“Last year, I had an eight-way bypass, and it was because of the 50 or 60 hours a week that I was putting in to make other people happy. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that I wasn't making my health happy. After that, I decided to take time to smell the flowers, and became an advocate for better health and less stress in meeting management,” says James Fausel, president of The Conference Connection, a division of Community Resource Associates, a meeting management firm based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Stress is an insidious foe, and Fausel's heart trouble was the signal that it had caught him unaware. He realized that it was time to create a better balance between work and relaxation — something that he reasons others need to do as well.

“I don't want anyone to experience what happened to me. And if you think it can't — don't believe it. We are all candidates for burnout,” he says.

Fausel recently spoke with CMI about the industry, stress management, and the joys of being an independent planner.

Q: How did you end up in meeting planning?

A: My first career, for 10 years, was as a Catholic priest. I studied philosophy and theology at Niagara University in New York — which obviously didn't prepare me for the meeting world. I moved to Arizona 28 years ago and became director of training of education and meetings for the state's Department of Health Services Behavioral Health Program. I was in charge of board training, national meetings, and local conferences, all government-related.

I eventually left state government and developed my own business, The Conference Connection, which was originally a part-time venture, into a full-time career.

Recently, I coordinated the National Oral Health Conference in Sedona, and I'm working on government education programs for community lay health workers and programs for the women's and children's division for the Department of Health Services.

I manage more than 30 meetings a year, some small, some large, but I'm cutting back to spend more time teaching in the Arizona State University Hospitality Department.

Q: What were some of your first experiences?

A: The first meeting I organized was a one-day program for Alcoholics Anonymous. I selected the site and the menu. I was stymied as to why no one enjoyed the dessert: crème de menthe parfait. That was my first learning experience — one that signaled I'd better be prepared. So I joined Meeting Professionals International, Society of Government Meetings Professionals, and the Professional Convention Management Association.

Q: How do you like working for yourself?

A: I wouldn't want it any other way. Being an independent meeting consultant gives me more freedom to pick and choose my projects. When I take an assignment, I become the client's adviser, teaching them how to make sure their meeting is done professionally and correctly.

I often have students from my meetings and management class assist me, which gives them the opportunity to learn hands-on what it's like to manage a conference.

It's not for everyone. You have to develop a business sense and keep in mind that your livelihood depends on how well you do. You have to hustle to get additional contracts. But over the years I have learned to do the best I can, to provide the quality service I would expect, and to have fun. My company motto is “Meetings with Distinction,” and that's what I strive for.

Q: How have you learned to control stress?

A: I work out of my home, and I've always been an early riser. [I'm usually up] no later than 4 a.m. I do a lot of computer work, reports and planning and such, until about 6. Then I'm off to cardiac rehab — an exercise program — and then I come home and have breakfast. I watch some television, and, if I don't have any meetings, work on some projects. I relax for an hour around noon and do some more work until 4 p.m., when I religiously watch reruns of “Murder, She Wrote.”

Q: What are some simple ways people can bring calm to their work and reduce stress?

A: I think we would all do well with a retreat, personal or with others, to take a look at ourselves and how we function. People need to discover how they can improve themselves — and then they should start working to fill in those gaps. Don't try to be the Lone Planner; get some help to make your job easier.

At ASU, by involving my students, I'm teaching them the right way to do things. I really involve my students that way.

Q: Explain the need for more spirituality in the workplace, especially in post-9/11 times.

A: Meeting professionals function in all kinds of settings. They have expectations for certain kinds of behavior, and those behaviors affect the outcome of their encounters. The setting or the people involved often set the tone for our encounters and situations. That tone can often include a crisis mode.

As we strive to be understood as planners and as people, we have to ask ourselves how effective we are at understanding others' viewpoints and perspectives. What is our comfort level with the business of spirituality in the workplace? How do we honor and respect others in the industry upon whom our success is dependent? Are we valued for who we are and what we do?

We need to strengthen and maintain our personal values and ethics, manage difficult people, and help others be nice. We need to learn to keep our cool while those about us lose theirs.

Q: Would you say that you have found a new mission in teaching others how to bring balance to their lives?

A: I don't think this is new for me. I've tried in my life to treat others the way I would want to be treated, and hope that there is some reciprocity in this. The only thing new is that, since September 11, I don't think we are ashamed to talk about spirituality and what it entails.