Reflections on Clearwater YAL Memorial Day Weekend 2007
Needing a Little Less Y and a Lot More A
June 6, 2007
This year’s Clearwater YAL Convention may go down as the most polarizing YAL event ever. Depending on whether you’re North or South of 25 years old, you either thought that this was the best convention ever or MTV Spring Break. Almost everything significant about the Convention was different this year to the point where the old-timers hardly recognized this as the Clearwater YAL Convention, outside of its Florida Gulf Coast locale.
The early signs were there that this convention was going to skew a lot younger than ever before. Even as early as five years ago, Greek young adults found out about Clearwater through one basic source – word of mouth – and that mouth was usually that of someone a little older who had at least been there once or twice. The Clearwater YAL started putting information out on the convention on its website, and we’ve done our share in helping publicize it, but the marketing of this convention on MySpace introduced the convention to an even less YAL-like crowd than usual. Let’s not kid ourselves, Clearwater has always been the least YAL-like of the YAL Conventions, both in terms of age, theme and atmosphere, but this year’s choice of not even hitting the church for the Sunday night dinner dance was just the most blaring example of how the convention sought to break from tradition.
It’s hard to say if what people will remember about this year’s convention stemmed from the concept, the execution, or the crowd. In theory there should have been nothing wrong with having that many events at the hotel and we were the first to applaud the organizers for ditching the concert and opting for a beach party (eh, pool party). The first event that most people attended was Thursday Night’s White Linen Party; a great success as more people remembered to pack a white outfit than the year before. It was enough to almost overlook the straight-up fraternity party that took place the night before. (It’s not an overstatement to call it a fraternity party because it was the first time in the four times we’ve been to Clearwater that the organizers were giving out free alcohol, in a private setting to boot, in the form of trays upon trays of shots of mostly mixer… and there was almost no one there over the age of 22.) We were happy to see that the remaining parties during the weekend featured a live band, which was the biggest thing that was missing from the dinner dance at the church the year before. Placing the volleyball tournament in the middle of the crowd as opposed to down the sand somewhere was also a factor in getting more people psyched about playing volleyball this year. (Sadly, basketball is still in exile in some gym somewhere. Now if they could only afford to stage a port-a-court on the beach, resulting in a need to account for the wind like in White Men Can’t Jump, that would be the best basketball tournament ever.) But otherwise, there was something missing from these events, whether it was people for half the night or the interaction between people from different parts of the country that is the reason that most people used to come to Clearwater in the first place. (This of course assumes that this truly is the reason people come to Clearwater. If there are there folks that come to Clearwater because: 1. It's the beach, stupid. 2. Their town doesn't have Greek Nights or 3. They want to get away from their folks for the weekend and get faced, then Mission Accomplished!)
While it was nice to be in a hotel exclusively reserved for the Convention, by the end of the weekend, we realized that the hotel itself might have been partly responsible for a lot of what happened or didn’t happen that weekend. As wild as Clearwater had been in the past, three-story beer bongs aside, there was still limits to what everyone could get away with due to the fact that you had to consider the family with two kids staying in the room next door. Self-regulation or complaints from the non-Convention guests would ensure that at least the place would quiet down by at least 3:30 A.M. Without anyone non-YAL to complain though things would continue well into the pre-dawn hours to the point where even if some of the over-30 crowd wanted to turn in at 3:30 A.M., it was inevitable they’d be up a lot longer. (And thanks to some jackass pulling fire alarms at 5:15 A.M. and then again at 7:30 A.M. on Sunday morning, EVERYONE was up, and evacuated at least once. According to our airport sedan driver on Monday who got the scoop from three girls before us, they caught the guy by basically staking out the same fire alarm after he pulled it half a dozen or so times across the span of 12 hours. Hey mom, dad, I just came back from Clearwater with multiple felony charges. Awesome!)
