When DeeDee Irby moved from California to Texas 10 years ago, she had no plans to work in the meetings industry. She began working at Pier 1 Imports as a sales manager and was moving toward a career in visual merchandising. Since Pier 1's corporate offices are based in Fort Worth, she believed that she was in a good position to move up the corporate ladder. Little did she know that another career path would emerge.

“I was in a Bible study, and one of the girls was working with Women of Faith. She was about to leave the job but wanted to find someone to take her place,” DeeDee Irby says. “We started talking, and she asked if I had any hotel experience. I told her that I had done an internship with a Sheraton when I was in college. She said to put it on my résumé and she would get it to her boss.”

Soon she began a new career. “After I interviewed here, I felt as if God was saying, ‘This is why you're in Texas.’”

40 Events, 300 Hotels

Since January 2001, Irby has been conference hotel coordinator. She works on the Women of Faith conferences and The RevolveTour, a series of events for teen girls.

Women of Faith meetings attract about 15,000 attendees, while The RevolveTour brings about 5,000 attendees to each stop. Overall, she contracts with about 300 hotels annually, booking a year out for each of the 40 events. On a typical day, she is on the phone with national hotel contacts and CVBs, sending out proposals, negotiating contracts, and finalizing deals.

Follow the Bouncing Market

In her nine years in the job, negotiating has been a wild ride: the technology boom and bust; 9/11 and the economic malaise that followed; the recovery; the financial meltdown of 2008; and the subsequent recession. There have been plenty of ups and downs, but the present economy is as unusual as anything Irby has seen.

“Some hotels are very willing to go very low in their rates and do what they can to get the business,” she says. “And then some are not, knowing that they will fill regardless of whether we book with them.”

But Irby has found that her main job this year is not negotiating contracts, it's re-negotiating existing contracts because of the economy.

Attendance at her conferences has been down significantly in some cities this year. So Irby has spent much of her time negotiating with hotels to reduce the size of room blocks and lower rates. Renegotiating hotel contracts is something that she's never before had to do.

“The majority of hotels have been flexible, but there have been a handful that have not,” she says. In a few cases, the group has had to pay an attrition fee this year.

“It's business; we understand. But at the end of the day, it's the relationships that matter. If they are trying to do what they can to help us, we want to reciprocate.” Those hotels that are inflexible will not be first in line for repeat business.

“I hate it when that happens,” Irby says, “because the relationships mean so much to me. I'm very connected with a lot of people in the industry. That's one of the best things about the job — the relationships.”

Opportunities at RCMA

She has been able to strengthen her relationships through RCMA, especially in these challenging times.

“I really enjoy going to the RCMA annual meeting to see all of my contacts,” says Irby, who has gone to every RCMA annual conference since 2001. Seeing all of her contacts in one place is even more important now, because her company has reduced travel budgets.

“I had been traveling about once a month to meet with the CVB and hotel contacts face-to-face, but for the last year and a half, due to budget cutbacks, I haven't been able to travel. RCMA is that time to catch up with everybody I work with throughout the year.”

She comes to RCMA well-prepared. She sets her schedule of meetings for the year and completes her requests for proposal in time for RCMA so she can hand them out in person. “I've got a plan so that when I get there, I hit exactly whom I need to see.”

Irby is looking forward to the 2010 RCMA Annual Conference in Fort Worth — right in her back yard. But she does miss the travel. “I love to travel. I love to go to different places and meet new people.”

All the traveling she has done in this job has spawned a new hobby. “I collect Starbucks mugs in all the cities I go to — and you can only get them when you are there. I have too many to count now; it's an addiction,” she says, laughing.