by Lisa Grimaldi | December 01, 2005

The definition of convention services manager, according to the Convention Industry Council, is a “professional at a hotel [or convention center or convention bureau] who is responsible for event operations management on all levels.” 
    But those few lines don’t convey the breadth of the roles these individuals often play in the events they oversee, roles that can range from hand-holder, sounding board, creative consultant, salesperson and, in the case of something going terribly wrong the day of the meeting, savior. As one CSM puts it, “We are mini-GMs for the meetings under our care.”
    To spotlight the many responsibilities of these often unsung hotel partners, M&C asked major hotel chains to put forward their very best CSMs, who are profiled in this special report. Here are their insights on making meetings work.

Melissa LaBarbera CMP

Melissa LaBarbera, CMP
Director of convention services
Fairmont Chicago
LaBarbera has been with the Fairmont Chicago for eight years and is the only director of convention services in 18 years to have a million-dollar month. (Yes, CSMs have revenue attached to their jobs.) She also has taken the hotel from 14th in the company to third place for J.D. Power and Associates’ client satisfaction scores. 
    This veteran has been a CSM for 22 years, but she did not set out for that position. In fact, LaBarbera’s first love is catering, but she switched positions when she realized, “I can wear nice clothes and not smell like onion.” Her department handles 500 meetings a year. Once the sales department has the business on the books, convention services takes over.
    After calling the planner to introduce herself and sending out all the pertinent information on items such as exhibits, production capabilities and menus, LaBarbera organizes the site inspection. Three months out, she works with the planner to coordinate housing lists, VIP lists, load-in for trade shows, etc. She also schedules pre-con and post-con meetings, and right before the event she gives planners a portfolio with the most recent group résumé, a phone list, a diagram of the meeting rooms and property, and copies of all the event orders. 
    “I make sure I am involved the day [attendees] arrive until the day they leave,” LaBarbera says. “Some hotels have ‘floor’ people who are on site at all times during the meeting. Here, we the CSMs are on the floor, right along with the banqueting team.” Ultimately, she adds, “It’s our job to make the planner look good.” 
    LaBarbera’s favorite part of the job: “I love working with somebody and seeing their project through from beginning to end. I could not be in sales and book the event and leave; I enjoy the follow-through.”

Michael Darst CMPMichael Darst, CMP
Director of conference management and catering
Loews Miami Beach Hotel
It’s startling to hear someone say he’s going to put off his retirement plans because he loves his job too much. But Darst, just two years shy of his long-planned break from the hotel industry, is completely sincere when he says he wants to continue at his present position because the thrill of it has “been sustained over the years; it’s never diminished. The landscape changes daily and keeps me fresh.”
    The longest-serving CSM in the Loews hotel chain (he joined the company 23 years ago), Darst has been in his present position since the property opened in 1998. He oversees meetings  and still finds time to manage a host of social events for the Miami Beach community. 
    The biggest challenge of the job: guiding planners through the difficult decision of whether to hold an event outdoors or indoors. “We know how much a planner might want their event around the pool, but we try to convince them to design the party so that it can be moved indoors if the weather is bad,” Darst says. While the planner might be disappointed, he notes, the guests are not nearly as passionate about being outside; they just want a party. 
    “Planners may lose perspective, and we have to get them to see that it’s better to have a great party inside from the outset, rather than having the event start outside and get ruined by rain,” says Darst. In short: “We take away the emotion and deal with the facts.” 
    What Darst likes best about the job: “It’s very personal, whether we are producing a 1,000-person dinner for a company or a small birthday party for a 90-year-old,” he says. “It’s very rewarding to start something and then see it through to completion. I enjoy that sense of accomplishment.”