With over 85% of the hotel being suites, the parties advertised until 5:00 A.M. and yet with last call at 1:30 A.M., people didn’t show up to the oddly lighting-bolt-shaped hotel ballroom for the parties on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday until 12:30 at the earliest, and on some nights much later. Everyone’s individual suite became the source for entertainment and alcohol, and people weren’t forced or encouraged to interact with others outside their parea as a result. Complaints from Clearwater veterans started to surface by Saturday that they just didn’t feel like they had the opportunities to really meet people outside of their parea this year as in years past.
What was missing was the great equalizer, the one saving aspect of the weekend, the one night that regardless of how the rest of the weekend went there was the possibility of meeting people – the dinner dance at the church. After seeing how the first two nights went with people showing up late to the parties, we correctly predicted that with dinner scheduled from 8:00 to 10:30 P.M., either no one would show up to dinner, or worse would eat dinner and return to their suites for the next few hours. That more than a few people actually showed up not dressed for dinner, quickly scarfing down their meal, and returning to their suites, some not to return at all, was embarrassing. It’s sad to admit that “embarrassing” was a word that was thrown out by local Clearwater old-timers and out-of-towners alike to describe some aspects of the Convention, particularly the last night. With no bus-ride to and from the church to make people go, or make people stay, many people left right after the worst breakfast “buffet” ever, making the last night essentially an anticlimactic two-hour affair. (We don’t count Monday night as the last night because most people don’t stick around past the barbecue on Monday afternoon, but we heard that the organizers cancelled the scheduled luau after conducting a pool-side straw poll, leaving those who used an extra vacation day from work to stay through Tuesday feeling particularly cheated.)
Some of the tamer elements of Clearwater, while nice, didn’t seem to carry the momentum of years past. Speed Greeting featured pretty much the same Speed alumni showing up for the third year in a row. The Spiritual Discussion on Saturday actually happened, albeit poolside. And if it hadn’t been for the Fire Alarm Puller we may have been able to comment on how church at the hotel was on Sunday morning, but running into the priest later that night, we heard it was a modest turnout.
Balance needs to be restored to the Clearwater YAL Convention. The committee of young energetic 20-somethings with great ideas needs some guidance from prior committee members who remember what was so great about Clearwater in the first place. The convention needs to find a way to make it back to Clearwater. The isolation of St. Pete’s Beach has cut the convention off from Tarpon Springs and from the Church. The dance needs to return to the church. Find a hotel with less suites and better ballrooms. Dial back the parties to 3:00 A.M. at the latest so that people actually feel the need to show up before 1:00 A.M. Remember that YAL actually stands for something, and while it includes the word “Young,” it also included the word “Adult.” (This goes more for the crowd than the organizers.) The biggest thing to remember is that the interaction between Greek young adults from different parts of the country must occur and must be facilitated, because otherwise there is nothing to bring everyone back to Clearwater year after year. (Because it just as easy and probably less expensive to get the six to ten people in your parea to rent a house on the Outer Banks or on some lake when all anyone is doing is hanging out with each other in their own little groups and drinking.)
We don't want the organizers to get discouraged because they went out on a limb and tried new things, some of which worked better, and for those that didn't, it's hard to see the dynamics of a weekend unfold while you're in the middle of it, particularly without past experience as a guide. We were encouraged by the organizers' willingness to make changes to try to improve upon the conventions of the past. And we heard big cheers from first-time convention-goers for many reasons: it was a weekend to put worries aside, to just relax and have fun in the midst of a thousand other Greek-Americans, sleep in on a Thursday or Friday, tan in a cabana on a gorgeous beach, dance to the DJ poolside with a daiquiri in hand, nap until 9:00 P.M., have a late dinner four nights in a row, Greek dance, and party – all while strengthening friendships with current Greek friends and having the opportunity to meet and mingle with their Greek friends to make new ones. One first-timer told us while checking-out that she found herself asking, "How have I never come to this before?! I can't wait to do it again next year." Maybe those of us convention regulars need to hear those first impressions from the newbies to keep the convention from losing its spark when we return year after year. With that in mind, we're looking forward to our last three Clearwater YAL Conventions and hope that they'll offer something for everyone, the young adults and the not-as-young adults alike.