by Sarah J.F. Braley and Michael C. Lowe | April 01, 2012
Many people have a love-hate relationship with their jobs. But in some companies, the love is pervasive. To find such places in the meetings industry, M&C scoured reputable business sources such as Fortune's annual ranking of exemplary workplaces in the United States, and also asked planners and suppliers for their input via the MiForum, Twitter and other networks.

Thus armed, we hand-picked five firms in our world -- two event planning outfits, two hotel chains and an airline. The common thread: All have created a culture of caring, committed employees who genuinely find their jobs to be great fun. Here's how they do it.

Red Frog Events Headquarters: Chicago
Employees: 62

It's a brisk morning in Chicago's River North neighborhood, and Munirah McNeely, who helps organize races for Red Frog Events, has to get to her desk on the opposite side of the office for a conference call that's about to start. She debates making a mad dash for her cube, but instead grasps the office zipline, a 50-foot-long cable that traverses the floor, and is whisked past her co-workers until she lets go, hits the hardwood floor and drops into her seat as the phone rings. Just as McNeely picks up the handset, a colleague pedaling a cherry-red tricycle glides by and slaps her a high-five.

This is just another day at "Camp Red Frog," as the company's headquarters is informally known in a nod to its summer-camp atmosphere. Along with the zipline and tricycles, the office has a rock-climbing wall, a conference table made of 50,000 Legos, and a bar permanently stocked with two kegs of beer (they've just upgraded to Leinenkugel, according to McNeely), along with Red Bull and soft drinks, not to mention a foozball table, free candy dispensers and a fire pit. The biggest head turner in the office, however, is a $100,000 tree house with a slide, a rope bridge and two meeting rooms outfitted with bean bag chairs.

"It's hard to measure the payoff of those kinds of things, and I'm sure investors would be pretty skeptical about spending $100,000 on a tree house, but I believed in it and went through with it," says Red Frog founder Joe Reynolds. "We're in the business of selling fun, so creating a fun culture always has been one of our top priorities."

The Warrior DashReynolds, who produced the company's first event, the Great Urban Race, in 2007 with a $5,000 investment and the help of free labor from friends, believes the office culture has been an invaluable recruitment tool and a catalyst for innovation. This year, Red Frog Events is expected to earn some $65 million in revenue and produce more than 90 events on three continents, including the Amazing Race-style Great Urban Race, where teams solve clues and complete mental and physical challenges, and the Warrior Dash, an extreme 5K mud run. This month the company will launch the Firefly Music Festival, its newest and largest event, according to Reynolds; its location and details remained secret at press time.

"Working here is all about being creative, so having an office space like Camp Red Frog has really helped flourish brilliant and fun ideas," says McNeely. "It's really hard to be lame when you're on a swing set." (Yes, they also have swings.)

The physical office, which is being expanded this month to make room for a real RV that will serve as meeting space, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to employee perks. Red Frog Events also offers unlimited vacation days, a generous 401(k) program, company-paid health insurance that requires a zero deductible and minimal copay, and the freedom to set your own hours. Oh, and then there's the monthlong sabbatical entirely paid for by Red Frog to anywhere in the world that employees receive after just five years on the job. Better still, they get to bring a guest, who also travels on the company dime.

"People produce better work when they're happy at work," notes Reynolds. That's not to say it's easy; event organizers might log some 100-hour weeks loaded with high-stress days and late nights. Still, Reynolds says, "If our employees can handle the responsibility required for running our events and run them well, then they can handle the liberties we give them."

That sense of trust seems central to Red Frog's breakout success. "There's very little micromanaging happening, and that freedom makes you your own boss," says McNeely. "We each have a lot of responsibility, so we learn to balance our workload and meet deadlines. I don't know anyone who has abused the perks."

How hard is it to get a foot in the tree-house door? Applicants must first complete an internship or, at more experienced levels, a trial period as an event coordinator. Red Frog has 45 to 130 intern positions at any given time, and Reynolds gets nearly 2,000 resumes each month from applicants vying for those coveted spots. Those who nab one are on trainee status for three to four months, and about one in five are hired on as employees. The internships are full-time and pay $500 per week before taxes.  

"By the time you become a full-time staff member, you understand how Red Frog works and know what you need to do to do your job well," says McNeely, who started with the company as an event coordinator in 2009.

"We understand this type of culture won't work for every business," admits Reynolds, "but I hope more companies will consider it."