by Cheryl-Anne Sturken and Brendan M. Lynch | May 01, 2004

Stan Butler and Christie HicksStan Butler first met Christie Hicks 20 years ago, when she was the newly hired director of sales at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans and he was the meeting planner for the Washington, D.C.-based American College of Emergency Physicians. He had been considering making that hotel the association’s headquarters property for its annual citywide.
    “Christie gave me a sales pitch that first meeting, yes, but she was straightforward and honest,” says Butler, now the director of meetings and expositions for the Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists. “She went straight to, ‘What do you need to meet your target?,’ which was unusual. We struck a deal and immediately became friends.”
    Indeed, over the years, both have changed jobs and titles, even relocated, but the relationship they formed that day remains intact.
    “I think you have to look at a relationship as an annuity, not as a business transaction,” says Hicks, now senior vice president, global sales, White Plains, N.Y.-based Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. “It has a lifetime value to both sides, professional and personal. It’s what I pound home to my team every day.”

Relationships matter
A struggling economy and dwindling corporate spend have made the competition among suppliers for group business more fierce. At the same time, withered budgets and downsized meeting departments have forced planners to do more with less. Yet despite all these pressures, relationships remain the lifeblood of the meetings profession, something on which both sides readily agree.
    " Follow me. In an industry notorious for its high turnover rate, long-term relationships with hotel salespeople are highly valued by meeting planners, more than one of whom admits to following a salesperson from property to property or chain to chain, in order to continue to reap the benefits of the bond.
    For Stan Butler, Christie Hicks’ move to Starwood was a definite impetus for change. “I basically followed her,” admits Butler, who says Starwood now gets a major crack at IFT’s yearly $8 million meeting spend.
Similarly, “I have salespeople at certain properties that I like dealing with a lot,” says Heather Kreider, a corporate meeting planner for Englewood, Colo.-based Navigant International, a travel management firm that handles group business for Fortune 500 companies. “When they have moved on to other properties, I have followed and brought my business.”