Linc Colby Like most industry veterans, if you ask 77-year-old Lincoln Colby what has changed the most about the business of meeting planning over the years, he'll answer simply that there was no meeting industry when he got into planning. He started with Merck & Co. right out of college, moved into a role where he had to plan sales meetings, and single-handedly built the company's meeting department to a 12-person group before he retired in 1989.
“At Merck, we concentrated on the message — the content — of a meeting. We'd go out to the field and interview our reps to find out what their needs were, then build our objectives upon those and create our meetings.
“That's the basis for advice I give to young people getting into the business today. You have to learn your company and its culture, and keep your focus on two stakeholders: the ones on the podium — the executives — and the ones out in the audience. Of the two, it's the audience — the attendees — who need to be served first. If you satisfy their needs, then you'll satisfy the needs of the people on the podium.”
Colby has another set of stakeholders now. He's occasionally invited to give lectures on the meeting business at Andover College, near his home in Brunswick, Maine. In addition, he and his wife, Jane, have been doingwork for eight years with an organization called the Friends of Casco Bay. Once a month, except in the winter, they and some 90 other community volunteers take water samples from the bay.
“The data we provide is going into a database, and we are re-certified each year so that the data we provide is acceptable to the U.S. and the state of Maine.”
Colby is also active in the local chapter of SCORE (the Senior Corps of Retired Executives, a volunteer arm of the Small Business Administration) and the Tedford Oasis, a volunteer group that helps homeless people find employment and a home. Of course, he's in charge of organizing get-togethers for the latter group.
“Helping these people out is really all about getting together in a meeting and communicating, in this case about how to find a home and a job. I'm still doing in my community what I learned in my career — and I've found that it's the ultimate in meeting planning.”
Nancy Holder Fifty years ago, Nancy Holder began working for R.J. Reynolds Co., working her way up to the position of administrative assistant. After winning an award for a cost-saving suggestion, she was called into the chairman's office. “He told me he wanted to make me the first woman manager in the company's history to head up the travel department,” she recalls. “It was pretty traumatic — I had never even been on an airplane.” But she took the job, and ended up building the company's meeting department. After she retired from Reynolds in 1988, she started her own company, Nancy B. Holder & Associates, in Winston-Salem, N.C.
In addition to her work with various volunteer organizations (and time spent doting on her four grandchildren), 71-year-old Holder mentors college students at nearby Appalachian State University, where she is on the advisory board.
“When I go to Appalachian State and talk to students, I tell them that the sky's the limit — all you have to do is decide what you want to do, and then go after it.
“My mentoring is my satisfaction. When you can give back like that, when you can help young people avoid some of the mistakes you made in your career — well, to me, that's what it's all about. As I look back on my life, there are things that I didn't do when I had the opportunity. For example, I didn't like geography in school, but when I ended up as head of the travel department, I had to know where places were.
“I just want my students to learn all that they can, to have open minds. I want them to learn everything they can as they go along, because I can tell you that it will come in handy one day.
“There are many things that we all do wrong, but we learn from our mistakes.”
Virginia Lofft After a successful 30-year-plus career on the publishing side of the meeting business, what do you do when you retire? If you're Virginia Lofft, you go back to college, earn a bachelor's degree, and then enroll in graduate school. Lofft, 67, retired last year as vice president and publishing director for Corporate Meetings & Incentives and its sister publications. Now, after years of educating an entire industry about itself, Lofft has become a student.
“I promised myself that I'd go back to school and get my degree after I stopped working full time. I finally got my bachelor's degree from Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J. [where she serves on the board of directors] in March, nearly 50 years after I got my high school diploma in June 1952.
“The experience of going back to school is something I'm doing for the sheer pleasure and joy of learning. The emphasis is to examine the art, literature, philosophy and religions of the world's major cultures — I'm fascinated by it.
“That doesn't mean I'd recommend that people wait until they've finished their careers to get their education. That is almost an impossible imposition, given the requirements of most human resource people today — there are few positions that don't require a degree.
“I'll say this to anyone who has not finished a degree and has always desired to do so: Don't wait. There are so many options available for adult learners now that you do yourself a disservice by not checking them out.”
Throughout her career, Lofft advocated that meeting planning be viewed as a crucial component of a company's business strategy — and that planners view themselves not as functionaries, but as part of the management team.
“Sometimes I think it's a self-image thing. If you see yourself as a functionary, you'll be perceived as a functionary.
“Meeting planners have to find a way to cloak themselves in glory, to beat their own drum in a politically correct kind of way. You do that by proving your economic value to a company, and by identifying yourself with a meeting's positive outcomes.
“Too often, the sales exec or whoever requested the meeting gets all the credit — when it's really the planner who made it a success.”
Bob Green In 1951, Bob Green started at Ralston Purina. He worked his way into management in public relations, sales promotions, and advertising — all of which involved setting up meetings. In the early 1970s, chairman R. Hal Dean asked him to set up a meeting and travel department. In 1988, the year he retired from Ralston Purina, he served as Meeting Professionals International's interim executive vice president. He stays active in the industry by attending meetings of the St. Louis chapter.
