“The rules are basically made by men, and if you are a woman, you're going to have to figure out how to live within the rules rather think someone's going to change them for you.”
For more than 30 years, Virginia Lofft has broken new ground in the meetings industry, first as a journalist then as a publisher. Her area of particular expertise became the international meetings market, and over the years, she created many bridges to bring together U.S. planners and international suppliers — including the Beyond Borders supplement, which was launched in 1994, and the Beyond Borders Conference, which followed in 1997. As she retires this year from a very active career, culminating in her position as vice president, publishing director, for this magazine and its five sister publications, we spoke with Virginia about her accomplishments and insights in the area of international meetings, and also about women in the industry. In November, she will be honored by the International Congress and Convention Association at its annual meeting.
What was the U.S. international meetings market like 30 years ago when you started out as a journalist? There was a small, key group of people in the U.S. who were taking their events outside of the country. Incentive travel to Rome and London was big. Few people were traveling to Asia and elsewhere, but people were looking for additional travel ideas. Interestingly, the Philippines was one of the first Asian/Pacific destinations to build a major convention center. The woman who headed the bureau, Beth de la Fuente, had vision, and she knew there was a lucrative market in the U.S., particularly business coming from the West Coast. Then Hong Kong and Singapore became very active in the U.S. market, followed by other Asian destinations.
Looking back over those early years, what would be the major change you have seen in the international realm? More homogenization. I don't mean a loss of cultural identity, but because of communications today, we are mixing all over the world. Meeting planners who deal with only chains can meet in Asia or Europe and feel they've never left home. Rooms are the same — meeting space, too. And unless you request localized food, menus are the same. That is unfortunate, because one of the compelling reasons for taking a meeting to a nondomestic location is to give it local flavor.
What advice do you have for first-timers these days? The first thing is to go to the CVB or tourist board, even if you are a corporation and always work with a national hotel chain. When you take your meeting to another part of the world, you want to deal with the convention bureau because these are the people who have the contacts with the DMCs, ground operators, and other services you'll need. They can give you a good feel for possibilities, themes, and the local idiosyncrasies, which are very, very important to know. And they can recommend other planners to you who have been there and who can give you tips on what you should do or avoid.
I'd also highly recommend a series of books written by Roger Axtel. He was a speaker at our first Beyond Borders conference. Roger's Do's and Taboos series saves you a lot of problems in dealing with cross-cultural communications.
What else? Be prepared for facility differences. In Europe the hotels don't generally have as much meeting space as the international properties in Asia, which are purpose-built for conferences and comparable to what we have here in terms of function space — better in some cases. Test everything. If you are going to do a tour, take the tour in the same kind of vehicle that your attendees will use, and take the same stops. Sample and experience every facet for yourself.
What kinds of changes do you see ahead in the international meetings market? I think planners will probably see over the next 5 to 10 years increased competition for facilities abroad. In some business circles — medical and pharmaceutical come immediately to mind — the nondomestic meeting is becoming as commonplace as the domestic. And when these are industry-wide, small meetings spring up around the major event. For example, a pharmaceutical company may attend the major event, then hold a meeting of its own around a specific medical protocol with the key players in that field who are already on site.
And not just meetings from the U.S. will be on the move. Multinationals worldwide will increase the number of events they take to areas remote from their own national location. All of this will add up to increased demand and competition for accommodations, meeting space, and airline lift. What it will do for rates is anybody's guess.
I think there will be a withdrawal from virtual reality. People will hunger for the real thing.
Women in the Industry
What was it like 30 years ago traveling as a business woman in countries whose business culture was, and in some cases, still is, very male-oriented? There was to a degree some awkwardness, but one of the things that eased the way at the time was the fact that I had had a very strong editorial role before I came into a business role. There was, and still is, a tremendous respect for the editorial role in Asia, and that helped a great deal.
There was also a sort of triumvirate of women at the time who I saw as role models: Faye Beauchine, who was conference director for Northwest Airlines; Valerie LeMoynan of the Hong Kong Tourist Board; and Beth de la Fuente. We used to talk at conferences. They had respected positions in the international realm.
You're an avid golfer. Did you start playing for strategic reasons? I started out in newspapers and I used to wonder where the men were in the afternoon. They were out on the golf course. I started tagging along and these fellow editors taught me the fundamentals of the game. Golf was what the big boys were doing and that's the group I wanted to play in.
Can you give an example of a tough situation as a woman in business 20 to 30 years ago? I had made up my mind that when I was traveling on business, I was not going to isolate myself in my hotel room. It took a lot of pumping up to go into a restaurant or cocktail lounge to order a meal or a drink. It was difficult because women were considered lousy tippers and because it could appear that you were there to be approached.
Balancing work and family is a big issue for many women in this industry and in other professions. What's your take on that? Frankly, I don't think that's going to change. The rules are basically made by men, and if you are a woman, you are going to have to figure out how to live within the rules rather think someone's going to change them for you.
What would you say to women in the industry today? Focus on your role, not your gender. Focus on what you bring to the party in terms of experience, expertise, professionalism, and creativity.