by Sarah J.F. Braley, Loren G. Edelstein, Michael C. Lowe | April 01, 2014
It's the people. That, in a nutshell, is the philosophy that runs through every company we have profiled in M&C's annual installments of the Best Places to Work in the Meetings Industry. Sure, each organization has its own unique culture and mission, but in the C-suite there's a strong belief that if employees are happy, customers will be happy.

For our third annual survey (find the 2013 entry at bit.ly/1cQx1sh and 2012 at bit.ly/1cSZSGQ), we combed the usual places, including the 100 Best Companies to Work For list from Fortune, Glassdoor.com's Best Places to Work, lists compiled by newspapers around the country and trusted industry sources. Several companies we have profiled in previous years continue to be lauded on such lists, including Marriott International, Hyatt Hotels, Southwest Airlines and Kimpton Hotels.

This year, we chose entities ranging from a perennial powerhouse entertainment and lodging company to a firm that specializes in  planning government meetings. Read on to see what makes them special.

THE WALT DISNEY CO.

In 2000, Victoria Hardison-Sterry had aspirations to become a wedding planner. A recent graduate from the University of Central Oklahoma, she wanted to learn the ropes on a larger scale, so she packed her bags and headed for Orlando, where she took a position at Disney's Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World as a front-desk hostess.

Soon enough, she was promoted to wedding event manager/convention service man­ager at Disney's Yacht & Beach Resort Club, but her ascent through Disney's ranks didn't stop there. "People know that there is opportunity and a future here, and that's critical when it comes to building loyalty and longevity," says Anne Hamilton, vice president of resorts sales and services with Disney Destinations. "Our cast members [Disney's term for employees] often find growth and success as much through lateral moves as just straight up."

Early on, Hardison-Sterry met Hamilton, who asked if she might like to try her hand at sales. When the wary employee admitted she didn't know much about that role, Hamilton's response was, "Don't worry. We can teach you all of that." Fast forward nine years, and Hardison-Sterry is assistant sales director for the resort sales and services team, which oversees the entire portfolio of Disney theme parks and hotels.

"My plan was to come to Disney, build a résumé and eventually have my own wedding planning business, but the company has been so good to me, I haven't found a reason to leave," says Hardison-Sterry.

Always learning
Clearly, Disney takes career development seriously. The company hires more than 14,000 interns per year (many of whom come back to work full-time) and offers more than 10,000 online resources, classes, and other education programs that range from leadership training to working with guests. Hardison-Sterry continues to take courses every quarter.

Managers can cull data from a learning-management program called the Disney Development Connection to help track an employee's progress and determine additional learning opportunities, says Julie Hodges, senior vice president of human resources. "By recognizing in­dividual learning needs, we enable our employees to develop their knowledge, uphold Disney traditions and feel they are actively involved in the company's success," she notes.

Perks in the parks
For those who stay with the company for 10 or more years, Disney holds an annual event to honor their commitment. The tradition was created by Walt Disney himself in 1965. Last year, the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif., treated veteran cast members to an evening of entertainment, food and exclusive access to theme-park attractions.

Many other employee team-building events take place in the parks. The Cast Canoe Races, which celebrated a 50th anniversary last year, pit teams of cast members in races to paddle canoes around the attractions at Disneyland Resort. Since its inception in 1963, the tradition has spread to Walt Disney World Resort, Tokyo Disney Resort and elsewhere.

Perks like free theme-park tickets, hotel discounts and special rates on official Disney gear are among the most popular as charted by Glassdoor.com, which gave the resort its Employees' Choice Awards as one of the 50 Best Places to Work in 2014.

Embracing diversity
Factors beyond happy employees have put Disney in the No. 2 slot on Barron's list of the World's Most Respected Companies. Among lauded initiatives is Walt Disney Parks & Resorts' Domestic Diversity Council, a group of senior company executives who meet to discuss issues and make recommendations on diversity and inclusion strategies.

"Diversity fuels creativity, and our company benefits from the uniqueness of our work force," says Julie Hodges. "Our perspectives have to include a multitude of ideas, sensibilities and experiences, and for that to happen, our own people must be inclusive."

It doesn't take long for new hires to realize there's "a respect here for the individual and a conscientious effort to make each person feel trusted and valued," says Hamilton. "It's that feeling of being part of something really special, and that is the basis for everything we do." - MICHAEL C. LOWE