More Vets' Recollections on 30 Years

Part of our special coverage celebrating 30 years of MeetingNews, following is the full series of recollections and memories by meetings and hospitality veterans revealing how much the job differed back in the day.

Burt Cabanas
Benchmark Hospitality
The Woodlands, TX

“When I arrived at the Woodlands Conference Center in the 1970s, it was not financially viable. It was focused only on the learning side of the business, with no attention to the hospitality side. And our customers were all full-time meeting professionals who handled massive movements of training meetings for Fortune 500 companies.

“Over time, we began to look at the best aspects of our hotel side — we had exceptional guest rooms and two golf courses that weren’t being maximized — and the concept of learning, living, and leisure was born.”

Bruce Harris
Conferon (Experient)
Twinsburg, OH

“In 1977, the ‘planner’ for most corporations was the secretary. On my business card it said I was a hotel rep, because if I said I was a meeting planner, people would say, ‘What do I need a meeting planner for? I have a secretary.’

“There were no full-time independent planners. Occasionally there would be people who worked for a corporation, then retired and continued to do that corporation’s meetings, but in terms of those people going after new business, it just didn’t happen.

“After that time, associations like ASAE and MPI, and publications like MeetingNews, started to show that if you have a capable and intelligent planner, you create a more effective meeting.”

Mickey Schaefer
Mickey Schaefer & Associates
Tucson, AZ

“Thirty years ago, technology was basically nonexistent as we know it today. We used IBM Selectrics. We made our own spreadsheets and our own forms. You couldn’t cut and paste; it was cumbersome. A 500-page meeting resume to a hotel took a lot more time than now.

“Procurement and return on investment for meetings were also not around 30 years ago. We had to show the meeting made a profit (for associations), but we didn’t have to show that it had a strategic value to the organization.

“The economic power of travel and tourism was noted 30 years ago but not to the point it is now, nor was the impact of meetings. Nobody really understood the economic power of travel, tourism, and meetings. It took the Sept. 11 attacks for people to see that a major downturn in tourism can seriously impact local economies.”

Carol Krugman
Director of Client Services
George P. Johnson Co.
North Easton, MA

“Being internationally competent now is equivalent to what computer literacy was 15 years ago. Before that, we didn’t need to know how to use a computer to do our jobs. Now, in the same way that computer skills are something you have to have, global skills are required.

“For instance, when I went to my first MPI conference 12 years ago, there were only two sessions on international meetings. Within a few years the organization had developed an entire international track. Then MPI realized there was no need for such a track because everything a meeting planner does has a global context on some level — even basic classes were being taught with an international perspective.”

Peter Nathan
PWN Exhibicon International
Westport, CT

“Globalization has impacted the exhibition industry in a way that nobody could have foreseen. Today, with the World Wide Web, there’s a tremendous ability to create business opportunities overseas. In 1977, obviously, that wasn’t there. We had to go overseas ourselves and do all the work organizing the event. Today, nearly all major trade-show companies have offices overseas that can do the work you used to have to handle yourself.”

Jonathan Howe
President/Founding Partner
Howe & Hutton Ltd.
General Counsel, Meeting Professionals International

“Negotiations have taken on a new complexion. Contracts have gotten much more complex and extensive, and we have the whole request for proposal process now. There is a lot more counseling and active involvement by lawyers through the whole process — from the outset to final bill reconciliation.

“Litigation and contract enforcement has certainly taken on a lot more strength, as we see a lot of activity with respect to maximizing revenue and return on investment. To quantify that, we now go through thousands of contracts per year.

“Of course, the old line is: ‘Back in those days, we used to do the contract on a cocktail napkin.’ And the contract would often come about like this: Charlie would call Susie at the hotel, and she would say, ‘How many people and when?’ And that would be it. The agreement would be oral — everyone would show up, and the meeting would perform financially as it was supposed to.”

Peter Shure
Director of Strategic Marketing
Dobbs Ferry, NY
Founding Editor, MeetingNews

“It was a totally different landscape 30 years ago. Business was booked by handshake in many cases, and terms, indeed, were written out on a napkin sometimes; there was no such thing as attrition. The industry was more relationship-oriented than transaction-oriented.

“There were hardly any third parties at the time. Conferon (now Experient) was the first major independent meeting-planning company. Now third parties account for a huge amount of business. That’s been a significant change in the landscape.

“But technology has been the biggest change over the 30 years, and it’s been a big benefit. There were fears that videoconferencing, and later the Internet, would supplant face-to-face meetings, but in fact the opposite has occurred. The more technology we have, the more we need to be with other people. The phrase ‘high-tech, high-touch’ has proved to be prophetic.”

