End of an Era

Bruce Harris, arguably the single most influential person in the meetings industry, retired in March as president of Conferon Global Services (CGS), whose predecessor firm he founded more than 35 years ago and built into one of the country's largest meeting planning companies.

During his career, Harris contributed significantly to the growth of meeting planning as a profession. He played major roles in upgrading professional education, industry standards, and ethics; and he pioneered third-party meeting planning with a service that negotiated just the rooms contracts.

"I can't think of anyone who has contributed to this business more than Bruce," says Peter Shure, the founding editor of Successful Meetings' sister publication, MeetingNews, and now the director of strategic marketing at CGS.

Among his many industry accolades, Harris was a 2004 inductee into the Convention Industry Council Hall of Leaders and the recipient of the 2005 Spirit of Hospitality Award from Destination Marketing Association International.

Harris remains a major shareholder of CGS and has assumed the titles of chairman emeritus and founder. No longer burdened with actively managing the company, he is now focusing on industry relationships, employee training, and key customer accounts.

"I'm able to pick out the things I love to do and still be involved with the company," Harris says.

He adds that he will work from home more often so he can spend more time with his family, and also so he can remove himself from the whirlwind of daily activity at CGS.

CGS manages each year more than 2,500 meetings and incentives for more than 1,000 groups. The company negotiates or purchases nearly four million hotel room-nights annually on behalf of clients.

Harris founded CGS' predecessor, Conferon, in January 1971 when he was 23 years old, borrowing $3,000 from his parents. He sold controlling interest in the company in 1999 to The Riverside Company, a private equity firm with offices in New York City. Conferon merged in 2003 with ExpoExchange and ITS—which provide event registration, lead retrieval, and group housing management—to form CGS.

Shure calls Harris "the father of independent meeting planning."

"When I started in the industry, there were some small, independent meeting-planning companies, but you didn't even think of them as a category," recalls Shure, who served as editor-in-chief of MeetingNews from 1977 to 1989. "Conferon was the first large, independent planning company. A huge amount of business has shifted in that direction since then."

When dealing with hotels, including big chains like Hilton, Harris says he insisted that hotels charge groups that sourced their meetings through Conferon the same rates as meetings sourced directly with the hotels.

In effect, the hotels agreed to pay the standard 10-percent agent commission to Conferon from their sales and marketing budgets, rather than tacking the commission onto the rate.

Harris also disclosed to clients that Conferon received commissions from hotels, bringing transparency to an area of the business that had been rife with ethically dubious practices.

Harris cofounded PlanSoft, a pioneering Internet-based meetings technology company, in 1997. (PlanSoft merged with seeUthere in 2004 to form OnVantage.)

"Bruce visualized PlanSoft in the early 1990s—the concepts of standardization and online databases," says David DuBois, executive vice president of the Meeting Profession-als International Foundation in Dallas, TX, who served on the original board of directors of PlanSoft. "He was the visionary behind many of the great technological things we know today."

For his part, Harris pegs his greatest accomplishments in the meetings industry to CGS, specifically its employees and its way of conducting business.

"What makes me most proud," Harris says, "is what we as a company stand for and the people that make it happen. We believe in one way to do business: ethically. That value system has held this company together."