The fifth CEO of the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus in less than four years talks about where the organization is headed.
Ed Nielsen isn't sure why we want to photograph him in the 1953 Corvette, but he obliges with a laugh, sliding into the snug convertible and draping his tanned arms over the red leather interior. "Sweet, very sweet," he says."Wish I'd had one of these when I was seventeen."
Five rolls of film later, Nielsen is still being a good sport, even though we won't let him take the convertible for a drive. Just two years older than the Corvette, Nielsen looks like he belongs in it. But in "real life" he drives a '98 Volvo, and pilots a Cessna aircraft for fun--when he has the time. After the shoot, staged at the Opryland Hotel during the July annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives in Nashville, he's headed back to the Washington, D.C., office of the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus. Eight months ago, he was named the new president and CEO of the association.
He is the fifth CEO in three and a half years. His predecessor, Karen Jordan, the organization's first female chief executive officer, resigned after finding that it was too difficult being separated from her family in Texas. She had begun to address some of the issues that boiled to the surface during a session at IACVB's 1996 annual meeting, at which members lambasted leadership for being out of touch with members' needs, for having no clearly defined organizational mission, and for focusing too much on larger CVBs when most members were smaller bureaus. That session set in motion many changes for the association.
Nielsen's prescription for IACVB: "Stability, a simple concept with which the association has experienced great difficulty." But he doesn't mean stasis. "That's what happens when you're dead. I'm talking about dynamic stability, where you have a level of predictability but you're also engaging necessary changes."
He's comfortable with the label "change agent" applied to himself and the role he wants at IACVB--and one he took on at the Pennsylvania Academy of Family Physicians, where he was the executive vice president and CEO for ten years prior to joining IACVB. He helped that organization build a bigger profile for the state's family physicians, who wanted more leverage with the increasingly powerful managed care companies.
Nielsen has chaired the education committee for several years for the Professional Convention Management Association, helping to focus that organization's education efforts. He'd like to do the same for IACVB, whose number-one goal, he says, "is to be the premier source of education for CVBs worldwide. Period."
Nielsen talked with us about a wide range of issues, from "driving change"at IACVB, to redefining the role of CVBs and the work they do, to the challenge and difficulty of finding balance between work and family.
AM: What did your experience at the Pennsylvania Academy of Family Physicians teach you about meetings and CVBs?
EN: When I started at the academy, I was involved with meeting planning from soup to nuts, because I was both the CEO and the meeting planner. I learned that meetings are not only a revenue source, but also the most visible manifestation of dues money as far as the member is concerned. The planner needs to create an exceptional experience for members, and the CVB should be the key partner in creating that experience.
AM: Well, it's a tough line for CVBs to walk in today's seller's market, keeping meeting planner customers happy, and serving the needs of suppliers who help fund the bureaus. How does IACVB help members walk that line?
EN: First and foremost, we need much stronger education. Not just discussing issues, but giving bureaus tools and skills. One tool we've given our members is CINET (see sidebar). It's gone through a major revamping, and now we need to teach people how to use it. Another tool is our new video/collateral package, "Meetings, Tourism, and the CVB: A Powerful Community Presence." These examples are designed to improve CVBs' marketing and sales efforts, and we'll be rolling out more products and services like these in response to member demand.
AM: You've articulated a much broader role for CVBs than the industry has heard before, saying that bureaus contribute to international stability, because the tourism and meetings business that they cultivate creates ongoing cultural and business exchange among countries--regardless of political changes. You believe CVBs can make a difference in the world. Do you feel vulnerable to cynicism about this?
EN: I am keenly aware of the cynicism in our industry. And I am sensitive to where members don't want to go. That's the bleeding edge. I'm merely articulating a vision of what the industry is already doing. It's the unarticulated and often unorganized power of the industry--to provide a stabilizing global influence cultur- ally and economically.
AM: IACVB leadership has been criticized for focusing both too much and not enough on the international realm. How do you plan to address that division?
EN: It's less of a division and more of a balancing act. While we grow IACVB, I'm mindful of creating useful programs and services that meet everyone's needs. That means balancing the interests of non-U.S. and U.S. members, tourism and meetings, and all budget sizes.
AM: You've suggested that once IACVB gets its house in order, the association could assume a central role in creating standards or "accepted practices" for the hospitality industry. Why would this task be something for IACVB to tackle?
EN: Whether people like the "S" word [standards] or not, there are many examples of where we need, at the very least, to use the same language. For example, tourist versus delegate--defining those two terms is a big challenge for some parts of our market. IACVB is in a natural position to foster those discussions simply because CVBs are the only entities working with all sides of our industry--from tour operators, convention centers, hotels and airlines, to meeting planners, business travelers, the leisure market, and so on.
AM: Recently IACVB announced a partnership with the Passkey housing system. Why?
EN: Our sense is that the time is right for a solution like Passkey. While the details of this relationship are still being worked out, IACVB has conducted an extensive investigation of the issues and of Passkey, and the board has decided that moving forward with Passkey is good for CVBs and for the industry.
AM: One of the long-standing issues planners have had with CVBs is that many don't work closely enough with the management and sales teams of the city's convention center. San Diego is one city that has recently merged its CVB and convention center staffs. Do you see that kind of merger as a trend among CVBs?
EN: Mergers and alliances are a trend overall--just look at airlines and hotels. CVBs, with their limited resources, are always looking to move into partnerships.
AM: You've talked about the irony that an industry so focused on "hospitality" can be so inhospitable to people's families. Have you found that balance in your personal life as you commute between an office in Washington and a remote office and home in Pennsylvania, where your wife and two daughters live?
EN: We do a fabulous job of taking care of clients, but our industry has created workaholics at the sacrifice of the most important thing in the world--families. Personally, I don't find it redeeming or admirable that one's work world is also one's primary social world. I am not going down that road. Life is what's most important; earning an income is a subset--and I am not going to let that subset drive my life. But it remains a struggle to find balance. I do miss my family when I am away.
As an organization, IACVB is trying to address family balance by picking meeting destinations like Orlando, where families can have an exceptional experience together. As a culture, I think we are going through a paradigm shift when it comes to the nature of work and how it is best done. Technology is helping to drive that shift.
AM: You've had a very varied career. Has it helped you in your present position?
EN: Everything I have done has created a foundation. In the U.S. Air Force, I was a weatherman, and that forced me to look up instead of down when I walked outside, and it taught me how different systems interact to create present conditions. I earned my private pilot license in 1976 and that trained me to access situations accurately and to make decisions quickly. Professionally, I've always had an abiding interest in nonprofits. I've donework in drug and alcohol counseling, disabilities, and race relations. I've worked for a Lutheran agency involved with families, kids, and the courts. And I've worked extensively in politics. These experiences helped me to see the big picture, consider alternatives to the norm, and appreciate the contributions of the nonprofit sector.
AM: Define "change agent."
EN: A person who is willing to assume risk, has a sense of how systems work, and has the ability to bring people together to effect change without being "out front" selling him or herself.
AM: What are the classic pitfalls that a change agent should be aware of?
EN: That's a volume in itself. Some insights I've learned over the years: Know yourself and your weaknesses. Surround yourself with exceptional colleagues. Be willing to be wrong, but embrace risk. Facilitate, don't dominate. Don't rush to change. In the heat of conflict, step back and look at what's happening, rather than how you're feeling at the moment. *