For more than 30 years, Virginia Lofft has broken new ground in the meetings industry, first as a journalist and then as a publisher. Her area of particular expertise became the international meetings market, and over the years she created many bridges to bring together U.S. planners and international suppliers — including the Beyond Borders supplement, which was launched in 1994, and the Beyond Borders Conference, which followed in 1997. As she retires this year from a very active career, culminating in her position as vice president, publishing director, forand its five sister publications, Corporate Meetings & Incentives, Insurance Conference Planner, , , and Technology Meetings. We spoke with her about her accomplishments and insights. In November, she will be honored by the International Congress and Convention Association.
What was the U.S. international meetings market like 30 years ago when you started out as a journalist?
There was a small, key group of people in the United States who were taking their events outside the country. Incentive travel to Rome and London was big. Few people were traveling to Asia and elsewhere, but people were looking for travel ideas. The Philippines was one of the first Asian/Pacific destinations to build a major convention center. The woman who headed the bureau, Beth de la Fuente, knew there was a lucrative market in the United States, particularly business from the West Coast. Then Hong Kong and Singapore became active in the U.S. market, followed by other Asian countries.
When was your very first trip abroad?
December 1970, a trip to Vienna for Successful Meetings magazine as senior editor. My assignment was to write what was the meetings industry's second site file. When we landed for a plane change in Belgium, I got out of the plane and kind of expected the ground to look different — I'm in Europe!
When did you get involved with ICCA [the International Congress and Convention Association, based in Amsterdam]?
Not until the early 1980s. That's when they met for the first time in the United States. LaMar Williams of the Salt Lake City CVB encouraged ICCA to meet in the U.S. He was a member, and he saw tremendous possibilities for bringing business to this country.
Then I attended the mid-1980s meeting of ICCA in Bangkok, and that was really a breakthrough. I realized how hungry CVBs and tourist boards from around the world were for information about the U.S. market and how to sell to it. In particular, Asian/Pacific countries were building these huge, luxury facilities, and they needed to fill them, so they started to look at the U.S. market. No other magazine was touching this part of the world. It was exciting. I created a booklet for the nondomestic market, describing the differences between a convention, an incentive travel program, and a corporate meeting — and how planners in each of these markets bought.
Looking back over those early years, what major change have you seen in the international realm?
More homogenization. I don't mean loss of cultural identity, but…we are mixing cultures. Meeting planners who deal only with chains can meet in Asia or Europe and feel as if they've never left home. Rooms are the same — meeting space, too. Unless you request localized food, menus are the same. That's unfortunate, because a compelling reason for taking a meeting to a nondomestic location is to give it local flavor.
Meetings associations in the U.S. are reporting strong international attendance at domestic events this year, despite the downturn in the economy.
Our industry organizations are growing on an international scale, particularly SITE and MPI. And certainly ICCA is doing an outstanding job of recognition and education. A real stimulus for growth in the international market has been the success of EIBTM. When Ray Bloom brought his idea for that show to the world more than a dozen years ago, few in the industry thought that it would fly. Ray was innovative. Now other shows copy his hosted-buyer program that ensures a quality buying audience. The show has helped to create an identity for a hefty slice of the international travel market.
I still think fondly of a rainy winter day at the Dorchester Hotel in London when Ray Bloom held court over afternoon tea and outlined his plan for what would become the industry's major international event.
Do you feel that planners taking meetings outside the U.S. today are more accommodating of differences than planners were in the past?
Absolutely. I think when you are doing business abroad it is not business as usual. The thing that got me thinking hard about international meetings, and probably led to the launch of Beyond Borders magazine and conference, was a phone call from Doris Sklar [now deceased] years ago, who at the time was president of MPI and the conference manager for General Electric. She said, “Virginia, we're taking a meeting outside the U.S. for the first time, and I don't know where to start.” I thought, she has been planning meetings for 20 years and has all the resources of GE — how many people are out there with the same problem?
What advice do you have for first-timers these days?
The first thing is to go to the CVB or tourist board, even if you are a corporation and always work with a national hotel chain. When you take your meeting to another part of the world, you want to deal with the convention bureau because these are the people who have the contacts with the DMCs, ground operators, and other services you'll need. They can give you a good feel for possibilities, themes, and local idiosyncrasies, which are very, very important to know. And they can recommend other planners who have been there and who can give you tips on what you should do or avoid.
I'd also highly recommend a series of books written by Roger Axtel. He was a speaker at our first Beyond Borders conference. Roger's Do's and Taboos series saves you a lot of problems dealing with cross-cultural communications.
What other advice to you have when taking a meeting outside the country?
Be prepared for facility differences. In Europe, hotels don't generally have as much meeting space as the international properties in Asia, which are purpose-built for conferences and comparable to what we have here in terms of function space — better in some cases. Test everything. If you are going to do a tour, take the tour in the same kind of vehicle that your attendees will use, and make the same stops. Sample and experience every facet of the meeting for yourself.
What kinds of changes do you see ahead in the international meetings market?
A big change might be a unified international meeting industry with its own channel of banking, communications, etc. When 100 world meeting industry leaders met in Malaysia in June 2000 for the Millennium Summit for the International Meetings Industry, these changes were suggested. These leaders felt that the business worldwide wants to become a recognized industry with a single “peak body” coordinating its affairs, with an “E-Services Center” to provide secure banking for conventions and meetings globally. In other words, [we need] worldwide recognition of the business we're in and an infrastructure to make it tick.
Another change planners will probably see is increased competition for facilities abroad.
Why increased competition?
