Many parents would do anything to get their kid to open a book, but when Kellee C. Magee was seven years old, her parents took away her library card because she brought home too many books.
"I would go to the library and check out 30 books at once," Magee says. "I didn't understand they had to be returned by a certain time. I wasn't going to return them until I was done. Nearly $100 in fines later, my parents took my card away."
Now, Magee has spent eight years in the meeting management industry, passing on her love of education to association members. For the past year and a half she has served as director of meetings and business programming for the American Nursery & Landscape Association in Washington, D.C., a national trade association for plant growers, landscape professionals, garden center retailers, and suppliers. She plans about 30 meetings a year, operating with a $950,000 budget.
"I need to add value to people's lives," she explains. "With educational delivery, I do that. That's what I really love about this career. "
Meeting in the New Millennium Magee is ANLA's first full-time meeting planner, brought on board, in part, to re-evaluate its meeting products. Magee's current challenge: to completely revamp the annual meeting for the year 2000.
But ANLA members are strongly rooted in their meeting traditions. Just one example: ANLA has held its annual management clinic in the same place, the Galt House in Louisville, for 29 years. As Magee summarizes, "This is about as risk adverse-resistant an industry as any."
Magee's goal is to "rebuild the convention in a more contemporary format, so it is more in step with the industry's needs right now." ANLA is the only national association within the green industry, she says, that is vertically integrated. Its 2,300 member companies represent every facet of the nursery and landscape industry.
"We've got all the players, so let's talk about global issues affecting the industry," says Magee. By bringing in a "big name think-tank kind of speaker, as well as offering segment-specific breakouts," Magee envisions the meeting as providing "a real opportunity for the industry to self-evaluate and to grow."
Selling the "re-visioned" meeting in ANLA's habit-bound environment won't be easy. "It will be a good professional development experience for me," says Magee with characteristic verve. "[I will learn] how to lead a group through the death--or at least the metamorphosis--of a sacred cow."
Dying House Plants To help her succeed, Magee is learning as much as she can about her members' business--not an easy task. "I have two dying house plants," she quips. But, she adds seriously, "You can't survive as a meeting planner without understanding the membership. That is the fastest road to job suicide."
Meeting planners need to see the big association picture, Magee insists. They need to "evolve from [managing] room sets and microphones and food guarantees to understanding how meetings fit into the strategic plan of the association."
Stretch the boundaries of your job description, Magee advises planners. "Read through the strategic mission of your association. See where you can position a meeting more effectively, or identify a strategic alliance. Think outside the box. Otherwise, you will get stuck in the box forever, and when it gets thrown out, so will you."
Up the Tall Hill Planners not only need to redefine their roles, they need to improve their standing in the hospitality industry, Magee says. "One of the biggest challenges we face right now is becoming respected as a profession," she observes. Part of the problem is the chasm between professional planners and those who don't even understand a hotel. The unprofessional and unethical planners "give the entire profession a terrible reputation." And that, she says, has got to change.
Certification programs are not necessarily the answer, Magee asserts. "The reality is that a certification doesn't make you competent or ethical; it doesn't compel you to behave professionally. So you know how many chairs fit into a meeting room--that doesn't mean much if you don't understand the problem with asking the hotel rep to send you a [free] bottle of vodka."
To really effect change, industry members must break the code of silence about unethical behavior, Magee says. "I have a problem with planners who look the other way when their buddy says, 'Come with me on a fam trip to Timbuktu, even though I will never bring a meeting there.'" No matter how tough it is to confront people, Magee says, "we have got to take a stand."
Returning to the theme of education, she says, "There should not be a program out there that doesn't include a seminar on ethical behavior. In time, that will increase the level of professionalism. We're on an upward spiral. It's just a really tall hill."
Slice of Life Education: BA, international business with a specialization in conflict resolution, American University. "Conflict resolution taught me about. Contract negotiation is basically working through conflict to find a mutually acceptable solution."
Age: You'll have to guess. Magee considers it one of her best-kept secrets and part of her mystique.
Past Life: During summers in college, Magee managed a day camp. "Planning for children is similar to planning for adults. The main difference is adults think they know, and children know they don't. You learn how important details are when someone else's life is in your hands."
Career Highlight: Coordinator, international meetings, American Meat Institute, Arlington, Va. "[Global] meeting planning is fascinating, but exhausting."
Current Goal: Magee is proposing that the American Society of Association Executives Meetings & Expositions Section form a mentoring program. "It is everyone's obligation to find mentors for themselves and find people they can mentor." Nevertheless, making that first move is scary--hence the idea for a formal program to facilitate the process. "It's like asking somebody for a date. Nobody wants to do that again."
Private Time: Born in Sacramento, Calif., Magee now lives in Silver Spring, Md., with her husband J.T. and their two cats. A former police officer, J.T. now manages a restaurant in Chicago, so he and Magee have a long-distance marriage. How do they handle it? "We don't have time to fight," she says. "I'm a frequent-flyer. I never know what time zone I'm in."