Best of the Best

From producing rock concerts to selling penny candy, these award-winning convention service managers learned their trades in the unlikeliest of places. They're an unflappable breed who never say "no" to a planner's requests. (Well, almost never.) That's why you, our readers, voted for them as recipients of the 24th Annual Convention Services Manager (CSM) of the Year Award. All four CSMs were honored at the Association for Convention Operations Management's Annual Meeting in Nashville last month. Here are their stories. By Peggy swisher

Convention & Visitors Bureau CSM of the Year
Paul M. Griffin
Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau

Paul Griffin's been training for his job since he was five years old. "I grew up in my grandmother's penny candy store. That's where I learned how to treat a customer."

Griffin's been known to go one step further than most CSMs to win an account, even dressing up as Paul Revere to woo the Geological Society of America. "I was embarrassed. Everyone was looking at my knickers." But it was worth the extra effort. He got the meeting to come to Boston. "It helps us as a city."

One of Griffin's most challenging assignments recently was making planners feel comfortable with bringing their meetings to Boston in the wake of September's terrorist attacks. After two large citywide conventions were postponed in September, the Urban Lands Institute was set to follow suit. Instead of giving up, Griffin continued to send them the latest information about safety procedures enacted in the city, and the leaders finally changed their minds.

"We were able to convince them to come, and their attendance was down just ten percent," says Griffin. It set a precedent for other conventions that were unsure about meeting in Boston.

Hotel CSM of the Year
Nora May
Sheraton El Conquistador Resort
Tucson, Arizona

Nora May was quite surprised to be chosen Hotel CSM of the Year, because her colleague Debbie Moon won the honor last year. Unselfishly, Nora places the credit on everyone else. "Thank goodness for our staff. They're not afraid to make decisions to make things right."

During her 19 years as a CSM, meeting new people tops Nora's list of things that keep her satisfied in her job. Her direct supervisor, Devon Walter, also encourages balance between work and home life. "She reminds us to read a book, and to take a day off," May says. "As a result, you're fresher and more productive."

May even draws on her six years of experience as a preschool teacher to keep her clients happy. She recently wrote a fairy tale for a planner's nine-year-old daughter, making her the princess of "Castle El Conquistador." The little girl loved it.

"I get really close to my clients," says May. Planners have been known to bring their babies along with them on site visits to show off to May in person. "Because the industry takes so much out of you, I like to establish a friendship with the people I work with."

Hotel CSM Runner-up
Stephen P. Hinck
J.W. Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa
Oahu, Hawaii

"There are customers who ask if they can write me into the booking agreement," Stephen Hinck says proudly. Hinck believes his eight years with Ihilani Resort helps bring groups back year after year. "They value you as a partner. They're confident that you know what they want to do."

Before a group books the property, Hinck tries to find out as much as possible about the objectives of the particular meeting or incentive. "We have to make it exciting for them from the beginning," he says. And that's not hard for him to envision, as he jumped at the chance to work on the tropical island right out of college 16 years ago.

Hilton Hotels hired Hinck in 1985 as a manager trainee after he graduated from Washington State University. After his stint at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in the heart of downtown Honolulu on Oahu Island, Hinck decided to move to a brand new property on the outskirts of the city.

He always likes a challenge. When windy weather pulled down a tent for an outdoor banquet, Hinck had to act fast. Although the ballroom could only seat half the guests, Hinck turned the diamond-shaped main lobby into seating for the other 300 attendees. "It was the most beautiful event," he says. "Especially since it was done in a location you would never want to hold an event in."

Convention Center CSM of the Year
Paul Setzer
Midwest Express Center
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Being a client of convention centers for 12 years helped prepare Paul Setzer for his role as a CSM at the Midwest Express Center. Setzer toured across the country with various rock n' roll bands, including Melissa Etheridge's, as a concert production manager.

"I know what good event managers are like and what bad or nonexistent managers are like," Setzer says.

In 1997 he decided to return to his hometown, Milwaukee. The job at the Midwest Express Center, with its 11,000-seat arena and opportunity to hang with the bands on occasion, fit the bill.

He's found conventions and concerts aren't so different. "A convention's like a really long concert."

The most difficult part of his job is saying "no" to a client's request. "My job is to help them pull it off, like [when I arranged a] visit by the President for the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention." Or fitting a 15-foot Minuteman smack in the middle of the center's rotunda for the National Guard convention. "Whatever event I have, I try to take ownership of it," he says.