“MPI needs to make people at the local level feel more like they belong. I think it might be a good idea for MPI officials to do videos of discussions and round tables for local chapters to view and get involved in, so they can know more about current issues.
“Also, I think international meetings have become so expensive that it's almost impossible, cost-wise, for many planners to get there. I think regional educational programs might fill the void.”
In addition to keeping active with the local MPI chapter, Green travels with Georgia, his wife of 46 years, and does volunteer work such as donating his time and talents to Textbooks on Tape, a program to assist the blind and children with learning disabilities.
Joe Furgal In April, at age 63, Joe Furgal retired from Berkshire at Berkshire Life Insurance Co. after 36 years. He spent the last four as the company's field training and special events officer. He's got plenty to keep him busy in his new life: He's on the boards of the Berkshire Visitors Bureau, the American Red Cross Berkshire Chapter, and the Lee Regional Visiting Nurse Association, and serves on the finance committee for the town of Lee, Mass., where he lives. He's also looking forward to traveling with his wife and improving his golf game.
“Companies are looking for more for their dollar today. Meetings are shorter — they're one-night deals instead of two, for example. They're cutting back on extracurricular activities and focusing more on content.
“On the one hand, it's good that meetings are becoming more content-oriented. The downside is that there may be less work for planners, and more downsizing of planning departments, as companies try to save money.
“Looking down the road, I think companies will continue to go for these business-only meetings. Incentive meetings will be narrowed down to only the very high-end achievers. I don't think things will ever go back to where they were when the economy was booming, even when the economy starts to booms again.”
Ernie Tsouros In 1958, Ernie Tsouros took a job with United Life, a small New England life-insurance company that had all of 75 employees. Over the years, he split his duties between the marketing responsibilities he had worked his way up to and the meeting-planning responsibilities he had inherited (beginning with his first year with the company, when he was asked to plan the annual convention). After United Life was acquired by Chubb, “I felt that I wanted to either be excellent at my marketing responsibilities or excellent at my meeting-planning responsibilities, but I couldn't be both. So I went to the president, John Swope, who suggested I think about setting up and managing a corporate meeting-planning department.” He went for it, and never looked back. Tsouros, 69, retired in 1997.
“The world is not as safe as it used to be, and I don't mean just since September 11. I had to go to alternate plans five or six times in the last few years I was with Chubb. I started realizing you'd better have Plan B and Plan C in place if your destination experiences problems. … This makes the planner's job more difficult, especially for overseas trips, because they have to plan two or three trips instead of just one.”
Tsouros isn't letting concerns about safety stop him from taking friends and colleagues from his days at Chubb on a two-week safari in South Africa in November. He's managed some safari trips as incentive events, but this one is strictly for pleasure. “There are 36 of us — 18 couples. They wanted to go to Africa, and I got chosen as the guy to plan the trip.”
There's no Plan B or C. “Our plan will be that we don't go. You can do that on a vacation, but not in business.”
Howard Feiertag For the past 13 years, Howard Feiertag has been an instructor in the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va. That's his day job. Feiertag, 74, is perhaps best known for the seminars he presents to hotel, meeting-planner, and travel-agent groups. He's also a magazine columnist and co-author of the recently published Lessons from the Field — A Common Sense Approach to Effective Hotel Sales. Feiertag's corporate background includes executive stints with the now-defunct American Motor Inns in the 1970s and Servico in the 1980s, as well as jobs in hotel sales, catering, F&B, and meeting planning.
“As a hotel guy, I worked with meeting planners for a long time, and I was the meeting and incentive planner for American Motor Inns. So I've seen both sides. But I think the hotel/meeting planner relationship has deteriorated over the past few years. It's very much a bottom-line-oriented business now — not the relationship-based business it used to be.
“For example, I've never had to apply for a job in all the years I've been working. I tell my students that if you learn from your peers and develop relationships, they'll remember you and come to you. I teach them to be honest, to be ethical, and to continue learning their business in the relationships they build.”
In his “spare time,” Brooklyn-born Feiertag has raised cattle in Virginia. He's forsaken that, however, having sold his 50-acre farm outside Blacksburg four years ago. Now that he lives in an on-campus home, his hobby is his work.
“I don't golf, I don't hunt, I don't fish. My leisure time is spent going out and giving my workshops and continuing to learn and build relationships. My career is both my work and my fun. How many people can say that?”
More Words OF WISDOM
Weldon Webb, 55, former conference coordinator, and director of continuing education, University of Missouri School of Medicine: “It used to be that meeting planning was a dead-end job, but I can tell you that that's not the case any more. We now see the educational value and, in the corporate world, the strategic business value, of meetings and conferences. More and more, we're seeing planners become part of the executive staff.”
Rudy Wright, 74, former head of meeting planning, Manpower Inc., and former president, International Conference Consultants: “A meeting facility is — or should be — an environment for communication. Whether it's a hotel, a conference center, or a convention center, what's most important is that your staff understands the needs of meeting planners and knows how to meet those needs.”