Meetings & Conventions: Starting Over - July
Joe's year: a promising new job, a move across country, and
a pink slip
BY MARIA LENHARTF
or 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
The end of a job doesn't
mean the end of a career - if you've made sure your parachute is in
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Back to Current Issue indexM&C
| Events Calendar
| Incentive News
| Meetings Market
| CVB Links
| Reader Survey
| Hot Dates
| Contact M&C