Marching to the Beat of His Own Drum

John Foster, Esq., discusses his path to meetings industry success.

For decades, when meeting professionals have needed legal advice regarding contracts, negotiations, or dispute resolution, they have turned to Attorney John Foster. A former hotel director of sales and marketing turned lawyer, Foster is one of the longest-standing members of the meetings and incentives industry—his career spans 32 years. He admits that he fell into this industry and has come to realize that it is okay not to have your career mapped out in a straight line.

His formula for success? "Do what you enjoy, work hard, and figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are and where they can best be applied to accomplish the most good for the most people," he says. "That may change at different stages in your life. There will always be up times as well as down times. It is important to hang in there."

When Foster graduated from the University of Tennessee in the 1970s his degree was in radio and television broadcasting. He also had experience as an actor and musician in Summer Stock Theater. He landed a job as a production specialist at WBTV, a CBS affiliate in Charlotte, NC.

"After a year, I realized all the glamour in the broadcasting business was on the outside looking in. There wasn't any glamour on the inside looking out, plus I was only making $95 a week," he says.

Foster left broadcasting to join an advertising agency where he was to cultivate new accounts, not an easy task as the economy in the 1970s was in a dire state. He called on a newly opened Sheraton in Charlotte about the agency's advertising and marketing services.

"The director of sales and marketing who listened to my pitch said he didn't need an ad agency, but he would like to hire me as a sales manager," Foster says. Plus, he was offered $200 more a month than he was currently making. Foster accepted. He learned about all aspects of the hotel through a training program, but was let go a mere six weeks later as the economy plummeted.

Out of a job and with no local prospects looming, Foster headed to Atlanta where he hoped to stay in the hotel industry to take advantage of his recent training. After knocking on numerous doors, he was hired by Hyatt Hotels, a company he ended up being a part of for 12 years.

"The industry in the late 1970s was just starting to come to grips with group sales contracts. Back then, hotels would confirm group arrangements with a confirmation letter or letter of intent," says Foster. "The hottest topic at industry meetings was whether or not the hospitality industry was even ready for written contracts."

A lawsuit between Sweet Adelines International, an organization of female barbershop quartet singers, and the Hyatt Regency in Phoenix that allegedly gave the Sweet Adelines guest rooms to another client, put the issue in the spotlight.

"I remember MeetingNews running a front-page story that included the letter of agreement between the two parties. The primary issue in the case was whether the two-page agreement prepared by the hotel was a contract," he says. "I thought to myself, 'ready or not, this industry needs written contracts and it needs someone to prepare them, who understands the industry and contract legalities.' I was fascinated with how contracts were put together and the legal aspects to them. I decided I wanted to be the guy who knew all the answers as opposed to the guy who was asking all the questions."

He was accepted in an evening degree program at the Woodrow Wilson College of Law in Atlanta where he attended classes three nights a week. Three-and-a-half years later, he graduated and passed the bar. Excitedly, he sent a letter to all the major hotel chains offering his services as an attorney.

"I was turned down by all of them," he says. As a member of the downtown Atlanta Lions Club, Foster attended weekly luncheons with fellow members who were state and federal judges, members of the Fulton County District Attorney's office, and the Office of the Solicitor General. He and the Solicitor General became friends and he accepted a job to work for the Solicitor General's office prosecuting criminal cases.

"It didn't take but a few days to realize I was in a world much different than the corporate world I was used to. I stayed there 18 months while I got experience doing legal research and trial work. It was good experience, but I didn't see myself as a criminal lawyer. I concluded that working with meeting planners is a whole lot better then dealing with the pimps, prostitutes, perverts, panderers, and pushers I was dealing with," he says.

After rethinking his career choice, he got back into hotel sales by joining the Atlanta Marriott. A lunch with a client, an executive director of a regional association, changed Foster's career path forever. The client asked Foster if he could recommend an attorney who could serve as the association's general counsel and help with meeting and convention contracts. Foster recommended himself and the rest is history.

About this time, Foster was asked to be a speaker at the 1986 Meeting Professionals International (MPI) Annual Meeting on the topic of contracts. "I was expecting an audience of about 30 to 50. When I walked into the room there were over 500 planners," he says. When he returned to his hotel sales duties, he had about 75 phone messages from planners who wanted his help with contracts. "I saw a career-changing opportunity here and my phone hasn't stopped ringing since."

He doesn't take his responsibilities as a lawyer lightly. "I consider it a privilege to give legal counsel, to negotiate, and to litigate. People trust and depend on me to steer them around the pitfalls in a legal and business context," he explains.

To keep up on current and future legal issues and industry trends, Foster does a lot of reading—he estimates that he reads from 500 to 1,000 pages a week, including magazines, trade journals, listservs, e-mails, and other publications.

With an eclectic background that includes being an actor and musician, broadcasting specialist, and a long-time hospitality industry lawyer, what does the future hold? "I've always wanted to be a drummer in a rock band, something I did in high school and college. I still have a set of drums in my basement," he says. "If I got a call from the Rolling Stones to sit in on drums I would drop what I'm doing to go on a world tour with them. Everyone sees me as a conservative button-downed lawyer but I have a wild side too," he says with a snicker.

Originally published July 1, 2009

For more ideas, tips, and tools for better meetings and events, get Successful Meetings' weekly e-newsletter delivered to your inbox.