than in an article where they talk about how your facilities and how your efforts made a difference and an impact on an event.  It is the best testimonial you can have.

There are many ways to show recognition so I’ve listed a few for you to consider:

  1. Seek out city wide awards for tourism and customer service.  Attached is a link to our local awards.  http://www.exploresouthwestalberta.ca/blog-detail.asp?ID=674.  Check with your Destination Marketing Organization or Chamber of Commerce to see what your city offers.
  2. Create your own in-house awards.  Our student team developed a recognition award last year that was awarded at our monthly meeting.  Each staff member had to write down an outstanding effort made by someone else on the team.  Each one was read aloud and the person who had the most, won the recognition award.  This was a great system as everyone who had done something outstanding was recognized even if they didn’t walk away with a prize.
  3. Nominate yourself or someone on your team for your internal University awards.  Even if you don’t win it is nice to be nominated.
  4. Don’t forget that CUCCOA has awards that are presented at the National Conference. Please nominate someone and pass on the recognition.

Erin Crane, Manager, Conferences,  University of Lethbridge
Telephone: 403-329-2417
Email: erin.crane@uleth.ca

Things I would tell my younger self….

Authors: Andrea Hennel, Manager Specialized Services;  Chelsea Rule, Event Logistics Coordinator Events and Conference Services; Jennifer Brading, Event Logistics Coordinator Events and Conference Services, Mount Royal University Events and Conference Services

Our team was having a rather nostalgic discussion around events and how we approach events management now versus when we first started in our careers, which inspired the writing of this post.

Things I would tell my younger self that would have saved me buckets of stress and sleepless nights…

1. Comfort is key

Never EVER wear those pretty high heels when running an event. It never fails that it will always be the day you wear those beautiful new shoes that you suddenly find yourself running a half marathon at work that day.  You can spot a newbie a mile away by the shoes they wear.

2. Do a “mind dump” at bedtime

Rather than waking up all night with the “don’t forgets and to do’s”,  keep a list beside your bed and take 10 minutes at bedtime to decompress and write down whatever comes to mind for to do’s.  This “mind dump” can be very freeing when you can’t shut your brain off the night before a big event.

3. Don’t play the blame game….

Things happen and you may want to pull your hair out BUT… focus on troubleshooting rather than whose fault the situation is.  We all work very closely with our internal service providers and while things generally go wonderfully, there are times when things can fall off the rails.  The “how we can avoid this situation in the future” discussion can happen after the event, but in the heat of things, its “all hands on deck” to ensure smooth flow.  This leads us to part two on this note- be prepared to pitch in and help out with anything and everything.  This may involve being a caterer, parking attendant, custodial and housekeeping person within the first hour of an event.  At the end of the day client satisfaction is what really matters.

4. Always come in earlier than your client.

Give yourself at least 30-60 minutes lead time before you expect the client to arrive- in this time frame rooms can literally be moved around, speakers green rooms have “mopped”, all with the client being none the wiser of the disaster that could have been.

5. Never agree to something if you’re hesitant that it can be delivered on successfully.

While we all feel pressure to deliver on very high targets, we should all be asking ourselves if there is a concern with a particular client request what is causing this flag.  It is much easier to advise the client of alternatives or caution them on particular choices rather than agreeing to things that logistically or operationally you aren’t fully confident you can deliver on.

6. Always remember to thank people.

Gratitude goes a long way when working with internal service providers as they play a key part in the success of each event.  Knowing how each area/provider likes to be recognized will go a long way on the goodwill front.

7. Stop saying “I’m so busy”.

You are an event person and by virtue of this will always be busy.

8. You’re only as good as your last event

This is the best advice for any event planner. No matter the details that stand out for the Coordinators, guests always remember the details from the previous event. If there were major disasters that weren’t contained behind the scenes, your organizer and guests will remember. By the same token, if you wow your guests with unique event features, themes, entertainment, food & beverage, etc., your event will stand out in their minds and they’ll look forward to attending your next event!

9. A smile is worth a thousand clients

Event Coordinators are the ones who oversee damage control at their events. The oven could break mid-service. The weather could blow over the outdoor food tent. There could be a need for 20 extra tables 15 minutes before the event. All that matters is that the client sees you in a constantly calm and controlled state with a smile on your face. Of course inside you may be throwing a tantrum like a 4 year old and desperately wanting to chug the bottles of wine behind the bar, but an event’s success greatly depends on what you can manage behind the scenes and how you handle all of the mini (or major) crisis that arise.

10 There’s no such thing as a repeat event

Talk to anyone who attends annual events (but who isn’t involved in planning them) and they’ll say that coordinating recurring or annual events is an easy feat. It must be a great ease to just refer to last year’s notes and plans and hit the copy button every year, right? Think again. No matter how many times an event has occurred in the past, the event will be different every year. Coordinators will agree this is actually part of the fun when planning recurring events – there’s always something to troubleshoot and always things that you can’t plan for, no matter if it’s the 14th year of a standard Stampede pancake breakfast or a small annual corporate holiday party.