Harris Rosen
Rosen Hotels & Resorts

“Thirty years ago, 95 percent of a typical hotel’s business was leisure. Today, it’s about 50/50 between leisure and business. There are far more convention hotels today than back then. The vast majority of hotels used to have very little meeting space. Today, many hotels are built with massive amounts of meeting space they must fill.”

Coleman Finkel
The Coleman Center
New York

“Thirty years ago, hotels hosted meetings in what were social-function spaces rather than in a space whose environment served the educational purpose. The conference center concept that became popular around that time recognized that there needed to be considerations for room colors, ceiling heights, lighting and acoustics, tables, and other items that would maximize the learning experience.

“Further, the servicing of meetings was not at all sophisticated in supporting the planners, the speakers and trainers, and the attendees so they could relax and simply focus on the meeting content. Finally, the advance in technology allowing videoconferencing, audience-response systems, broadband Internet, and other robust multimedia applications has made an enormous difference in meeting quality.”

Andy Dolce
Dolce International
Montvale, NJ

“Back then, most conference centers were oriented just toward training, and there wasn’t a lot of capital available for growth. We worked hard to distinguish ourselves from hotels. There used to be an emphasis on the quality of tables, lighting, and the meeting space, but when you say you’re ‘different,’ it’s tough to attract capital — investors don’t like to be pioneers.

“Now, there’s as much focus on great guest rooms and good dining experiences. Today’s customer is looking for a great meeting experience, not necessarily a ‘pure’ conference center environment.”

Tom Mobley
Senior Vice President, Convention Centers
Global Spectrum
Bluffton, SC

“Thirty years ago, convention centers were basic structures with unexciting architecture and plain, functional finishes. A typical center had much exhibition space and little meeting and prefunction space. Furnishings were spartan, too.

“Today, convention centers are exciting and, in many cases, monumental civic buildings which rival upscale hotels. Another change has been in the quality of services. The most obvious is F&B, which changed from typical concession operations to fine dining plus full-service catering departments.”

Don McPhail
VP/General Manager (retired)
USA Hosts
San Francisco

The travel industry is now quite specialized compared to 30 years ago: “We were called in-bound operators, and we handled groups — which were just known as groups; they weren’t defined as corporate meetings, incentives, or conventions. It was pretty ambiguous, and each of us handled everything.”

That’s a far cry from the sophistication today not just among DMCs, but with groups too. The latter phenomenon isn’t necessarily good, McPhail said. “Especially with incentive winners, there’s a sense of entitlement. Take a group these days someplace like Lake Como, Italy, and they act like they own the place.”

John Marks
President/CEO (retired)
San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau

“Thirty years ago, things were a little softer and gentler. Business was done in a more personal way, often on a handshake; your word was your bond. There was more stability in terms of the players; people were in their positions longer. You were close friends with your constituents and bureau members, and you knew your clients well. Today, it’s always just a quick e-mail.

“It was more fun then, and politics didn’t necessarily drive the direction of the bureau in any given city. Today, countless cities make decisions not based on what’s best for the destination, but on what’s most expedient for the politicians. The stakes are higher now.”

June Briggs
Briggs Inc.
New York

“Back then, the itineraries that we DMCs created were known as ‘ladies’ tours,’ or sightseeing trips for the spouses of conventioneers.” But that soon changed: “The following year I was working on an American Bar Association convention, and the social-events chair was adamant that we not call ourselves ‘ladies.’ We were businesspeople.”

One thing hasn’t changed, though, she said. “Back then, nobody would have heard of a DMC because the term hadn’t been invented. But even today, people still don’t know what it means!”

Bill Boyd
Sunbelt Motivation & Travel Inc.

“In the late ’70s, incentive decisions were based on what would turn the audience on the most. What could you put into a program that would really wow them? I remember three back-to-back 747s to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hong Kong and 28 back-to-back charter flights to Puerta Vallarta, Mexico. Today, it’s driven mainly by budget. I’m not saying that the work today is no fun, but certainly back then it was more fun.”

Bill Peeper
President (retired)
Orlando/Orange County
Convention & Visitors Bureau

“CVBs were clearly much smaller organizations back then, and hotel room taxes [to fund bureaus] were still exotic in a lot of places. You had to trek to city hall every year to get your funding approved; that took a lot of time. But it was a fun time to be in the business; it was much more freewheeling. Everybody had to work to produce business, but it’s much more of a business today. Now there’s a much higher level of accountability, and there’s much more focus on return on investment.

“Technology was much different, too. IBM Selectric typewriters were considered high-tech. We did housing for citywides with sheets of paper; one sheet for each hotel numbered with all the rooms in the block. We’d type the confirmations and put hash marks next to a room on the list when it was reserved. It was very labor intensive.”

