Originally published in
Charity Begins at Work: How the Meetings Industry Gives Back
By Kinley Levack, Successful Meetings
August 6, 2007
Successful Meetings magazine, August 2007
A relative lack of disasters in 2006, while good for the well-being of the country, hit human-services charities hard. According to the Giving USA Foundation, the sector saw a 12-percent inflation-adjusted decline in donations, compared with 2005.
Human-services charities include those that assist with food, shelter, child care, and similar day-to-day needs. Although overall giving is down, these are the favorite causes of many in the meetings and hospitality industry, where associations, corporations, and grassroots efforts contribute far more than the occasional gift certificate for a school raffle. A Solid Foundation
With 68 chapters in 20 countries, Meeting Professionals International (MPI) has taken a multipronged approach to giving back. MPI tackles the job of funding grants and scholarships through the MPI Foundation; encourages individual chapters to contribute at a local level; and organizes events that support the host city at its three major annual conferences.
"That's very much a part of what we want to do—give back to the areas where we are going [to meet]. In New Orleans we went and painted in Musicians' Village," says Katie Callahan Giobbi, executive vice president of the MPI Foundation. Musicians' Village is an eight-acre plot in the Ninth Ward where Habitat for Humanity is building 75 single-family homes; New Orleans native sons Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis spearheaded the project, and MPI volunteered during its Professional Education Conference—North America, held in New Orleans in January.
For MPI's July World Education Congress in Montreal, MPI tied into the "green" movement by coordinating a tree planting in downtown Montreal. The MPI Foundation also makes an effort to support education in the cities in which MPI meets with the donation of a grant to a local hospitality school; in New Orleans, the Foundation made a $5,000 donation to the University of New Orleans Lester E. Kabacoff School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Administration.
But much of MPI's charitable work is accomplished by chapters. For the 355-member Houston Area Chapter, this year marked a change in how it selects beneficiaries, as it shifted from a one-time donation of funds from its annual gala to year-long support of a local organization called the SEARCH Homeless Project.
"This is the first year that we have really tried to make community outreach more strategic by choosing one organization to support throughout the year. We were kind of across the board in the past," when it came to volunteer efforts, explains Shari Stafford, president of the Houston Area Chapter. "In the beginning of the year the community outreach committee got together to discuss what we wanted to support this year. We felt very strongly that we wanted to support the SEARCH organization," she continues. "They have a wide array of services—all in an effort to help people get back on track. We felt that this issue is something that affects us all; it's something we see in the city, and we wanted to make a difference."
Each monthly chapter meeting included a collection for SEARCH—paper products, personal care items, or even cash contributions. But the Houston chapter's biggest contribution came from its Annual Awards Banquet and Installation of Officers, held at the Magnolia Hotel on June 29, where silent and live auction proceeds of $6,500 were donated to SEARCH.
This year's big-ticket items included a Bose sound system, a weekend stay at the Marriott Horseshoe Bay Resort, or a weekend at the Hilton Houston Post Oak with Champagne and strawberries. The live auction also included a wine chest; each attendee brought a favorite bottle of wine, which was added to the chest and sold to the highest bidder.
The evening was a successful combination of celebration and community involvement. "It makes everybody feel good to give back to your own community. We reap a lot of benefits in our own lives and through our jobs. If you can give back to someone you know will really benefit—even if it's with a car full of paper supplies—they are so appreciative of anything you can give. It's moving," says Stafford. Home Sweet Home
Over the past 10 years, the Seattle Hotel Association (SHA), comprising 53 area hotels, has used its annual Evening of Hope to both celebrate ties within the hotel community and to raise and donate more than $3.7 million to causes including the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Puget Sound Affiliate, and the Northwest AIDS Foundation. This year, the SHA went in a slightly different direction and chose to support the Plymouth Housing Group, a local organization that helps Seattle's homeless transition into permanent, affordable housing.
"We looked at the priorities of the city," explains Dennis Clark, SHA president and general manager of Fairmont Olympic Hotel, where the February 10 gala was held. "Homelessness is a problem in a lot of cities on the West Coast. We thought that this was an organization we should partner with because this particular charity has a great track record getting homeless people off of the streets and starting their lives over again. It's very much in alignment with us and what we want in terms of keeping the city safer and making it a better place to live, work, and visit."
The 2007 event brought in $640,000 through ticket sales and tempting silent auction items like trips to Italy, South Africa, or Vanuatu; wardrobe consultations with Escada; and power lunches with female business leaders in Seattle. The evening also included fashion shows, live music from local band Picoso, and a four-course dinner.
For the Fairmont, the evening is "an opportunity for us to put on our very best for the hotel community," says Clark. "We show what our new presentations or new banquet ideas will be and try a couple of things that are unique that we will then use throughout the year for other events." Highlights of the 2007 gala included the simultaneous (and successful) presentation of 350 dessert souffles.
"This is a night we spoil ourselves a little bit and do for ourselves what we do for other people all day. In the process we have raised a lot of money for some very worthwhile charities," says Clark. "It gets us to work together and builds camaraderie among the hotels, as well as giving the hotel people a tie to the area. Especially at the management level, we move around a lot, and this gives people an attachment to the community. It shows people that we're not just out there selling rooms and F&B; we're doing something for the community, too. It's good for everybody." A Gold Mine
For those on the receiving end of such generosity, the process can only be described as "such a blessing." So says Susan Sutton, executive director of the Virginia City Convention and Tourism Authority.