11. Have fun!

Despite the chaos that may ensue at times in our environment, we always need to be able to share in a good laugh at the end of the day.  Events can be crazy but they should also be positively challenging and fun. If you lose sight of this for extended periods of time, it may be time to evaluate your role in the event world.

Authors:

Andrea Hennel, Manager Specialized Services at Mount Royal University

Chelsea Rule, Event Logistics Coordinator Events and Conference Services at Mount Royal University

Jennifer Brading, Event Logistics Coordinator Events and Conference Services at Mount Royal University

Mount Royal University Events and Conference Services

Tel: (403)440-8890

Email: mrevents@mtroyal.ca

A Week in the Life of a Conference Manager

Author: Sara Tuck, Manager, Conference and Event Services, Georgian College

I was stuck on what to write about for my upcoming blog when it dawned on me that for my own sanity I needed to recap and regroup after our extremely busy Reading Week.

As I am sure you can all appreciate, the week started off with more snow and of course the event that we were planning was at one of our satellite campuses, the route to get to that campus is one with open fields, lots of drifting snow and blowing snow.  Having to leave my house at 6:00am, we still managed to get to the campus by 7:30am – not a fun drive but a very successful event!

Day 2 consisted of 27 high school busses coming to campus for an Equity in Action youth conference.  It seems that the bus drivers decided not to follow our recommended map when entering the campus and ended up in the round-about where city busses drop off.  You can imagine how fast Campus Security was all over Conference Services, quick to blame the bus situation on us.  We also had another group in today that decided to park in a Fire Route resulting in 10 parking citations that they all refused to pay….another reason for Campus Security  to be all over us…oh and did I mention that it snowed today!

Day 3 – Convocation Day – 1500 guests expected.  Much to my dismay I enter the gym expecting to see it nicely setup and ready to go only to find it not even ½ setup and guests are expected to arrive in less than one hour. I then had a mother yell at me because she felt that her parking spot was too far away from the entrance of the facility.  Today it is snowing and minus -25 with the wind chill, our outdoor signage blew away and I received 2 more parking citations from the Tuesday group.

Day 4 – Today is now Thursday, we have a large agricultural conference arriving today bringing with them several tractors to display outdoors, one of the tractors would not completely fit through our gate arms causing damage to the gate. As I am investigating the damage, I am notified that one of their designated classrooms seems to be occupied by an academic class who is refusing to move because they swear that they booked the space.   Today there are snow squalls, reduced visibility and several road closures.  It is now 3:30pm and the college is closing due to deteriorating conditions, we have had to ask all of our groups to pack-up early.

Day 5 – I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, it is Friday and the sun is shining! The agricultural conference is back in today along with 3 other groups. Only one small hiccup today around technology, quick on our response we were able to set up a Go To Meeting for our client which was a success even though our presenter was in a different time zone and had to present with bedhead. We are wrapping up the week on a busy note – lots of classroom resets to be done in preparation on Monday’s classes. 

When I reflect back on our weeks activities, I can only smile and think that this is exactly why I do what I do.  I love trying to predict every single need that a client may request and when the unpredicted happens, I love problem solving, mentoring and troubleshooting to ensure that our clients have the best possible experience.

Another successful Reading Week has come to an end, looking forward to the next!

Sara Tuck, Manager, conference and Event Services, Georgian College
Telephone: 705.728.1968, ext. 1135
Email: Sara.Tuck@GeorgianCollege.ca

Top 10 Reasons Why we Love our Job

Authors:
Martha Wallace, Residence & Conference Centre – Kitchener-Waterloo (located on Conestoga College Campus)
Susan MacKenzie, Wilfrid Laurier University Conference Services
Susanne Keppler, University of Waterloo – Conference Services

As we meet over lunch just after another snow-filled weekend, we decided as a group to come up with the top 10 reasons why we love our job in Canada; working within conference services at either a university or college campus.

Reason #1:
Friendly, Non-Competitive Relationships. We build relationships through CUCCOA and various organizations at different colleges/universities. CUCCOA plays a very important role in unifying this relationship and coordinating events throughout the year.

Reason #2:
Unique Facilities and Services. Each campus offers unique, specialized and leading-edge facilities and services. What hotel has a theatre, large gymnasium and restaurant all within the same location?

Reason #3:
Campus Culture.  There is a camaraderie that is formed with students, staff and faculty.  It is a young atmosphere with students always willing to provide a new perspective or modernized way. There is always something we don’t know and can learn from!

Reason #4:
Work that Matters.  We are part of something larger that makes a difference throughout the institutions, the community and the region. We are surrounded by living, connecting, learning and growing.  Student development works well in this environment, as we open doors for future employees by offering students placements, co-op and/or related work experience.