In some business circles — medical and pharmaceutical come immediately to mind — the nondomestic meeting is becoming as commonplace as the domestic. And when these are industrywide, small meetings spring up around the major event. For example, a pharmaceutical company may attend the major event, then hold a meeting of its own around a specific medical protocol with the key players in that field who are already on-site.
I think there will be a withdrawal from virtual reality experiences. People will hunger for the real thing. Alvin Toffler said in his first book that the need for face-to-face encounters will increase as cottage industries grow — and they are growing, thanks in part to telecommuting, which I understand some areas actively promote to cut down on traffic and pollution.
Not just meetings from the United States will be on the move. Multinationals will increase the number of events they take to areas remote from their national location. This all adds up to increased demand for accommodations, for meeting space, and for airline lift. What it will do for rates is anybody's guess.
A Fan in Every Part of the World
I worked with Virginia quite a bit when I was with Successful Meetings. She has always been a “presence” in every sense of the word. A terrific idea person, very inventive with business and marketing ideas, and so well-organized. She could accomplish more in less time than anyone I've ever known.
Judith Sawyer, Managing Editor
Pharmaceutical Executive magazine
She has always been a strategic thinker and a great “people person.” She believes that I'm a good golfer — most people know better!
David DuBois, CMP, CAE
President and CEO
We were in Bali at ICCA, and we had just celebrated my birthday. I mentioned to Virginia that this was an important birthday because the second digit was a zero. It was there and then that we declared each other as sisters. She was going to be the same age the following month. So I am lucky to have Virginia as a sister.
Through the years, I had the pleasure of seeing her often in various parts of the world. She always had kind words for all her Mexican friends, and more often than not she would share a good laugh with me. I feel privileged to know someone like Virginia Lofft. Wonderful lady!
Director of Marketing
Destination: San Antonio
She has helped me and my European and Asian counterparts to understand why — initially — American planners were hesitant to take meetings abroad. She has always been an ambassador for the international idea. She is dynamic and tenacious, but at the same time a gentle and very friendly person. I would not call her an “icon of the industry.” An icon usually rests far aloft, and Virginia is a very real person, down to earth, funny, excellent to work with, and a great friend.
Director of Marketing & Communications
Austria Center Vienna
I started working with her closely in 1996 as plans developed to launch the Beyond Borders Conference as the first boot camp for global meeting planners. This global vision was ahead of its time, but those who reaped the benefits (including me), will always have Virginia to thank.
Director of Sales, Eastern USA/Canada
Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts
New York City
I met her in 1988 when I was director of conferences at London's Barbican Centre. She is a terrific communicator with the ability to bridge cultures. She's been untiring in bringing Americans into the real world of international congress business, and the rest of the world to market within the USA — a much tougher challenge. What words would I use to describe Virginia? Delightful. She's got guts, and yes, damn it, beauty.
The Convention Partnership Ltd.
Few have contributed more than Virginia to the development of our industry. She was and is a teacher, leader, a student, a guidance counselor, and, most of all, a sincere friend. All of us in the business have benefited one way or another from her contributions. Virginia, have a ball! We love you.
Hub Erickson, who launched IT&ME
Scenes from a Life: Virginia Lofft
An industry star is born in Philadelphia, the seventh of eight children, to George and Josephine Lofft.
After visiting a newspaper as an 11-year-old Girl Scout, she decides to become a writer and pens her first work: Murder in the Press Room.
She graduates from parochial high school and goes on to take classes at St. Joseph College, which at the time permitted females only at night. Wins a scholarship to attend Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism. Is awarded Carrie May Price Award as the Outstanding Journalism graduate.
She takes a job with an agricultural publication. City girl gets her first writing break when asked to write about how to dehorn a calf. “I got the gist of it, and my career was born.”
Next she is hired by the Hobby Industry Association of America as editorial director, where she gets her first glimpse of the world of conventions and trade shows. “Each year in February we literally moved the organization to Chicago for two weeks for the annual convention. I ran the press room, but was also involved in workshop setups, and food and beverage programs.”
Takes a job with Gannett's Suburban News Group as news editor of a weekly covering five suburban New Jersey communities. Becomes chief editor of the group's flagship, Cherry Hill News, the second largest weekly newspaper in the state. Wins a National Suburban Journalist of the Year award for a series titled “Conservation Crisis.”
She is hired as senior editor of Successful Meetings, and leaves 23 years later as associate publisher. Among her many achievements is suggesting the magazine's name change, which was formerly Sales Meetings. She launches an awards program for Convention Services Managers and helps initiate the magazine's State of the Industry database and a planner recognition program that was turned over to the Convention Liaison Council (now Convention Industry Council). The program ultimately became the Certified Meeting Professional program.
She rewrites the best-selling industry book The Convention Liaison Council Manual in 1972 and 1976.
She becomes vice president/international for Laux Publishing, which published this magazine and its five sister magazines in the Meetings Group. She becomes the vice president/publishing director when the company is bought in 1994 by Adams Publishing. (Adam's Meetings Group publications were bought in 2000 by PRIMEDIA.)
She launches Beyond Borders, an annual magazine supplement for this magazine and its sister publications, targeting information needs of planners who take their events outside the United States. “It was a longtime dream of mine,” she says. Part two of that dream became reality three years later with the launch of the Beyond Borders Conference in New York City.
She receives EIBTM's European Fellowship Award for dedication and service to the meetings and incentive industry in the United States and Europe. She serves consecutive terms as North American chairperson for the International Conference and Convention Association (ICCA).
She retires from publishing, and will be honored in November by ICCA at its 40th General Assembly. She plans to finish her undergraduate degree in 2002, 50 years after graduating from high school. “The people, experiences, travel, and organizations I've belonged to have all contributed to where I am today, a place where I can finish my education, play in my garden, toil on the golf course, and give back a bit through community work.”