For Sara Prentice, 33, protocol is like music. And she is the conductor of the orchestra.
“Protocol is really about making sure that everybody’s playing the same music, all on the same page, that we’re in sync,” Prentice explains. “Every movement is orchestrated with intention to make sure that the visitor doesn’t have any bumps along the way.”
As the Lead for Hosting and Protocol at the Idaho National Laboratory, her primary goal is making sure that every minute detail of a dignitary’s visit is well-planned and organized, right down to the meals they eat. Over the past six years, she has overseen the visits of more than 200 VIPs, such as senators, congressmen, military officials and federal employees from the top levels of government, as well as leaders from private enterprise. For example, Prentice organized a visit for Microsoft co-founder and entrepreneur Bill Gates, who came to INL for information that might help his nuclear energy technology company, TerraPower.
“It’s fascinating stuff. The people that come through are just the most intelligent individuals. So it’s really interesting to get to listen to them and see what excites them,” she says.
Her career, however, is not something she envisioned for herself. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communications, and her first job at INL was in community relations and internal communications, where she was exposed to some of the elements of a protocol officer’s work.
“I’ve always been interested in cultural communications, particularly when I got my master’s degree. But I didn’t really know that there was such a thing as a protocol officer until I came to Idaho National Laboratory,” says Prentice. She moved from communications to her current role in 2010, when her predecessor retired.
“I sort of stumbled into it, but it aligned really well with my background. I grew up in the military – my father was a general. So I’ve been sort of living and watching protocol my whole life. So it’s really fun to be a part of living it and executing it correctly.”
In many ways, Prentice is an unofficial ambassador for the state, making sure that INL visitors have an opportunity to experience all that Idaho has to offer outside the laboratory doors. She takes great care to organize the best restaurants, hotels, museums and art galleries for guests, hoping that a favorable experience will leave a good impression and bring them back to do more business in Idaho.
“We feel like if we take care of their basic needs, it allows them to focus more on what they’re here to see which is really the unique research that Idaho National Laboratory is doing,” says Prentice.
Her professional goal is to create a visitors’ center at INL, which would incorporate youth education initiatives, and include a museum and hospitality and hosting facility. And on the personal side, her goal is to teach her three year-old son, Evan, to be a good citizen.
“Today, the biggest impact I hope to have is raising Evan to love and respect the people and land in Idaho.”
Most memorable airplane ride: “My father was an F-16 pilot, so I grew up around fighter jets. I just get such a thrill from hearing a jet fly over and being on a runway with a jet. That whole military jet thing has been a really integral part of my life.”