Reason #5:
A Flexible, Understanding and Cooperative Working Atmosphere. We have a strong team that cares about the vision and overall success of the operation. 

Reason #6:
No Two Days are the Same.  From quilting, academic, and religious groups, to a cycling tour, every day brings new opportunities to the business.

Reason #7:
PD is Encouraged. We are always developing new skills with courses available through our institutions and associations such as CUCCOA, MPI, etc. Current technology trends with Ecommerce, social media and online booking agencies are ongoing.

Reason #8:
Problem Solving and Thinking Outside the Box.  We do what we can to accommodate our clients with limited resources available. There are always challenges related to facilities, renovations and campus construction, staffing, etc. and each problem requires creative solutions to ensure guest satisfaction.

Reason #9:
Seasonal Operation.  The curtains open at the end of April and close at the beginning of September.  As campus resources are limited throughout the year there is less focus on coordinating during the academic season.

Reason #10:
Job Opportunities. There are always new opportunities both within our institution and our association communities that open up throughout the year. The skills that we develop as conference professionals are transferrable to departments both on and off campus.  Growth and expansion on college and university campuses will offer opportunities to experience new career challenges.

Martha Wallace, Residence & Conference Centre – Kitchener-Waterloo (located on Conestoga College Campus); Email: mwallace@stayrcc.com; Tel: 519-895-2272 x713
Susan MacKenzie, Wilfrid Laurier University Conference Services; Email:smackenzie@wlu.ca; Tel: 519-884-0710 x3958
Susanne Keppler, University of Waterloo – Conference Services; Email: slkeppler@uwaterloo.ca; Tel: 519-888-4567

Classroom Management & Conference Planning

Author: Leah Wotherspoon, Special Events Assistant, Meetings & Special Events, University of Calgary

Managing non-academic classroom bookings on campus has its share of challenges at the best of times, but as the academic off-season approaches, preparation for the flurry of spring and summer activities is in full-swing.

A university has a wide variety of priorities, and sometimes these priorities end up competing with one another for the finite resources that the campus has to offer. Once the winter session ends, the conference season begins. It is important to try to strategize space utilization for the conference season in order to be able to not only provide the best possible experience for the conference organizers, but also to be able to prevent turning conference clients away and to honor agreements that are made well in advance.

One of the big challenges with managing space for conferences is that conference planning begins quite far ahead, but the academic schedules are not finalized until enrollment for the courses is closed. Even though there are few course offerings in the Spring and Summer, there is still a chance that academic class scheduling can throw a wrench in even the best conference planning.

This year, I am trying to plan ahead for the potential pitfalls of room booking, by coming up with multiple room configurations, in partnership with our conference planner, in order to try to avoid last minute scrambling caused by unanticipated academic schedule changes or even the necessary-but-dreaded room closures due to renovations or upgrades.

In all of this, communication, thinking ahead, and flexibility are all key to successfully managing the conference season, as well as the summer schools and summer camps that dominate campus during the spring and summer.
What are some of your strategies for managing space during conference season?

Leah Wotherspoon, Special Events Assistant, Meetings & Special Events, University of Calgary
Telephone: 403-220-6229
Email: ljwother@ucalgary.ca

On-Line Reviews

Author: David Carroll, Sales Manager-RCC at Sheridan Brampton and Oakville, ON

In this day and age of web travel, an on-line review can be the difference of a group staying with you or the property down the street.

As we all know, sometimes the reviews may not be accurate, and/or over exaggerated…but regardless, a negative review should have the same priority and positive feedback that a good review would get.

With the big three, Trip Advisor, Expedia and Bookings.com, you must stay on top of them and always respond to each review.  If the review is negative, thank them for it and (if the review is correct) let them know you are constantly working to improve and give your office number to call.  Do the same with a positive review.  Reply, thank and welcome them back next season.  Another good idea is to have your guests write a review for you while they are in house for a contest or similar.  This way you can add to your rating scale on the sites and if something is wrong you can take care of it at the property level right away.

To be as open and honest as well as approachable is the best way to get through the property review process.  Let them know who you are and what you offer, don’t over promise what you may not be able to deliver and always blow them away with customer service. To give you an idea of just how well this can work, our Residence & Conference Centre in Oshawa received last year the Booking.com award for the Highest Overall Customer Satisfaction Rating for 2012.

As Hotel rates are still very competitive with our rates in most demographics, we must add Value above discounts to win the game….and part of that Value is responses to every review you receive.

If you do not have your property registered to these sites, you should.  It can create awareness and business at no extra cost. 

Good luck this summer and here’s to great reviews!!

David Carroll, Sales Manager-RCC at Sheridan Brampton and Oakville, ON
Telephone: 905-815-4150 ext. 77653
Email: dcarroll@stayrcc.com

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