Bob Vitagliano
Executive Director
International SITE Foundation
Wilmington, NC

“The Internet has made incentives a completely different industry from what it used to be. In 1977 it was a fairly simple industry; you design the best possible program your creativity would allow, and you never got into any hassles about how much it cost — was it too fancy, or not fancy enough, and what would the stockholders say? There was an awful lot of trust between the client and the incentive house. That has faded because everything now is second-guessed, and there’s so much governance that even small elements have to get vetted. Proving return on investment has gotten much more complicated, too. There was always a mandate to prove ROI, but not at every step in the process. I’m not saying things were better then, but it was easier.”

Arlene Sheff
Senior Meeting & Event Planner
The Boeing Company
Seal Beach, CA

“Even years ago, companies like Boeing and Bridgestone had great respect for meeting professionals. When I worked at Bridgestone, it saw the importance of meetings and incentives.” Still, that company has undergone a learning process through the years: “For my meetings, I was told that I didn’t need to be on site, but later [the company] found out that I did need to be there to ensure that things ran smoothly.

“Here at Boeing, I put together classes for office administrators and non-planning personnel so that they know more about planning, and their bosses want them to learn. And at the end of many Boeing meetings today, everyone who helped run the event — from meeting planning support staff to the production team — is congratulated on stage.”

Howard Feiertag
Department of Hospitality & Tourism Management
Virginia Tech University
Blacksburg, VA

“The state of industry education for meetings and events was much weaker in 1977; we basically shot from the hip. MPI began its Institute about 30 years ago, though it started off on a limited basis with volunteer instructors. We didn’t have professional guidelines for what needed to be taught. Today we identify what the learning outcomes of a course should be even before we create the content. But we didn’t even know what that meant back then — we just taught people what we knew about how to plan a meeting, period.”

Joe Jeff Goldblatt
Executive Director
Professional Development Programs & Strategic Partnerships
Temple University

“In 1977, there were no degrees or certificates or even significant courses offered at universities in North America for event coordination. It was only in the 1990s, when we developed the first master’s degree in event management and the first certificate program at George Washington University. Now there are 200 colleges and universities around the world that have courses, curriculum, certificates, and degrees in meetings and events management. We’ve gotten to where we’ve identified a specific body of knowledge in this field and developed significant curriculum at major universities.”

Richard Aaron
BizBash Media
New York

“Thirty years ago, there were neither industry standards nor any formal perspectives in event management training whatsoever. Back then, it was about enthusiasm and being one step ahead of the customer.

“Today, there’s a large body of knowledge which covers marketing, public relations, risk management planning, event design, and the use of technological developments that are integrated into event production. There are so many university programs in hospitality and event management, and a bookshelf bursting with topics covering all aspects of event planning. The gains have been so remarkable.

“The International Special Event Society (ISES) is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2007. We’ve created a code of ethics and the first overview of professional practices to guide development for the emerging set of professionals.”

Helen Moskovitz
The Key Event & Helen Moskovitz Group
Nashville, TN

“In early 1977, I was a planner working the convention of a catalog association in San Diego, where I met [MeetingNews founding editor] Peter Shure. He pointed out that there were no ground operators — that’s what he called DMCs — in Nashville, where I was based. He said, ‘I’m starting a new magazine called MeetingNews, and you should start a ground operator in Nashville. I’ll introduce you to the salesperson from Opryland Hotels.’ I said, ‘What’s a ground operator?’ He had to tell me. From this, The Key Event, Nashville’s first DMC, was born.”

Margaret Moynihan
Deloitte & Touche

Management’s recognition of corporate meetings in the last 30 years has evolved more by light years: “Back then, corporations, uneducated about the value of meetings, didn’t take them seriously and assigned their planning to ‘whomever.’ The secretaries would get meetings to work on, but companies found out it was not an easy job.” Today corporations see both meetings and planners as facilitators of their company visions and strategies and have created centralized planning departments. Moynihan said the stature of meetings is far beyond what anyone could’ve imagined three decades ago.

David Scypinski
Senior Vice President, Industry Relations
Starwood Hotels & Resorts
Washington, DC

“The thing that sticks out back then was that hotel service philosophy was very hierarchal. There was a defined pecking order. At the big-box hotels, there were head housemen, banquet captains, directors of convention services…different types of staff. We still have some of those staff members today, but there is a more blended, consolidated approach; we call it ‘uniserve,’ i.e., one person handles both convention services and catering.

“The hotel business has expanded so dramatically…you don’t have the staff fiefdom like back then. Also, there aren’t any more people who stay at their jobs for 20 years. People burn out, working six days a week, 20 hours a day. The turnover does make it harder to deliver high-quality service consistently.”

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