July 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Starting Over - July 1998 Current Issue
July 1998
Starting Over

Joe's year: a promising new job, a move across country, and a pink slip


For Joe Morris, the offer from Nike Inc. to be its national director for travel and events was just the break he was waiting for. While Morris enjoyed living in Orlando and his job as director of sales and marketing for Disney Business Productions, a division of the Walt Disney Co. that creates customized convention entertainment, the new position seemed well worth pulling up stakes. It was not only lucrative, it offered a chance to move from the supplier end of the meetings business into a plum spot at one of the world's most high-profile companies, one whose name is virtually synonymous with athletic footwear.

"I'd grown committed to the convention industry and saw this as something that would take me into a whole new realm," says Morris, a former president of the Orlando chapter of Meeting Professionals International. "I loved the opportunity to move to the other side."

So move he did. Not just to the other side of the industry, but to the other side of the country. Accompanied by his partner and three dogs, Morris relocated to Beaverton, Ore., the Portland suburb where Nike is headquartered. He bought a house and started a new life.

It proved to be an exciting life. Morris was in charge of the 30-person Travel & Events department, responsible for more than 80 trade shows and 200 meetings a year. Event planning for Nike often meant doing things on a grand scale, such as creating a multimillion-dollar exhibition at SuperShow in Atlanta, the largest trade show in the athletic-wear industry. Sales meetings and product launches, all of which had to be coordinated at the start of four fashion seasons per year, also required creative ingenuity. For Morris, able to draw on a decade of experience in marketing and producing product launches and other splashy events at companies such as Bally's, Universal Studios and Disney, it was just the sort of challenge he craved.

Morris and his staff also worked to make the Nike meetings department more efficient. "We looked at ways to consolidate some of the meetings and to make the sales meetings more effective," he says. "One way was to focus on the newest products each season and not regurgitate the whole line."

Then, in the last quarter of 1997, less than a year after Morris had come on board, the unthinkable happened. Nike, which had been growing so fast in the previous three years that it tripled its work force, was suddenly dealt a body blow by the Asian economic crisis. With sales orders for its athletic wear plummeting by 34 percent in the Asia-Pacific region, the company announced it would downsize and restructure its operations in the first quarter of 1998, reducing its work force by 7 percent, or 1,600 jobs. One of those jobs belonged to Morris.

In the restructuring, Nike merged two departments - Sports Marketing and Travel & Events - to form a new department called Events Marketing & Travel Services. The two departments had often worked together on Nike's participation in major consumer events such as the Boston Marathon, with Sports Marketing charged with promoting the Nike brand and Travel & Events charged with providing exhibition facilities. With only one department head needed, Morris, on the job for just 11 months, was passed over in favor of sports marketing director Mark Pielkenton, who had been with Nike for nearly 20 years.

Spokespersons for Nike would not release details about the downsizing, other than to confirm the merger of the two departments and that 1,600 people were laid off throughout the company, including about 250 at the Beaverton headquarters.

The cuts were sudden and swift, recalls Morris. "Everyone knew there would be layoffs, but nobody knew where," he says. "Then, on the morning of March 18, I was called in and given the bad news. I had to clean out my desk right then. I didn't even have a chance to say goodbye to my staff."

In retrospect, he says, "There were too many people, and they tried to be fair. Mark had a lot more seniority and was the obvious choice to head the department. Still, it was a major blow, and I wish we'd had more warning."

After leaving the building in shock, he drove around for a few hours, trying to absorb what had taken place. "I just kept asking myself, ÔHow could this have happened? Where do I go from here?'"

Soon, Morris stopped brooding and began to take action, making frequent visits to the recruitment center set up by Nike to help former employees find new jobs. He also has been conducting nationwide job searches on the Internet, contacting recruiters, sending out dozens of r}sum}s and networking with his colleagues in the meetings industry. While he has received job offers in Asales and marketing from hotel companies, his goal is to find another position in meetings management with a Fortune 500 company. "Despite the sometimes cruel aspects of the corporate world, it's where I want to stay," he says. "Overall, my time at Nike was a great education and a great experience."

How to Save Yourself If changes within your organization pose a threat to your job, the following measures may up your odds of survival, say experts.
  • Don't be an ostrich. Keep your eyes and ears open. Pay attention to rumors; they're usually true.
  • If a merger is pending, research the new company and its culture. The more you know, the better you can market yourself to the new regime.
  • Don't be antagonistic. Present yourself as a team player, ready to adapt to organizational changes.
  • Make sure your job skills (especially computer-related) are fine-tuned, not just for your own company, but for the marketplace in general.
  • Broaden your skills to include related fields such as travel management or marketing. And make sure the top bosses know about your range of expertise.
  • M .L.

