Last Summer, there was a small fire at the hair salon that shares a driveway with Toronto-based independent meeting planning firm Event Spectrum.
It was an extremely hot day. And when company president and co-founder Cynthia Richards looked across the drive and saw firefighters working hard in the heat to contain the blaze, she turned to her staff of 14 women and said, “Let's give these guys some water.”
Then someone had an even better idea: Serve up the freeze pops chilling in the company icebox.
“It looked like a scene from the TV show ‘Desperate Housewives,’” Richards recalls, laughing. “They thought our company was actually a sorority house.”
Pardon their confusion; Richards certainly does, because it's a common reaction. The all-woman staff at Event Spectrum is mostly young, mostly single, and all exercise nuts — and Richards is the first to say so. Almost all of them work out at the on-premises gym and use the services of a company-paid personal trainer, who comes four days a week at 7 a.m. to keep them fit and in fighting trim.
So it's probably not surprising that the firefighters found an excuse to return later and hand out copies of their annual calendar.
“If we have happy employees in terms of being proud of where they work — if they're enthusiastic and accountable — that turns into happy clients,” Richards says of the philosophy that she and her partner, Vice President of Operations Zora Kriz, began developing when they opened their doors with one employee in 1997. She came from a meeting planning career in the automotive field; Kriz had done some medical meeting planning. “I had the creative, visionary thing, and she had the computer.”
Nine years later, “We've been able to foster a certain culture,” she says. “Besides salary, we're always looking for other benefits to make it fun to work here.” (See box on page 28.) They have also grown a profitable company, with $6 million in sales in 2005 and $7 million forecast for 2006. Event Spectrum manages about 45 events a year, about half meetings and half incentives, using both North American and international destinations.
The first perk Richards and Kriz dreamed up in those early days was the gym. At the time, it was a big investment — and the cost of the trainer still is. When they started the business, both liked to work out, but as they became busy, the first thing they gave up was exercise. Yet they felt that fitness was critical to help them meet the impossible deadlines and deal with the long hours.
So now, even in tight times, fitness expenses are considered an untouchable line item in the budget. Nearly two-thirds of the staff uses the gym. “It keeps you healthy,” says Selene Curtis, director of business development. “I don't think I've taken any sick days since I've been here. It's also an opportunity for us to bond with our colleagues.”
The Event Spectrum office, located in a five-bedroom house-turned-medical office-turned-apartment house, also has two fireplaces. One space was recently converted into a lounge with a pullout bed for Curtis, who is pregnant, so she can rest during the long, demanding days. “I don't think I'm the only one who uses it — I just have the best excuse,” she says.
“Our office environment is fairly atypical,” Richards agrees. “People like working here because of it. You're working, but it's comfortable. We're often fending off people who say, ‘Can I work here?’”
The office, incidentally, is not all female by choice. There has been a stray male employee now and again, but they don't last long for one reason or another. “One moved out of the country; we don't think that it had anything to do with us,” Richards quips. “I would love to have some men join us, but it's a very female-dominated industry.”
Curtis joined the company full time in 2005 and is one of its greatest advocates. “I've had my soul sucked out of me at other places. I've worked for large organizations, and I've worked for small. You know that everyone here respects and cares about you, beyond your job. That's important when you sometimes have to work 20-hour days together.”
Richards and Kriz also encourage potential clients to visit the office for meetings so they can get a feeling for the energy and enthusiasm of their planners. “It's pretty potent,” Curtis says. “It's something you want to be part of.”
Over the years, the client list has crossed categories to include major players such as Nike Canada and Bell Canada. There is a core group of 10 clients that Event Spectrum works with on a daily basis.
“We look at it as one client at a time,” Richards says. “My goal is that once we acquire a client, never do anything to cause them to look around. In nine years, we have never lost a client. We resigned one and one went bankrupt — but we have never lost one.”
The key, she says, is having time for them. “We spend a great deal of time up front to research what their objectives are,” says Richardson. “We benchmark early in the process what the client needs to see in an event. That's really important. And we guarantee to our clients that they will reach their objectives.”
With success have come new challenges — and an increased scale of competition. Instead of knocking heads with other independent meeting planners for smaller clients, Event Spectrum finds itself competing with major players such as Maritz and Carlson.
“We started coming up against them four years ago — but we are completely different in size and culture,” says Richards. “Four years ago, in a choice between us, chances were they would get the. Then, two years ago, companies started wanting an alternative to the big companies. That's how we started winning the business.
“The volume these companies [Maritz and Carlson] do — we will never be like that,” she adds. “We like to think we remain spiritually small. When a client calls, we're on it right away. Our size gives us flexibility.”
The small size also makes it easy to communicate. “In larger companies, I don't think they have the luxury to meet all the time. Our entire group meets every Monday. And when we have a new opportunity, we all meet as well. Big companies may meet with too much structure. Our meetings are unstructured, more like brainstorming. No idea is stupid.”
Within its first year of business, Event Spectrum hired its first employee, who is still with them. In fact, just as they have never lost a customer, Richards and Kriz have never had anyone quit. (They have let two people go.) “Our approach is to manage our growth,” Richards says. “There are 14 of us; each hire has been well thought out.”
Today, the company has three full-time meeting planners and one full-time person who arranges travel. The rest are devoted to support and operations.
For those reading this article who want to sign on, will any new positions come available soon? “We don't have a full-time office manager,” says Richards. “We always support each other when we travel, regardless of roles. But it would be great to have an extra person here.”
Just as retention has been easy to track, so has job satisfaction.
“We have regular feedback sessions,” Richards says. “Generally, we have a pretty happy group. I'm very aware because I'm hands on. I empower people to do their jobs. If I notice somebody is a bit down, we have an open discussion. We have reviews only once a year, but we meet quarterly with everyone individually. Are they growing? Learning? On track? Motivated?” She also recently restructured the staff, promoting three people from operations to managers.
One of those newly promoted managers is a particularly interesting success story. She came to Event Spectrum four years ago directly after graduating from college. She planned to work for four months and then attend law school — she had already been accepted. Instead, she became a senior operations person with the company and traveled the world.
“Now she's engaged and will move to Montréal this year to be married,” Richards says. “But we've already talked about her opening a Montréal office for us.”
Like Curtis said, who would ever want to leave?
How do you incentivize people who are charged every day with creating incentives for others?
“We always try to surprise our clients. But surprising this group is getting tougher to do!” says Cynthia Richards, co-owner of Event Spectrum, of her employees. “Three years ago, for example, we took everybody to see ‘Oprah’ in Chicago. We stayed at the Four Seasons for two nights, went shopping, and saw ‘Oprah.’”
Richards has a chalet north of Toronto to which she takes her staff on a retreat each year. The important part, just like it is for clients, is adding an element of surprise. “One year, we hired a chef. Another year, we hired a spa company.” As 2005 neared its end, the company hired a limo bus to come to the office and pick everyone up for a surprise lunch — at a restaurant that doesn't usually serve lunch.
“They got their checks, and we felt like Santa Claus.” But the story doesn't end there. “This year we gave them a check — and a half day off to go shopping. They were so appreciative! They loved getting the checks, but the added thought of getting a half day to shop during the week, to avoid the crowds, was amazing to them.”
Can an incentive planning company truly understand incentives if they don't practice what they preach?
“Personally, I don't think so,” Richards says. “A company that does it internally for its staff is one that understands the joy and pleasure. And in the end, our clients are the big beneficiaries.”