The best piece of advice Lance Wieland got from his first boss at UNUM Life Insurance Company of America was, "Don't be afraid to make mistakes." That was barely a month after he started, when she dumped a pile of files on his desk, told him to do the best he could, and took off to a conference for ten days.
Some 13 years later, Wieland is still living that advice--and passing it along to the newest members of the meeting department. "I say that to everyone who starts here," says Wieland, now director, enterprise meeting services for UNUM Corp. (encompassing UNUM's seven affiliate companies). "If you use common sense and your decisions benefit the customer, you're probably doing the right thing. It's worse for a meeting planner to be indecisive."
On the Road Leaping off into the unknown is not uncommon for Wieland. This is a guy who has traveled through every state but Hawaii on a motorcycle. (More on that later.) But every adventure, in meeting planning and biking, has been launched with a plan and an understanding of the possible pitfalls and probable outcomes. Wieland takes calculated risks.
One might even think Wieland had calculated that he'd make use of any and all experiences one day. And indeed, he says, the creation of many a UNUM theme party has begun from the spark of one of his own adventures.
That includes the knockout event in Australia that recently won a Crystal Award from the Society of& Travel Executives. Remembering being with his friends and watching the sun come up on the beach, Wieland says, "I wanted to recapture the feeling of youth and energy and immortality. I wanted to do an event on the beach with a fire, under the stars of the Southern Hemisphere."
It was Nick and Amelia Hannaford, owners of Hannaford Special Events in Mossman, Queensland, Australia, who provided the structure to hang Wieland's ambience on. The gimmick: "Walter's," a gritty dive bar built for the occasion right on the beach, filled with regulars and a salty old owner (all actors), mismatched chairs and dishes (from the homes of everyone involved), plus a 40-foot pier jutting out into the ocean.
A yarn was spun for attendees about how Wieland had found this spot on a previous trip and arranged to have the meeting's final night event there. Hannaford even arranged for a fishing trawler to dock at the pier, loaded with fish and shellfish that Walter and his staff pretended to negotiate for and then cooked up for the guests. Most of the attendees had no idea the bar was not completely authentic until they received their meeting recap video, which included scenes from the construction of the whole set.
Wieland's willingness to take risks with programs like this has often put UNUM's meeting department at the forefront of the industry. UNUM was among the first companies to do a Habitat for Humanity building project as an agent recognition program, for example. "We like to do some different things," Wieland says. "Part of the reason for having a meeting planning department is to have a competitive advantage."
Other innovations of the department: For fouryears now, the meeting staff has been charging clients for its services, essentially paying its own overhead. And in January, the department launched a Web site, where attendees will now register for all programs. "In time, the Web site will hold all information about our programs, and suppliers will have access. The Hyatt Maui can pull up the rooming list anytime, and the ground transportation company can pull up the manifest, for example." Efficiencies created by the Web site will allow the meeting department to focus on higher-value services, Wieland says, such as meeting content.
What Goes Around . . . Those successful innovations are among the reasons Wieland was tapped in October 1996 to head the meeting services department for the entire UNUM enterprise--a total of seven companies worldwide.
It's a long way from the mid-1980s, when he had been applying for jobs at UNUM (then Union Mutual Insurance Company) over the course of a year or more. He'd graduated from the University of Southern Maine in Portland with a degree in political science, but it was his post-college stints in the box office of the local civic center and as banquet manager at a local hotel called the Eastland that finally got him in UNUM's door.
In 1985, the insurer was involved in planning the National Governors Conference in the port city and needed a temporary meeting planner. The governors happened to be staying at the Eastland Hotel and holding meetings at the civic center. With connections in both venues, Wieland got the job.
If experiences seem to revisit Wieland in unexpected ways, so do people. And it's another of his philosophies to interact with people--clients, suppliers, strangers--as if their paths will cross again, possibly with roles reversed.
"You never really know who you're dealing with," he says. That agent whose problem you solve--or don't solve--might be your supervising VP in a few years. Wieland's first job interview at UNUM was with Elaine Rosen, now UNUM's president. And there is a florist in downtown Portland that supplies UNUM's meeting department, in large part because its owner was patient and generous when, more than a decade earlier, a penniless Wieland needed advice on buying a corsage.
San Mateo, 1979 Unexpected generosity is a common theme of Wieland's biking stories. An especially charming example: Having been on the road for a week, he and his college riding buddy were stopped at a red light in San Mateo, Calif. It was during the energy crisis and the two adventurers needed gas. They asked the guy in a car next to them where to find an open station. He shook his head. "Everything's closed," he said. But he invited the pair to fill up at his house. "We were expecting to pay ten dollars a gallon," Wieland remembers. "But when we got there, he filled both tanks and wouldn't take a dollar. Then his wife came out and wanted to know when we'd last spoken to our mothers. She brought out pens and paper and made us write letters to say we were okay." She then fed them dinner (and mailed the letters).
"I have dozens and dozens of stories like that," he says. There's the trucker who stopped to fill Wieland's flat tire on I-95, for one. And there's the owner of Northern Lights Campground in Fairbanks, Alaska, who let him use his shop and all of his tools to tune up his bike after the 6,000-mile trip from Portland to America's great northern frontier.
Hail and Farewell These days, Wieland's travel is not quite so rugged. But it's still a major part of his life, taking up 15 to 20 weeks a year. With two kids (Spencer, six and a half; and Alex, one and a half), Wieland, who turned 40 in January, tries to minimize the time away. "I've shortened the length of my trips, and I visit more cities in one trip. I'm trying to be more efficient."
Dad's travel is building quite a library for Spencer: Wieland brings home a children's book for him after each trip. He also includes in the book a brief story about why he was in Dallas . . . Rome . . . Hawaii.
Wieland's own childhood was nomadic. With a father in the Air Force, the family at one time or another called Washington (D.C.), Italy, Oklahoma, and North Dakota home. Of course, living on military bases didn't give Wieland and his brother, Rhett, the feeling that their lifestyle was unusual-lots of people were just moving in or just heading out.
Nowadays family getaways take a little of the edge off the business obligations. And one might suppose that being such a well-traveled kid gives Spencer a greater understanding of his father's job. No chance, according to Wieland. "When he goes on a trip, it's pool time," he explains. "I come home and he asks me what the pool was like."*