Build a Cardboard Boat – Sears Editors Conference 1999
I was lucky to be part of the team that was destined to build a cardboard boat that set a Florida state record. The year, I believe, was 1999.
Mike Mangan, the public relations manager for Sears, invited me to my first ever Sears Editors Conference in Clearwater Beach, Florida.
Mike always held the event in June of each year as it was the peak of the low season and no doubt he got a fantastic rate on booking 100, or more, rooms for all the editors, vendors, and Sears brand managers that attended the event.
The events were typically held at the same beachfront hotel that was easily a 4-star hotel conference center. It was deluxe.
Sears Editors Conferences – The Gold Standard
Before I give you the details of the cardboard boat-building contest, allow me to set the stage.
The Sears Editors Conferences were the best put on of any I attended over the 20-year span of time when I attended conferences hosted by manufacturers. These events allowed manufacturers to get the undivided attention of members of the working press. The Sears conferences were a three-day event filled with a perfect mix of work and play.
The first day of the conference was an evening mixer usually set up in a nice grassy area by the outdoor swimming pool. There was always plenty of food and drink and you’d rub shoulders with other editors and industry peers. All of the Sears brand managers and representatives who made the tools we’d see the next day were also mingling to get our ears and win favor with us so we’d feature their products in our publications.
8 AM Start Time
The next morning the conference would start at 8 AM sharp in a giant room in the bowels of the hotel. These rooms were built for conferences, wedding receptions, etc. The space always had a U-shaped table setup where all of us editors would sit at. Around the edges of the room all of the new tools were on display at different tables and hand-on stations.
There were so many new tools to look at, that each one was only given about 10 minutes or so. It was an intense four hours of information overload and then lunch was served. After that we’d see a few more tools and there was always a hands-on portion where you could touch, feel, and use some of the tools.
Mike always let us have the afternoon off. He typically had two organized events you might choose to do, or you could just chill on your own in your room or down by the pool.
This first year, one of the events was build a cardboard boat. I was most curious about this and decided to join in the activity.
Build a Cardboard Boat
I believe we had to meet down by the pool at 3 PM on the smallish grassy lawn area adjacent to the pool where the mixer the night before was held. The hotel activity director, with Mike’s help, had already decided who was going to be on what team. I think there were four teams of about five or six people on a team.
I was fortunate to be on Larry Eisinger’s team. Larry was the true father of the home-improvement movement. He was a veteran of WW II, a pilot, and after surviving the war he moved to Staten Island, NY getting involved in the publishing industry. CLICK or TAP HERE to see a huge selection of many of the books Larry either authored, co-authored, or edited.
He became the editor for Fawcett publishing and they were cranking out how-to books at a blistering pace for WW II vets who were building things like CRAZY at their homes for their new young families.
Larry actually wrote a book about how he and his wife built their own new home on Staten Island. It’s tragic that more of Larry’s story is not curated. Larry and I became great friends at this conference as his weekly newspaper column was being syndicated by the same company as mine, Tribune Media Services.
It just so happened that Larry was a sailor and he was an excellent illustrator. He took charge immediately of our team.
The Cardboard Boat Parts
Each team was given the exact same things to build their boat. I believe it was three 4×8 sheets of heavy cardboard, two 30-inch pieces of 3/4-inch PVC pipe, and a few rolls of tape, two Craftsman tape measures, and a few Sears razor knives. Sitting on a table off to the side was a secret building material that was available but not really mentioned. This was by design. It was a tall stack of Sears bumper stickers. I don’t need to tell you that bumper stickers are waterproof!
The hotel activity director gathered us all around and said, “Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to this fun team activity. You each have your materials and your task is to build any boat you want. Two of your team must get in the boat once built at the shallow end of the pool. You then have to paddle to the deep end touching the edge of the pool. Then you must return to the shallow end. Those on the team with the fastest time win a special prize. You have 45 minutes to build your boat. Good luck.”
There was a burst of chatter among all the teams. Larry, being the senior member of the team, oozed respect. He drew a fast sketch of a simple canoe for our five-member team. He then assigned tasks to get things done. It was my job to build the paddles.
I knew that the secret to victory was to make a paddle that wouldn’t turn to mush. I’d need two or three layers of cardboard to make it stiff and I needed to somehow make it water-resistant. That’s when I glanced over and saw the bumper stickers on an unattended table ten feet away. I sauntered over and took a stack about 3/4-inch thick. No one else seemed to even give a hoot about the stickers. It was mayhem there in the grassy area as the other teams were frantically trying to build their boats. That was fine by me.
I didn’t want to give away our secret, so I wandered away from the crowd with all I needed to build the paddles. Twenty minutes later I was finished and they were completely covered with CRAFTSMAN red, black, and white bumper stickers – two layers to ensure no water could get to the cardboard!
Larry and my other team members did a marvelous job on the canoe Larry designed. It turns out Larry had written a book about building boats. It was seredipity!
The 45 minutes went by in a flash. There were four teams if my memory serves me right. They were picked at random to enter the pool. The first team successfully got in their boat and started to flail about. Within 20 seconds their paddles fell apart. I was grinning the entire time.
The second team didn’t even get to try to paddle. As they tried to get into their boat, the keel buckled, the boat sank, and the two people got drenched. Everyone was howling with laughter.
The third team did a magnificent job watching how to gingerly get into their boat. Off they went across the pool to the other end, they turned, and got back to the shallow end. Victory for them!
Larry then said almost in a whisper to our two sailors, “Remember, when you get to the other side do NOT turn around. Just start to paddle in reverse.”
My team lauched and the paddles worked like real ones. They didn’t transform into pieces of sliced cheddar cheese staying stiff the entire time. Our two marine explorers touched the far end of the pool and were back to the starting line in 43 seconds I believe.
“We’ve got a NEW RECORD time,” the hotel activity director announced. It turns out we had beaten all previous times for this event. The activity director went on to tell us that the cardboard boat-building activity is the most popular thing he does for conferences. I couldn’t agree more.
It’s really a fun team exercise and if you ever get to do it, look around for the bumper stickers!
The Party and Day After
The night of the second day there was a feast on the beach under a giant tent. Food and drink were abundant. There was a live band and you could dance. It was always a spectacular evening with tiki torches setting the perfect mood.
Because some drank too much, the morning of the third day had a shorter show-and-tell of new tools. I always felt sorry for those Sears vendors because most of the editors had a serious hangover. The event was over at 11:30 AM and Sears provided box lunches to all so you could eat as your limosene shuttled you to the airport for the flight home.
I was really lucky to attend the last of the Sears Editors Conferences. It was a golden time of being a member of the home improvemen press. I’m afraid now that all too many companies have found out that ZOOM virtual conferences are so much cheaper. It might be a very long time before a conference like Mike used to do for Sears happens again. If you’re invited, by all means go and thank your lucky stars.