While attending a World Wide Web workshop this summer, Cynthia Lett, president of Creative Planning International in Silver Spring, MD, answered nearly as many questions from the audience as the presenter. Later she was asked to teach the course. Pretty impressive for someone who, when she got her first computer, "was scared to death and immediately crashed it," as she recalls.
Lett bought that computer when she started Creative Planning in 1983. "I wanted to do more than one person was capable of," she explains. "A computer allowed me to do that." Crashing it was only her first mishap. Not one to plow through manuals, she learned from her mistakes, eventually gaining expertise. She did have an advantage: "I was always good at electrical things. As a kid, I loved to push buttons and see what happened. My father encouraged me."
Lett's fascination with learning continued unabated. She completed a double major at Purdue University, graduating in 1979 with a B.S. in hotel, restaurant, and institutional management; and a B.A. in public relations and interpersonal communication. She also earned a master's degree in legal studies at Antioch. She purposefully found jobs with the Big Four-Marriott, Sheraton, Hilton, and Hyatt. "everything I've done," she points out, "I've done on purpose."
One reason she started Creative Planning was because she wanted to learn more. She told her clientele her idea, and several gave her contingencybefore she left her job with the Ritz-
Carlton, Washington. She currently plans about 50 meetings a year; a third are for associations.
The Web is particularly advantageous for small business owners, Lett says. Web pages "allow us to showcase our services and capabilities with as much glitz and glamour as we want," she says. "We can find clients in places we never thought to look." She has found clients as far away as Korea, and recently won ain Atlanta, even though she has never marketed there.
Planners who are familiar with a destination sometimes can use the Web in lieu of a visit, saving time and money, Lett says. When planning a program in San Francisco recently, she found a winetasting venue through the Web. Hotels provide virtual tours, sparing planners repeat inspections. City and CVB home pages also are excellent resources, Lett says.
To take advantage of the Internet, first "learn [computer] terminology and what it means-really what it means, not just the words," Lett advises. New programs make it easy for novices to start home pages. "If [planners] can do word processing, they can do it on a Web page. It isn't something you need to be expert at. You need to go do it. Play with it." She adds, "You don't get up to speed during business hours. I'll spend weekends playing."
Lett also took advantage of educational opportunities. She was a beta tester for the Prodigy online service in 1984, later serving on the company's advisory council. During a stint as manager of meetings and events at MCI from 1992 to 1995, she took computer classes. Lett cautions that only those who want the training will succeed. "If you are going to fight it," she says, "it won't make sense to you. You have to keep an open mind."
She now serves as a consultant for Future View, Inc., a Washington, DC-based audiovisual company. She helped them design eventNet, a special event planning program, which she currently is using to organize registration for a 25,000-attendee meeting. Asked if the Web might make housing companies obsolete, she speculates, "Maybe in ten or 15 years when registration through the Internet is the norm."
Answering the persistent industry concern that technology will decrease the number of meetings, she says, "I think it will redefine why we go to meetings. We will come for a particular purpose we can't accomplish otherwise." Lett contends that technology will never replace the importance of face-to-face interactions.
Those interactions are particularly crucial when educating people about intercultural communication, Lett believes. When conducting overseas meetings, she was "horrified at the evidence of the 'ugly American.'" She became a certified trainer in international protocol and business etiquette, and runs her own training company, The Lett Group. The training has become "almost like a crusade," Lett says, hoping to devote herself to it exclusively in the future.
Though a world traveler-the 38-year-old Lett has planned meetings in 102 countries-she remains close to her roots. Her parents still live in the Bethesda home where she grew up, and she lives nearby in Silver Spring with her husband and two cats. Her two stepchildren are in college.
Doing Something Good Lett mentors a 16-year-old girl through a program for troubled teens. "I've had good mentors over my lifetime," she reflects. "This is the chance for me to do something good for somebody else."
One of her first mentors is reaping the benefit of encouraging her curiosity. Lett is teaching her 82-year-old father how to use a computer. He had never touched one before, but like his daughter, he conquered his nervousness, and is sending e-mail in Hebrew to Israel. When he stopped feeling fear, he told Lett, he started having fun. "especially," she adds affectionately, "when he realized he wasn't going to break it."