Last week I helped run the 61st Annual International Highway Engineering Exchange Program (IHEEP) Conference. My dad was serving as the president and host of the event. My mother and I were in charge of the guest program. We took individuals from all over the country around Asheville, North Carolina for four days, which allowed me to see the city in a new and exciting light.
One thing you should know about IHEEP before you get too invested in my adventures; these people are like a family. Some of the delegates have been coming for more than 20 years, which makes the week just as much about catching up as it is about exchanging information.
It also means, I would find out, that most of these people knew who I was before I walked in the hotel on Saturday because they had seen the hundreds of photos posted on Facebook by my father throughout the years. (Thanks, Dad.)
Now confession time, this wasn’t my first IHEEP conference. It was my third(ish). It was, however, the first time I was able to appreciate the conference in its entirety as an adult.
IHEEP runs Sunday through Thursday. I went up a day early to try to help make sure everything was ready before everyone got there. I found myself stuffing name tags and drawstring bags on the floor of the Renaissance Hotel with my mother, still not truly comprehending what I had gotten myself into.
Some delegates who had gotten early flights had already arrived for the week, which meant the Hospitality Room was open just in time for college football. My parents and I were able to slip away for a meal and were joined by two individuals from New Jersey, who I would have the opportunity to hang out with more throughout the week.
I would learn that night was the calm before the storm.
Then it began.
Sunday was calm. My only real responsibilities were to pick up two people at the airport and make sure everyone was on the bus to dinner at Highland Brewery.
At dinner, I would spend a couple of hours looking through the lens of my camera, listening to a local band, talking to my dad’s friends, and making some friends of my own by handing out drink tickets. Then, as would become the nightly tradition, most of the group found their way to the twelfth floor because no one was ready to go to bed.
Monday I was out and about. The guest program made its way to the North Carolina Arboretum and tried their hands at glassblowing at Asheville Glass, while IHEEP delegates participated in sessions. I was able to learn about the art of Bonsai and create a paperweight, while also purchasing a cactus name Phil, who would become a minor celebrity throughout the week. Monday also saw the vendors reception where we were able to network and be wooed. This was always my favorite part as a kid because its where my dad got all of the fun swag.
Tuesday saw another guest outing, although I did skip out on the Thomas Wolfe House, sorry to my English professors, a girl’s gotta sleep. I caught back up with the group in the afternoon though for a LaZoom tour of Asheville. If you have never been to Asheville, or you have never had the privilege of going on the LaZoom tour during your stay, take it from me – you are missing out. This 90-minute tour of the city is one of a kind and should be enjoyed by all.
We continued our guest outings on Wednesday. In the morning we went on a tour of the French Broad Chocolate Factory. Which was a lot of fun, I’ve got to admit, even if there weren’t any Oompa Loompas. We were able to taste chocolate and see how it is made, which was pretty perfect for this group. We then did a little shopping at the Biltmore Village which turned into a quick photo shoot at the Grand Bohemian Hotel.
Wednesday was also the night of the Banquet. This is when awards are giving and a new board member is elected. We were also given a preview of the next year’s conference, which I am already looking forward to because let’s face it, I’m hooked.
The banquet saw the official end of business for IHEEP, but we were far from over, we still had 36 hours before we said our good-byes.
That night was the busiest night the hospitality room had seen. No one wanted the night to end, so we made our way to a dueling piano bar down the street. It was here that many were introduced to one of our strange North Carolina laws. In a bar that doesn’t serve food, you must pay a $1 membership fee to enter. Although few understood it, it didn’t stop us from having a good time listening to music and just enjoying being together.
The fun continued with a late-night trip to Waffle House. In this restaurant, the gang was able to experience the real Asheville. When we finished our meal, we discovered there were no Ubers in the city. A shocking fact you don’t want to find out at 4:30 a.m. when you’re slightly too far from your hotel to walk back. Thankfully one of our waitresses drove us back to our hotel in two shifts, which will probably always be one of the best things to happen to me at a Waffle House.
The story of our adventure had already made the rounds when I finally surfaced around 11 a.m. on Thursday.
On the last day of the conference, there are no meetings. Everyone, guests and delegates, takes part in an outing. Since we were in Asheville, there was only one option, Biltmore Estate.
I was in charge of one bus, meaning I was in charge of 43 adults, which let me explain, was a new kind of challenge.
Overall, this outing was actually probably one of my favorites of the week. It reminded me just how amazing the Biltmore can be for people. I’ve become so desensitized to its splendor, by being living so close. It was nice to be with a group of people who wanted to learn and explore.
We ended the week with a pizza night in the Hospitality Room. Compared to other nights, it was pretty relaxed. You could kind of sense that everyone just wanted to avoid what was coming the next day. It was nice to be able just to sit and spend time with the people I had gotten to know during the last week.
Overall, my first IHEEP as an adult was pretty successful. I was able to meet people from all over the country and from across the world. I enjoyed being able to see new aspects of a city while making memories that I will be able to keep for the rest of my life.
That’s the beauty of IHEEP. You go for the information, but you leave with a family.