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Eldon Gale was drawn to meeting planning early on. He remembers watching a presidential inauguration. “I watched it over and over,” Gale recalls. And he wasn’t thinking, “Maybe I’ll be president one day,” but rather, “Who planned all that?” At college, he told a guidance counselor, “I want to plan presidential inaugurations.” To which the counselor said, “I don’t think we have a program for that.”
Instead, he pursued a degree in public relations. Meetings re-entered his thinking while he was working at a customer service call center for a direct marketing company that sold scrapbooking supplies. The company held an annual convention for 1,500 consultants, and though Gale didn’t attend, he heard a lot of buzz around it. So he wrote to the company president. “I think I could plan that meeting and I think I could do it better,” he wrote. He was 22 years old. She thanked him for the letter. End of story. Four months later, her assistant showed up at his desk to tell him about an upcoming meeting and he got the chance to try his hand—and became the company’s meeting planner.
After getting married and moving to Columbus, he joined Nationwide as a temp. Seven years ago, he applied for a planner job there and was hired instead as manager of the department. He was promoted to director four years ago, and now oversees a 12-person team that manages meetings for 10 business units.

EVOLUTION Traditionally, many of Nationwide’s programs were outsourced, and Gale saw that the third party was making more strategic decisions than the internal team. He wanted to turn things around. “I thought we could do it better,” he says.
One thing that helped this process along, ironically, was the cancellation of all Nationwide meetings in 2009. When they came back in 2010, they started small, and the department could easily handle them without outside help. “Now we only outsource what we can’t do. We will never have an in-house audiovisual department, for example. We outsource Web registration. And we use outsourced travel directors to supplement our staff.”

GIVING BACK Gale joined Financial & Insurance Conference Planners soon after he joined Nationwide. At his first annual meeting, he says, “I felt like a fish out of water. I was overwhelmed by the number of people, and that everybody knew everybody.” The next year, he says, “I was looking through the photo directory and realized that on every page there was someone I knew or someone who had called on me during the past year.” In 2011, he joined the FICP board of directors. - Alison Hall