    Down with the ship?
    Regardless of the healthy economy and a strong job market for meeting planners in general, placement experts say what happened to Morris could easily happen to any corporate meeting planner, especially those at the senior level or recent hires. With downsizing, mergers and restructuring constantly reshaping the corporate world, it's a mistake for any employee to take job security for granted. Meeting planners, who often have to market their worth to top management, may be especially vulnerable.

    Sheryl Sookman, president of The Meeting Connection, a placement firm in Novato, Calif., believes that while planners have made a lot of progress in the past decade toward demonstrating their contribution to the corporate bottom line, sometimes it's not enough. "When companies feel an economic pinch, one of the first things they do is pare down on programs and events," she says. "When that happens, they simply don't need as many planners anymore."

    That was the experience for William Barge, a planner in Morgan Hill, Calif., who was recently laid off from his job as trade show manager for a high-tech firm in Silicon Valley. "When the company fell on tough times, it cut sales offices in half, axed a multimillion-dollar ad campaign and cut back on trade shows," says Barge, who was in the job for just eight months. "In a case like this, you're a passenger on the ship. If it goes down, so do you."

    Like Morris, Barge wishes he could have somehow foreseen the economic future of his company. However, 11 years of working in trade show management for four Silicon Valley companies has taught him not to expect job security even in a booming region. As Barge knows all too well, the high-tech industry is one where company fortunes can both soar and plummet at breakneck speed.

    Background check
    While it may be difficult to predict any company's economic future, Barge and Morris are now taking a hard look at the stability of prospective employers. "I'm interviewing with four companies right now, and I'm doing my homework on each one," says Barge. "If they're traded publicly, you can do some research right there."

    Similarly, Morris is doing more background checking than he would have before the Nike experience. Intrigued by a job opening he discovered on the Internet, Morris investigated a bit further and discovered the company was in Chapter 11. "In my search, I'm also looking at whether there are other departments in the company that also plan meetings," he says. "When I took the Nike job, I didn't know about Sports Marketing and that there was some overlap between that department and ours." Rick Maurer, a management consultant based in Arlington, Va., says Morris and Barge are taking the right approach - although it may be for naught. "You have to go into any job realizing that there are no guarantees anymore, period," he says.

    Still, he recommends studying all the trends affecting companies within any given industry. "For instance, if you're interviewing with a software firm, look at what companies in that field are doing with meeting planning, human resources and other areas that are not in the core of the business," he says. "If the trend is toward outsourcing or hiring people on contract, there's a good chance your company may eventually go that way, too."

    Make Lemonade The end of a job doesn't mean the end of a career - if you've made sure your parachute is in working order.
  • Always have a game plan, even if you think a layoff will never happen to you.
  • Keep a record of your achievements, and build a portfolio that illustrates what you can do. Include meeting brochures, letters of appreciation and photos of events.
  • When interviewing with a company, research its financial stability.
  • Get involved in an industry association. A network of colleagues can provide moral and practical support in the event of a layoff. M.L.

  • Saving your job
    Once you're on the job, can you protect yourself from an impending merger or downsizing? While some factors may be beyond your control, there are steps you can take to maximize your chances of survival. Perhaps the most important is to watch for changes on the horizon.

    "Always keep your eyes and ears open about what's happening in your company," says Dawn Penfold, president of The Meeting Candidate Network, a placement firm based in New York City. "Pay attention to rumors - they're usually true. People who think changes won't affect them are usually the ones affected the most."

    Penfold recommends a proactive approach. "If your company is about to merge with another, learn all you can about the new company and how they do business," she advises. "Be prepared to fit in with a new corporate culture. Above all, don't be antagonistic. Do what you can to be perceived as a team player who is open to the change."

    Those most likely to survive a restructuring may also be those with the broadest range of skills. "Broaden your scope within your company, and don't stay isolated within the meetings department," says Sookman. "Can you do travel as well as meetings? How about marketing? Many times your best new job opportunity may be within the company, but you have to have skills that are transferable."

    Having great skills is just part of the equation. The other is making sure the right people know you have them. "It's not enough to do your job exceedingly well. You've got to understand your presence and how you're perceived," says Maurer. "You've got to market yourself to the people with the word Ôchief' in front of the titles, those who do the hiring and firing, those who might view what you do as fluff. If you stay insulated within your department, people outside it may not even know what you do, let alone why you're valuable."

