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BRETT BARROWMAN
Conference & Travel Management Services American Fidelity Assurance

PAST Barrowman started his career with American Fidelity Assurance 24 years ago in marketing, public relations, and “colleague relations,” which involved corporate events at the headquarters office. At that point, the company’s annual training and incentive meetings all were handled by the training manager and his staff. But after a period of growth in the number of conferences—and in the number of conference attendees—it became clear that another full-time meeting planner was needed, and Barrowman took on the job in 1995.

ACCOUNTABILITY American Fidelity is a family-owned company with a strong culture and a commitment to investing in all types of meetings. There have been only four meeting planners in the history of the company—and one of them is now the company’s chairman emeritus. At the height of the perception issues plaguing incentive meetings and financial services companies, Barrowman went to the executive committee to ask if he should consider any changes to the meeting calendar. The response was quick and decisive: Absolutely not.

And not just because American Fidelity is privately owned, Barrowman notes. “Whether you’re a public or a private company, you still have to understand why you do what you do. You still have a fiduciary duty to your policyholders to do the right thing. Holding incentive conferences never became an issue with us. The executives said, ‘Our people work hard and earn these programs. They deserve them.’”

CRED You can have years of experience and proven skills, Barrowman says, but you can’t sit still when it comes to managing meetings. “There is a new challenge every day,” he says. Among his current challenges are attendees who are younger, more adventuresome, and more tech-savvy. They want to know why, if they choose to extend their incentive stay, they’re paying a higher room rate than they see at an online discounter’s site. Responding to such complaints can require patience and diplomacy. “It’s all about people management,” he says. “You can’t be defensive.” In fact, he says, meeting planning “is all about customer service. You want people to feel that you are emotionally attached to what you’re doing for them. You don’t want a cavalier attitude.”

ADVICE Barrowman has seen a lot of business education centered around understanding Gen X and Gen Y. But for younger corporate meeting planners, he advises the reverse: Understand the Baby Boomers. “Those are still the managers in charge right now, and younger planners need to understand where they are coming from.” And remember that meeting planning will always be a relationship business. “I try very hard to work with all of our vendors and be approachable,” he says. “If we don’t have good relationships, we’re dead. I can’t make breakfast for 500 people.” —Alison Hall