By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008
Headquartered in boxy buildings in downtown Washington and on plaza-cluttered boulevards of the 'burbs are hundreds of trade associations. They handle public relations and standards and practices for almost any kind of industry known to man, from telecommunications to candles, manufacturing to greeting cards.
So it's no surprise that the D.C. area is an ant farm of association workers. Washington has a higher concentration of people who work for trade associations than anywhere else in the country: about one in 10 employees, according to a 2007 study by the American Society of Association Executives, which itself has headquarters here. The city's fat Rolodex is crammed with blandly titled groups with broad missions, but there are some whose very names make them stand out: the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (roller coasters!) and the National Confectioners Association (candy!), for example.
We talked to five folks who were lucky enough to find jobs at associations that specialize in such tasty or otherwise captivating subjects. To find out more about them, read on.David Christman, 31, Alexandria
Director of state and industry affairs, National Beer Wholesalers Association
Yes, the office has a bar. The two dozen employees gather there every Friday at 4:30 for "beer education," which involves sampling Belgians, pale ales or any other themed liquid buffet.
"I don't know if it gets a lot better than that," says David Christman, who for the past seven years has worked his way up at the National Beer Wholesalers Association, from assistant to coordinator to manager to director. "I use the line, 'I'm the envy of every fraternity brother I've ever had.' Sometimes it's negative because friends don't think I do a lot of work. They think we're drinking beer in our offices."
Which, technically, they are.
"But it's work hard and play hard."
Founded in 1938, five years after the repeal of prohibition, the group represents more than 2,700 beer distributors, the folks who shepherd 13,000 kinds of beer from brewer to retailer nationwide. Christman joined the association after working in the Senate. He takes three or four trips a month, visiting supplier partners, state legislators, responsible-drinking groups and other niches of the beer industry. Samuel Adams founder Jim Koch has given Christman a private tour of his brewery and a sample of his $125-a-bottle brew Utopias, one of the strongest beers in the world. ("It tastes more like an after-dinner drink," Christman reports. "It's maple-syrupy.")
So with a vast knowledge of beers and brewers and a weekly beer education, what is Christman's favorite brew?
This is a bad question to ask a guy who represents the entire industry.
Though he'll admit to an inherited affinity for Yuengling, which is brewed a short drive from his home town of Hamburg, Pa., he technically can't play favorites.
"One of our first rules, especially amongst our membership, is drink it out of a glass," Christman says. "If you're drinking a Budweiser and hanging out with Miller guys, you don't want to offend anybody. Keep 'em guessing."Susan Fussell, 33, Arlington
Vice president of communications, National Confectioners Association
So . . . you guys get good dental coverage?
"Candy is no more likely to cause cavities than any other fermentable carbohydrate," says Susan Fussell, pristinely on point. "We believe there's a place for candy in any healthy, active lifestyle."
Amen. Walk into the National Confectioners Association offices on the third floor of a drab building in Tysons Corner and you'll see a big gumball machine with the word "FREE" slapped where "25¢" would be anywhere else. The lamps are made of cookie tins. Shelves of Toblerone, Mike and Ike, and Altoids line the temperature-controlled storage room. Boxes of gum are stacked like gold bullion.
Cubes of cocoa from Ecuador sit on Fussell's desk, spoils from a recent trip to South America, where she toured cocoa fields, met cocoa farmers and drank chocolate liquor (chocolate in a pure, unsweetened, non-alcoholic liquid form).
"Please, have some," she says.
No, thank you.
It's against company policy to accept gifts.
Oh, this is nice.
Then Fussell launches into an explanation of how an Ecuadoran cocoa bean is harvested, husked and processed to yield the delightful morsels on her desk. She knows her stuff after 10 years with the association, a 25-person group that represents the big and small names familiar to everyone with a stomach (Mars, Cadbury, Wrigley and on and on). Originally from Ocean City, Fussell hopped into the trade world after working at a D.C. nonprofit organization. In her spare time, she and her fiance run a small craft company that specializes in stained glass and wood art.
But with 3,200 new candy items released in the United States each year, Fussell has her hands full, especially around Valentine's Day, Easter, Halloween and Christmas. She and other staffers returned from the All Candy Expo in Chicago last month with boxes of samples from 430 vendors. Fussell will take these samples on media tours across the country, bringing gourmet chocolates to Women's Day magazine and gummies to Time for Kids. She's also charged with creating content for the association's Web site ( http://www.candyusa.org). This includes formulating recipes for candy cocktails, which, of course, she must taste test before posting. Disclaimer: The drinking part of the job she shares with co-workers; for the latest batch, she had four over to split three martinis (butterscotch, big rock candy and chocolate s'more) and a mojito (mint chocolate).
"The first thing people say is, 'What a sweet job,' and I have to pretend I haven't heard it a million times," she says. "It's definitely a conversation starter."Jeremy Schoolfield, 29, Gaithersburg
Senior editor, Funworld Magazine, International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions
A couple of weeks ago, Germantown native Jere my Schoolfield spent his workday hurtling to the ground at a 97-degree angle from a height of 121 feet, his head literally over his heels. Then came the inverted loop, the inverted corkscrew and so on. All in all, it was 85 seconds of zooming, twirling mania on Fahrenheit, the newest roller coaster at Pennsylvania's Hersheypa rk.
"It's the dream job I never knew about," says Schoolfield, who plans to include Fahrenheit in a ride roundup for the official magazine of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, headquartered in Alexandria. "I have yet to tell people what I do and not have them freak out. The general reaction is people don't think I work at all, but that's obviously not the case."
