EVEN AS A TEENAGER, KAREN HOCH was intrigued by the hospitality industry. But when she applied to the hospitality program at the University of New Hampshire and was not accepted, she opted to follow in her sister's footsteps and attend Bentley College, an accounting school in Massachusetts.
“It was closer to home, and my parents urged me to go that route,” she says. “So that's what I did, and it completely steered me away from my interest.”
She took a job at a private investment bank as a mutual fund accountant shortly after graduating. But it didn't take long before she realized that she did not want to stay in accounting.
“I just didn't feel in my element, quite frankly. [The financial industry] is not people-oriented. It was a position where I was very much at my desk, crunching numbers and following the market. I wanted variety in my daily schedule and interaction with different people.”
So Hoch moved to Kansas City, Mo., and got a job working in the sales and marketing department of Unitog, a uniform provider. “I started doing sales commissions and developing sales programs and incentives, and that's when I was introduced to event planning.”
After her company was bought out by another company, she went to work for a public relations firm, planning events for the firm's clients. In a lunch meeting with one of those clients, People to People International, she learned that they were looking for a new conference director.
“They asked me if I knew anyone who might be interested in the position, and I said, ‘Yes, me!’”
She was hired by People to People as the director of communications and conferences in 2001, and she has been there ever since. The not-for-profit organization focuses on bringing people together to achieve peace and international understanding, and members convene in local chapters worldwide.
Hoch plans bi-annual adult education conferences and meetings for the organization's board of directors and board of trustees.
Her start in accounting and sales and marketing help her in her job. “In my past roles, I had to work extensively with budgets. I'm good with numbers, and I think that gives me a great advantage in meeting planning — especially working for a not-for-profit where you have to watch every dime. I feel I have a strong advantage in that area.”
A member of Meeting Professionals International for the past three years, Hoch finally feels that she has found her niche. She has worked on MPI's program committee and is the incoming vice president for her local Kansas City chapter. “I have a passion for this industry,” she says. “It's really a lot of fun.”More Than a Number Cruncher
director of communications and conferences, People to People International, Kansas City, Mo.
KIM BORIIN NEVER PLANNED to enter the planning profession. In fact, it was in the world of professional dance that Boriin got his start.
“I studied dance and choreography in college,” says Boriin, who then spent three years in Montréal touring with international ballet company Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal before moving to New York. In between, he waited tables.
But eventually the dancer's life started to take its toll. “A dancer has a certain expiration date,” Boriin says, laughing, “and I hit that age.”
He decided to turn his creativity to the culinary arts, and asked the chef at the restaurant where he was working if he could try his hand at cooking. After enrolling and graduating from the French Culinary Institute in New York, Boriin spent time cooking in a variety of restaurants before opening his own restaurant with a fellow waiter.
After a few years as head chef in his own restaurant, Boriin used his experience to help others open restaurants — five in Manhattan and one in East Hampton, N.Y.
The whole restaurant experience is very much entertainment,” says Boriin of his colorful past, “and there is a certain amount of theater involved.” Although he enjoyed the theatrics of the restaurant business, he decided that it was time to slow down a bit and look for something more nine-to-five.
He began doing day jobs around Manhattan, and one of those was for the group at Guardian Investor Services that handles the company's incentive trip. That job led to a seven-month temporary position, which eventually landed him in his current role in the equity division of Guardian, where he has been since 2002.
“Producing meetings seems like such a natural transition for me because it is much like producing theater or managing a restaurant. You have your banquet event order, catering, AV production, staging — and that is all very familiar to me.”
Since joining the equity group, Boriin has earned his CMP designation and is very active in industry organizations, serving on the design team and on the board of directors for the Financial and Insurance Conference Planners Association.Choreographer of His Own Meetings
senior specialist, Guardian Investor Services, New York
KATHLEEN ZWART ALMOST missed her true calling by working for two banks in Chicago after graduating from college. Her last high-pressure job in the financial world had her managing 40 people and literally working herself sick. “I was twentysomething and had an ulcer. I was too young to be that sick.”
So she packed up and moved to Wisconsin and began working in a clothing store — first part-time, then as a full-time manager of two of the store's branches. It didn't take long for her to figure out that this, too, was not her calling. “After a couple of years in retail, I realized that I didn't like shopping anymore,” recalls Zwart. “And what woman doesn't like shopping?”
It wasn't until she took a series of interest tests at a local community college that she found out her personality was a fit for the hospitality industry. “Back then I didn't have a clue as to what the hospitality industry was. I just wanted to make sure it didn't mean I would be working in a hospital. I didn't want that.”
After seeing an ad for a sales manager job at a local Holiday Inn, she decided to go for it — despite her lack of experience. “I basically talked my way into the job. I met with the general manager and said, ‘I know that I can do this. I have been managing clothing stores, how hard could it be to sell a hotel?’”
That moxie got her that job and then other sales positions, such as sales manager and director of sales and catering. But after six years in hotel sales, she decided that it was time for a change — again. She relocated to Florida with a goal of going to work for “the other side,” and landed a meeting-planning position for a small publishing company in Jacksonville, where she stayed for five years before returning to the hotel side as director of catering for a Hilton in Jacksonville.
There would be no more moving around, she had decided, when an old colleague contacted her about an open meeting-planning position. Zwart told her colleague that she had no interest in leaving her current job, but her friend went ahead and faxed the job description. It was a planning position for Blue Cross Blue Shield, and it was as if “someone took my resume and created this job around it,” she says. She took the position in 1999 and has been there ever since.High Finance+Retail=Hospitality?
management development specialist, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, Jacksonville, Fla.
