To many in the meeting and convention world, he's known as Mr. Opryland. And his industry involvement is far and deep - among the many hats he wears: member of the American Society of Association Executives board of directors; International Association for Exhibition Management board of directors vice chairman of finance; Meeting Professionals International's 2000 chairman-elect; and the Travel Industry of America board of directors. And his past achievements easily fill two pages. So when Jerry Wayne, 44, the former senior vice president of Opryland Hospitality Group, made the jump to an upstart dot-com event registration and housing firm, he signaled to all that the technology revolution is real and right now. But more importantly, has the great meetings industry "brain drain" begun? We caught up with Wayne at ASAE's Annual Meeting in Orlando in August, his first major industry event as executive vice president of sales for b-there.com. Wayne shared his take on the dot-com revolution and what it's like to be a "newbie" after all these years.
Q. At a time of apparent great growth, why did you decide to leave Opryland after nearly 20 years, almost your entire career?
A. Several months ago, I really didn't pay much attention to this technology revolution we're in and the fact that associations need to embrace it. I had no reason to learn about it at Opryland - the IT [information technology] people would give me the Cliff Notes, and most association executives are the same way. But I did my homework, and common sense told me that how it's going to work is that there needs to be this marriage between associations and the dot-coms.
Q. Why b-there.com?
A. I met Jill Birkett [b-there.com's COO] at an MPI event in Nashville and we talked about the need for online registration at events and meetings. One thing led to another and the more I delved into this tool and b-there.com - and the more she and I visited - the more I decided to go for it when they asked me to come on over.
Q. People have this perception that you are a conservative southern executive with a long track record at a very successful company. Dot-coms are risky business. Do you consider yourself a risk-taker?
A. People just don't know me that well. What I'm doing is misconstrued as a risk, but in my mind I'm not sure that's so. I am conservative by nature, but I do take calculated risks. I looked at b-there's funding, I look at its product, and I truly believe I can sell this. It's also about the personal pressure I put on myself. I've always enjoyed that position of responsibility at Opryland. I think everyone knows how tenacious I am. I also believe the success of b-there will rise and fall on me - and that's what they're [be-there.com] allowing me to do.
Q. One of the biggest fears lately in the association world is that dot-coms are draining the talent pool. How do you respond to that?
A. I think the issue of the talent pool is the same in any industry. In the case of ours, dot-coms and developing technology are just a new extension of our business world.
Q. What do you think association meeting planners need to understand about the dot-com world, which is vastly different from the traditional association universe?
A. Well, I have to say, the Web is not a threat. I've been a hotelier for about 25 years and I know one thing: nothing replaces or ever will replace the face-to-face aspect. The Internet may change how business is being conducted, but we all have to remember that this is very much a people industry. The question may be: Why do I need a meeting planner if I can do everything online? Will it come to that? I don't know. The threat comes only when an organization loses control of its own information. So in order for dot-coms to perform, they need the expertise of associations. And, down the road, associations will have to become dot-com companies.
There's another thing to consider: We're in the midst of a technology revolution in how associations bring information to their members, and this is the main reason why associations need to embrace technology. But it's a whole new world and the best way I can describe this is by comparing it to the birth of the automobile: We're at the Model A stage and everybody wants to be a Jaguar.
Q. How have colleagues in the business reacted to your career change?
A. Association execs come up to me all the time now and say, "Jerry, I gotta learn about this Web stuff." And what it comes down to is a matter of trust.
Q. We're all waiting for the great dot-com shakeout. What are the odds for b-there?
A. I believe we're strong and will be one of the handful that survive, because the one thing that can take place online, without the face-to-face, is registering for events. It's a pretty easy sell.
Q. What's the greatest challenge you face in your new job?
A. Right now, I have a sales force of nine and the plan is to grow it to 30 salespeople by the end of the year. I'm in a heavy recruiting mode throughout the country. There's also this sense that dot-coms are carpetbaggers in this industry and that's a perception that we'll have to overcome.
Q. What will you miss the most about your old job?
A. My office. It was a seventh-floor corner office and two sides were glass, a great view, and now I'm sharing space with a construction contractor. Seriously, though,when my wife, Jody, and I walked into the ASAE exhibit hall, we walked past the Opryland booth and she nudged me and said, "You miss it?" And I said, "Naw." And she said, "You sure?" And I was sure. What mattered to me was I went out on top. I do miss the people, though - there were 15-year relationships built at Opryland.
Q. You seem to put a lot of pressure on yourself. What do you do to relax?
A. I'm originally from Indiana and we have the family farm there - it's a working farm and my brother grows hay on 56 acres. I try to get up to the farm about twice a month to tinker with a couple of antique tractors I keep there.
Q. Will this be your last job before you retire?
A. I don't know, but when I do retire this would be the kind of work I'd want to do: introducing new and exciting things to the industry. That's a godsend to me.