Schoolfield, a pop culture junkie who manages to be both a staunch conservative and a fervent Pearl Jam fan, stumbled upon an association job posting on the Internet 3 1/2 years ago while writing for the Aiken Standard in South Carolina. He moved back to Maryland in October 2004 and immersed himself in fantasy and thrill rides, and continues to guide the production of the 72-page monthly magazine as one of two full-time staffers.
With the season just starting, this is the busiest time of his year. Parks are opening with new rides, and Schoolfield tries to hit as many as he can so he can report the experience in the magazine and stay on top of industry trends.
According to Schoolfield, the best roller coasters within driving distance of Washington are the Griffon at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, the Volcano at Kings Dominion outside of Richmond and the Thunderbolt at Kennywood near Pittsburgh. But his favorite ride in the country? The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Orlando's Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, with its 3-D effects and motion simulation.
Cascading from his desk at work is a bouquet of press passes from special events: Toy Story Mania, Discovery Cove. A 50th-anniversary set of gold-colored Mickey Mouse ears sits on his bookcase. Scattered around are issues of Funworld, many with cover stories by Schoolfield: food service changes at Graceland, the impact of SeaWorld's Aquatica water park in Florida and an innovative ride at Dollywood called Mystery Mine, for which he interviewed the proprietress herself.
"She was really sweet," Schoolfield says of Dolly Parton. "She makes no bones about the fact that she doesn't ride the rides. Something like, 'I got too many things that'll fall out and fall off if I get on one of these things.' "Keli Wallace, 29, Arlington
Director of special projects, American Gaming Association
David Copperfield once changed clothes in her hotel room in Las Vegas. World champion poker player Chris "Jesus" Ferguson taught her how to play Texas Hold 'Em. She has shaken hands with Steve Wynn, Clint Eastwood, Larry King and the cast of "Gilligan's Island."
Keli Wallace moved to the District six years ago from Vanderbilt University, but going east really brought her closer to the West. She snagged her first post-college job as an executive assistant at the American Gaming Association, a 12-person operation at 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW that represents the casino entertainment industry. She has stuck with them since and worked her way up, even though she never imagined she'd grow professionally in a trade-and-lobby group tangentially devoted to showgirls, Elvis impersonators and Wayne Newton.
The job has serious perks, and close encounters with celebrity are among them. The others are what you'd expect: delectable business dinners, instant admission to hot clubs, swanky rooms at almost every hotel on the Strip.
"It can get a little hectic and dicey trying to balance the fun and the work we need to accomplish," says Wallace, who is from Oklahoma City. "We work and play in equal parts. I'm the girl that goes looking for the minimum-bet tables, because I like to sit and play for a while, but I don't want to lose everything."
She recently completed a trip to Macau in Asia for a giant gaming convention, and she pops over to Vegas three or four times a year, but that doesn't mean every jaunt is a holiday. It takes sweat and grace to help steer the Global Gaming Expo, a massive yearly convention for 30,000 exhibitors and enthusiasts in Vegas, as well as the annual conference of the National Center for Responsible Gaming.
A job's a job. Sometimes it's impossible to make it to the blackjack tables (even though she's on the gaming floor) or the sports book to bet on college football. (She's a huge University of Oklahoma fan.) And only when you work in Vegas do you need to schedule in the 15 or 20 minutes it may take to get from your hotel room to the front door of a giant casino complex.
Save for the stash of Vegas-played cards in a storage room, the American Gaming Association office, attached to the Warner Theatre, is all business. The walls and carpet are light beige, the cubicles and offices neatly appointed and without a trace of garishness. Secret roulette tables, alas, do not fold out from the walls.
"We've said so many times we need to get some felts in here because people expect it when they come to visit," Wallace says. "Our office is just like any other consultants' office in town. We don't have slot machines in a backroom. We don't wear visors."Anissa Whitten, 35, Arlington
Vice president of international affairs and trade policy, Motion Picture Association of America
She doesn't walk the red carpets, but she works with and for the people who do. Anissa Whitten has hobnobbed with De Niro and Scorsese -- and was duly star-struck when Matt Damon showed up at the I Street NW offices for a screening. But her focus is less on schmoozing and more on protecting intellectual property and reducing trade barriers.
"People think 'movie industry' and just think about things on 'Entertainment Tonight' and 'Access Hollywood,' " says Whitten, a native of Maryland's Eastern Shore, reached by phone at a conference in Slovenia. "They think about big stars, the Academy Awards, dresses and limos, but the thing is the movie industry is so much more. I've gotten a much better appreciation of that."
This appreciation came from jetting to Los Angeles to talk with directors, animators and computer guys about issues important to them, such as finding new ways to use emerging technologies to deliver movies and cracking down on illicit recording at theaters.
"If I'm going to try to advocate for them and represent their interests, I need to understand what their challenges are and how business models are evolving," Whitten says. "Just trying to pick their brains: Where do they want to go, what hasn't worked for them."
With a master's degree in international relations and a previous gig in the State Department, Whitten relishes the global scope of her job, which extends far beyond Hollywood and New York. No day is the same when she's in Washington, but Whitten often finds herself on the phone with Sao Paulo, Brussels, Mexico City or elsewhere. She works with smaller local film industries and gets to know foreign countries through the medium of film.
Whitten's extracurricular interests are a parade of normalcy (hiking, camping, yoga, music, family, friends and her dog), but as part of work she has found herself playing with cutting-edge film technology, using backstage passes at "The Colbert Report" and cage-diving with great white sharks in South Africa. It's a tango between policy and celebrity, a kind of pseudo-fantasy life epitomized by her favorite movie: "The Princess Bride."