Last fall, Rob Gingras, CMP, spent eight days in Central America with a wooden table for a bed. As Cigna's assistant director, conference management, in Bloomfield, Conn., Gingras spends much of his time on the road--but this was no fam trip.

Rather, he and 14 other volunteers from his hometown of Wethersfield, Conn., were on a missionary trip to a town called El Progreso in Honduras. The group joined doctors in providing medical relief to the community. "I was actually promoted to 'medical assistant' during the trip," he laughs.

The missionary life is indeed a contrast from Gingras' meeting-related travels. "My bed was a wooden table with a one-inch foam pad on it. I put a sheet on top and used a travel pillow, and that was my bed for eight days," he says. "We were in an unsettled area, and our group had armed guards with rifles the entire time. Our food was prepared by local volunteers, who cooked what they thought we would like--mostly beans, rice, and fruit, and not a lot of meat."

Gingras spent the bulk of his days assisting doctors in remote villages. "An average doctor generally visits eight to 12 patients a day. Three doctors, myself, and another assistant saw 99 patients one day!" he exclaims. What free time he had was devoted to an orphanage. "There are 40,000 homeless children in Central America, and the orphanage I spent time at was a nutrition center purely for mal- nourished children. It was heart-wrenching," he says. "The number of street children in Central America is outrageous."

Gingras also is involved with children in his community. He coaches many town sports, including soccer and baseball, and he and his wife and their three kids, ages four, seven, and ten, devote time to charity work. "We volunteer at a homeless shelter on a regular basis, and are also active with Habitat for Humanity and a group called Youth Under Stress," he says.

Third Time's a Charm Gingras' career has always revolved around people, too, though not on the meeting planning side at first. In the 1980s he started out on the other side of the desk. As assistant general manager, food and beverage, for a small luxury property in Boston, Gingras had never considered switching sides.

At the time, however, someone else was considering it for him.

"I had been handling an account for the woman in charge of meeting planning operations from Travelers Insurance and she offered me a job as a meeting planner," Gingras says. "She had a gut impression that I would make a good planner."

Over the span of about two years, Travelers would make Gingras three offers. Initially, he did not share Travelers' gut feeling, and he turned down the first two. The third proposal was another story. "My third opportunity came while I was running a 30,000-person convention at the World Trade Center. I was really loaded up with stuff, so the offer hit at a good time," he says. Gingras was ready for a change in career, and Travelers handed him the chance.

In 1987, Gingras moved to the Travelers' main office, then in Hartford. "It provided a great growth opportunity for me," he says. During his time with Travelers, the company was acquired by Primerica. Subsequent downsizing whittled the meeting department from a staff of eleven to, at one point, a staff of two. Corporate morale was low during this period, Gingras acknowledges, but in his mind there was a positive side to the reorganization. "Meetings had gotten stale, and after the downsizing there was a boost of energy that I don't necessarily think was negative," he says. "We were no longer married to the same old way of planning."

In 1995, CIGNA came calling--and only had to ask once. The company offered him an opportunity to grow in a progressive environment, Gingras says, and a chance to take the logical next step in his career. With an 11-person department, Gingras has led programs in many European countries as well as on cruise ships and other unique venues.

A Network of Peers Of course, he still relies on his network in the insurance industry and strives to consolidate stronger partnerships with a condensed volume of vendors. "You always need to think of different ways of doing something," asserts Gingras, who credits his eight-year involvement with ICPA with helping him develop his network.

The fact that years ago Gingras worked with meeting planners as a hotelier hasn't hurt, either. "Being in the hotel industry beforehand was an enormous help in understanding the mentality in the hotel industry. It helped knowing where I could push harder and where I couldn't," he explains.

Gingras enjoys working with his colleagues in the hotel and meeting planning industries. "It is very fast-paced, which I like," he says. "It also allows me to be creative and combines a whole gambit of skills and knowledge I think is intriguing."

No more intriguing than the generosity of spirit that compelled him to travel to Honduras last fall. That was Gingras' first missionary trip, and he is already planning another for February. He will again be providing medical relief services, this time in a remote area of Mexico.