    A planner's ability to demonstrate ROI (return on investment), the corporate mantra of the '90s, may also provide some protection. "When you put together a meeting or conference, make it clear to the decision-makers that you're concerned with the purpose of the meeting," says Maurer. "They can always get an outsider to find hotels or speakers, but they need someone who can think like a business partner."

    Sometimes, however, you can do all the right things and still be let go. In the case of a merger, for example, it may be your company's clout that counts, not your own. "If two companies merge and decide they don't need two meeting departments, the decision of who stays and who goes may be made a continent away from your office," says Maurer.

    Saving your career
    While keeping your job may not always be within your control, keeping your career moving forward is. How quickly you find a desirable new job has a lot to do with how prepared you were before the layoff occurred.

    The old adage about the importance of who you know perhaps never rings truer than when you're pounding the pavement. A strong network of colleagues within the industry can be crucial, providing everything from job leads to moral support. For Morris, the first step he took in dealing with the shock of losing the Nike job was to get in touch with people he knew from Meeting Professionals International. "I really work MPI," says Morris. "I don't just go to meetings, I meet people and get involved. It's given me a readymade network and has been a tremendous help."

    Penfold agrees that involvement with industry organizations is important. "I recently got a call from a planner [whose company] had just been downsized, and I asked her if she was an MPI member," Penfold recalls. "She said no, that during her 20 years in the business it hadn't seemed necessary. Now, all of a sudden, it's necessary."

    Another smart career strategy is to make sure your achievements on the job are well documented. "Some job candidates have great experience but have never bothered to build a portfolio that really shows what they can do," says Sookman. "It's important to keep a record by saving brochures you've created, letters of appreciation, photographs. One candidate came in with photos of every aspect of a trade show, even showing how the name badges tied in to a central theme. A great portfolio like that really makes [your] job experience come alive; it's far better than just describing it."

    A new beginning
    Perhaps most important is to have a plan of action in mind just in case your job should end tomorrow. Give some thought to your ultimate career goals and ways to pursue them. For Penfold, who lost her job as assistant director of meetings for ITT when the company downsized in 1990, such forethought gave her the impetus to realize her dream of running her own company. "I had seen the need for a meeting planner search firm, and that's when I got started. Sometimes downsizing means a forced opportunity."

    For Phyllis Mikolaitis, senior program manager for Xerox Corp., downsizing presented a welcome opportunity. When Xerox announced plans earlier this year to reduce its global work force by 9,000 jobs, primarily through voluntary retirement and severance packages, Mikolaitis, who is 55 and has been with the company for 21 years, was one of the first to volunteer.

    While she enjoys her job at Xerox, where she manages a wide range of events at Xerox Document University, the company's training campus in Leesburg, Va., Mikolaitis has long been preparing for the day it would end. With a plan in mind to start her own company specializing in event management and training programs, she enrolled in the event management program at George Washington University and graduated in 1996.

    "I had planned to start my company when I retired at 59, but it makes sense to do it now," says Mikolaitis, who expects to open Events Plus shortly after she leaves Xerox late this summer. Initially, she will operate out of her home in Sterling, Va.

    Instead of dreading her day of departure, Mikolaitis is looking forward to a new step in her career and is profoundly glad she prepared for it. "If I hadn't thought about life without Xerox, leaving would be difficult. I'd have a lot of soul-searching to do," she says. "In today's world, you have to plan for the unexpected. Not just financially, but for what you want to do with your life."

    Help Wanted? If you lose your job in today's market, how likely are you to find another at the equivalent level? Placement pros say your chances are best if you have some experience, but not too much.

    Dawn Penfold, president of The Meeting Candidate Network in New York City, says the job market is especially strong for those planners at the middle management level. "Companies aren't desperate, but they're definitely looking for people with good, solid skills," she says.

    Sheryl Sookman, president of The Meeting Connection in Novato, Calif., agrees that companies are hiring, but says that most of the requests coming into her agency are for people with just one or two years of experience. "There are plenty of new full-time jobs out there, but the difficulty is that the salary levels of people who have been laid off are usually higher than those of the new positions," she observes.

    Adds Penfold, "Corporations are [structured] in a pyramid system, so there are fewer rungs on the ladder as it gets higher."

    How long should the job hunt take? "The books say allow one month for every $10,000 in salary, but it varies," says Penfold. "A lot depends on your interviewing skills, your flexibility and whether you're willing to relocate."

    For those who want to begin earning again right away, one option is to take a temporary planning assignment. "For some high-level people, working on contract is a chance to take a breather and ponder their next move," says Sookman. "At the same time, it's a way to keep your hand in the industry until the right opportunity comes along." M.L.

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