“I'M A WHIZ at untangling a chain,” jokes Robert Sivek of his past as a gemologist. Sivek grew up in the jewelry industry — his family's business — but soon grew bored with the “slow-paced” work. “There just wasn't enough action in it for me.”
After going to school for political science and business administration, Sivek returned home and got involved in social work. While he enjoyed helping others, he knew that he was beginning to burn out. “After four or five years of encountering the same problems over and over, you begin to feel as if you're not making that big of a difference anymore,” he says. But the one aspect of the job that always held his interest was fundraising. “I liked being able to work on fundraising events with the entertainers and help raise money for the local community center.”
While working on fundraising events, Sivek began to get requests from people inquiring about booking the entertainers and bands with which he was working. Before he knew it, he had left his job in social work and was booking bands around Chicago. “Soon I was managing 26 concerts in downtown Chicago. At that point, I said to myself, ‘Boy, if I am going to do this many concerts, I'd better learn how to run a sound system.’”
And that's what he did. “I bought a sound system and started from there. I ended up working with corporations managing the technical and entertainment aspects of their events.”
Occasionally he was asked to supply décor for events he managed, and he partnered with a local company for this service. Sivek and his business partner, Deborah Borsum, CSEP, CERP, CMP, eventually bought the décor company and integrated it into their business — renaming the entire operation The Meetinghouse Companies.
Sivek says his background in the jewelry industry taught him valuable lessons about sales that he has been able to apply in producing events. “That experience taught me you don't just show customers a pretty piece of jewelry. First you need to find out who it is they are buying it for, what is the occasion, and what they are trying to say with the piece. It is not all that different.”
He has come a long way from the slower-paced days in his family's jewelry business. His role as owner and COO of The Meetinghouse Companies is anything but quiet, and that's precisely what he loves about it: The instant gratification from producing events keeps him energized. “When an event happens, I can stand at the door and listen for the ‘wow’ as people walk in. If I get that, I get the same high an entertainer gets from performing.”Every Meeting Is a Gem
chief operating officer of The Meetinghouse Companies, Elmhurst, Ill.
JANET SPERSTAD'S FIRST job was about as far away from meeting planning as you can get: She was a probation and parole officer for Milwaukee “in the worst part of town,” she says. “After a year of doing that, all I knew was that I did not want to be a probation officer anymore.”
A friend who planned conferences for the Wisconsin Institute of CPAs was looking for registration help for an event and asked if she would be interested in lending a hand. “So I began helping him part time — on weekends and in the evenings — just to see what this industry was all about.” When a job opened up at her friend's association, she jumped on it.
While she has never considered returning to her law-enforcement roots, she has taken some important lessons from the field with her. “As a probation officer, I learned to remove my emotions from a situation and not get attached to the outcome. In the planning process, when someone wanted to change the meeting objectives or change the theme, I was able to look at the situation objectively.”
That skill has served her well. “Like a lot of planners, I have had a lot of different crises come up and I am immediately able to click into that mode of trying to reduce the impact and minimize the damage.”
After five years with the Wisconsin Institute of CPAs; a stint as a planner for a Midwest corporation in the hair and beauty industry; and several years planning national meetings and large customer events for Monsanto, Sperstad opened her own independent meeting planning company in 1996. This past February, she closed her business and now focuses on teaching as program director for the Madison Area Technical College's meeting and event management program.
As a teacher and adviser to her students, she tries to prepare them for the realities they can expect as meeting planners: “I tell them, if you are someone who cannot handle stress and deadlines, if you are someone who needs all the aspects of a project outlined for you up front, then this may not be a great career for you. What makes someone a great planner versus a good planner are the personal skills and business skills they develop.”
She practices what she preaches. Sperstad has her CMP designation, is an active member of MPI, and recently served as chairwoman of MPI's international education committee.From Parole Officer to Planner
program director, Madison Area Technical College's meeting and event management program, Madison, Wis.
WHEN YOU ASK Bonnie Wallsh how she got her start in meeting planning, you could say she took a gamble. And not just because she was opening her own independent planning company with no business experience. Wallsh actually funded her new business with gambling money her husband won aboard a cruise ship.
After getting laid off as a teacher in the New York City school system in 1976 after 11 years of service, Wallsh was devastated. But she soon got a job as an outside sales travel agent for American Express, and as part of her job was able to take a one-week cruise to Nassau, Bahamas, with her husband. On the ship, he won some money playing blackjack. “He handed it to me and said, ‘This is for your business.’”
After researching the profession for eight months, Wallsh and her business partner got their first piece of business. “We got our first client, [Upton, N.Y.-based] Brookhaven National Lab, with help from the Small Business Administration, and our second client through direct mail.”
After one short year, Wallsh's business partner left the company and she has been successfully running the business by herself ever since, for 29 years. She counts herself among the first independent meeting planners in the industry. “I was ahead of the curve. But this is the kind of business that once you get started, you get hooked.”
Now Wallsh, who has always been passionate about teaching, has come full circle. In addition to owning her own business, she teaches a meeting and event planning certificate program in the continuing education department of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “I want to spend more of my time doing training and teaching. I think it is important, as someone who teaches, to make sure that you know what is going on in the industry and not fall behind.”
Although she has been planning meetings for most of her career, she has no plans to slow down. “I can't even imagine retiring, quite honestly.”Got Her Start From Gambling Winnings
chief strategist, Bonnie Wallsh Associates LLC, Charlotte, N.C.