Virginia City, NV, was a boomtown in the mid-1800s, when gold and silver mining made residents wealthy beyond their expectations, but the city had deteriorated until Tourism Cares stepped in to return parts of the city to their former luster.
"Tourism Cares is based on preserving historical destinations for the future. We were thrilled to be in the company of Ellis Island, New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast," where Tourism Cares has worked in past years, says Sutton.
"In Virginia City we had five different job sites. They went to St. Mary's in the Mountains Catholic Church, where pews had not been touched in 100 years. Volunteers cleaned and waxed the pews. Piper's Opera House [which hosted Mark Twain and Houdini] lost its staircase, so they replaced that. The cemetery needed to be cleaned, so these people, God love them, were at 6,200 feet and 100-degree heat cleaning out a cemetery," says Sutton.
"This group of 300 people did work in one day that would have taken our small town years to do. They probably put us five years ahead in terms of the projects we were able to finish," she says.
Not only was the work a blessing, it may also be a boon for the local meetings market. "We had people come from all over the country and I heard over and over that people had no idea what Virginia City was all about. I think the residual effect of this will go on for years in terms of people who hadn't really thought about Virginia City as a destination," Sutton says.
During their stay, some volunteers were housed at the new Ramada, while others lodged at the Gold Hill Hotel, the oldest working hotel in Nevada. The unique combination of offerings led some to wonder about the possibility of renting the town—an option now available to groups. "Conventions on the Comstock came out of this. Basically, putting this together was like putting on a convention, so now we have this infrastructure in place where you can rent the whole town," Sutton explains.
Sutton has been both the recipient of assistance and a volunteer, traveling to New Orleans for the 2004 Tourism Cares for America project. "I think the biggest thing about this project is that it changes your life. All of a sudden you have an emotional investment in that destination, and you know that your labor made a difference."Thinking Local
The importance of making a difference, and of simply being a responsible corporate citizen, carries tremendous weight at Benchmark Hospitality, where grassroots projects evolved into a corporate strategy.
"A handful of us were doing our own initiatives, and Jim [Bullock, vice president of sales and marketing] designed a program called Hometown Hospitality that became the umbrella program for what all of us were doing out in the field. It came at a time when people felt like they needed to do something a little more than just go to work," says Laura Neumann, vice president and general manager of Benchmark's Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs, CO, of the 2001 launch of a program that ultimately became Benchmark's signature "Hometown Hospitality Caring For Our Communities" program. "We now have the ability to motivate thousands of people instead of dozens of people," she says.
"Each of the properties is challenged to find local initiatives that benefit the community, the property, and the employees," explains Greg Parsons, managing directorof the Eaglewood Resort and Spa in Itasca, IL, which is also a Benchmark property. To promote literacy awareness, for example, Eaglewood has a sharing library on property for employees, and periodically the books are collected and donated to a local library or senior center. Literacy is an important and deeply personal issue for Benchmark founder and CEO Burt Cabanas, who came to the United States from Cuba at age 10 following the sudden death of his father. Cabanas had to learn English quickly once Fidel Castro came to power, making a return to Cuba impossible; he continues to champion the cause.
For Neumann, the biggest initiative this year was National Hunger Awareness Day on June 5. "We decided to kick it off big in our company," she says. Cheyenne Mountain Resort employees donated and collected 700 pounds of food in an old-fashioned surrey that Neumann placed in the lobby for the two weeks prior to June 5. She also organized a "Dine Out for Hunger" promotion; 10 percent of food and beverage proceeds from the property that day were donated, along with the canned goods, to a local food bank called Care and Share.
Parsons was inspired by Neumann's enthusiasm, and launched a program of his own—Eaglewood collected 600 pounds of canned goods from employees, which the hotel matched pound for pound, and the property's food services provider, U.S. Foodservice, also donated $500 in cash. But Parsons had decided to think bigger than what Eaglewood could offer.
"My property is in a residential neighborhood, so I sent everyone a letter through a direct mail campaign and encouraged them to participate. I invited everyone who donated to join us for dinner with a two-for-one certificate. We drove around and picked up food, and gave each donor a certificate. But I found that the mail campaign went farther than I thought, and I started getting calls from people who said their food was out and no one had picked it up yet." Four runs later, Eaglewood had collected far more food than anticipated, and Parsons learned "that I have a vehicle to reach the local community. I think the relationship has some legs to it."
Word has spread among planners about Hometown Hospitality initiatives as well. "Planners have started asking us to help coordinate activities for their groups based on this program. What started for us as a company has turned into other companies with a similar idea finding us," says Neumann.
At the corporate level, Benchmark also makes an effort to spend time helping others during its own meetings. "We try to find a nonprofit organization where, for a half a day, we can throw 100 people at a project and help them check it off of their list . . . Somehow, it usually involves moving rocks," says Parsons. "Maybe you'd rather be at the golf course, but when it's all said and done, you do feel better knowing you've done something good."
Beyond personal fulfillment, why do all of this? "Because it's about hospitality," says Parsons. "We are always striving to get our employees to do the right thing. 'No' is not an answer. Anticipate the need, get in front of it, and make things happen."
This page is protected by Copyright laws. Do Not Copy