May 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions - Charge Accounts - May 2000

Current Issue
May 2000 About faces: Sara Rontal,'s coordinator of promotions and events; and Marlo Klein, director of trade and event marketing.

The Lure of the dot.coms

With stock options, lofty goals and unending enthusiasm, internet firms are courting professional planners

By Carla Benini

  “I’ll see you on Saturday?”Scott Kurnit, CEO of, asks Marlo Klein, the company’s director of trade and event marketing. Kurnit is referring excitedly to an employee field trip to Ringling Brothers Circus at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, a fanciful event partly orchestrated by Klein. She reminds him she can’t go; she will be vacationing in the Caribbean. The two start swapping tales about puddle-jumpers. As they part ways, Klein beams, as if to say, “See how great he is?”’s headquarters occupies three crowded floors of a Manhattan office building. This summer, the company will move across town, a mammoth design and logistical project spearheaded by Klein, who says she got the job because “I have proven to my CEO that I get things done.” Meanwhile, each office seems to have a mini-meeting in progress, as most are shared by three people. Hallways are lined with color photographs of the people who are’s bread and butter: the expert guides. Dance music, paranormal phenomena, pregnancy and birth, and 747 other subjects are addressed by the Web site’s stable of experts, who work from their homes in 48 states and 20 countries to answer questions posed by anyone in the world. Fish bowls, which Klein purchased for every employee as part of a branding effort; a ping-pong table; a volleyball net, and a piñata are among the toys dotting the decidedly noncorporate office space.

Internet companies or dot-coms have enjoyed headline-making growth, some doubling or tripling their staffs in one year. When any company’s employee count shoots for the moon, meetings become an increasingly important means of communicating goals and direction. And when business is conducted in a virtual world, face-to-face gatherings can be even more critical.

Not surprisingly, in interviews and, in some cases, visits to their headquarters, M&C found dot-coms have a dire and growing need for meetings expertise. Those without professional planners are making due for now; those that have brought experts aboard still approach meetings with the same out-of-the-box creative energy that is the driving force of their success.

Some dot-coms consider internal meetings a luxury, as growth is so rapid there isn’t time to hold them. “You can’t expect to have a corporate meeting that tells everyone what’s going on,” says Dimitri Boylan, chief operating officer of New York City-based Ltd. “The joke around here is that someone walks into the room and says, ‘Hi, I’m your new boss.’ It’s like, ‘Hey, where was the meeting that decided this?’”

“We can talk to people on the Internet in our sleep, but when it comes to the face-to-face meeting, that’s not what we’re built to do,” says Derek Gordon, spokesperson for DigitalThink, a San Francisco firm that offers Internet-based education to corporations. For Gordon, life at DigitalThink seems to be split into two distinct periods: the time before he hired Allison Saget as strategic events manager and the time after.

“Prior to Allison, we would pull people together and they would sit on the floor,” he says. In the company’s infancy, Gordon used a projector and a white wall for visuals. Eventually, as more employees were hired, the need arose for a miking system. So, DigitalThink purchased what by most professional meeting standards is not part of the audiovisual repertoire: a karaoke machine.

Clearly, the Internet has created a paradigm shift in the way people and businesses do business. In many ways, this shift extends to the dot-com work environment. These companies don’t look or function like a Hewlett-Packard or a Weyerhauser. Their hierarchies are nonthreatening. Work spaces have no walls, gourmet caffeine is on tap and toys like plastic bowling pins amuse the digeratti during a 20-hour workday. A person hired for human resources might be handling the monthly executive meeting, the site’s banner advertising and a direct-mail promotion.

Dot-com founders often are computer gurus, more adroit at Tomb Raider than at golf, oblivious to the traditional business world’s totems and values. “The new presidents of dot-coms understand code but not marketing or planning,” says Mary Ann Pierce, president of Events Digital in New York City, which helps companies market trade shows and events via the Internet. “You get two kids from Stanford they don’t care what a booth looks like. They care about having a huge server.”

The question is, where does the meeting planner fit in? That answer depends largely on the maturity of the dot-com, whether it is old enough to have considered its presence at a trade show or the need to upgrade its karaoke system and move to more sophisticated meetings.

“You’re going to see the development of infrastructure at these companies simply because they have to survive,” says’s Boylan. “There is some threshold that takes place where you can no longer ask other employees to plan meetings.” A meeting is more complicated with 650 employees than it was when the dot-com had 50 employees, he says.

More companies are looking for experienced marketing professionals to join at middle- and upper-level management, says Boylan, partly to counteract the lack of experience among those who are at the helm of these companies. As more people join the ranks from traditional corporate cultures, they bring their knowledge and belief in meetings and events with them.

For any type of professional, meeting planners included, working at a dot-com requires a broad set of skills. Generalists, not specialists, prevail. “When you interview candidates, you’re looking for people who can be flexible to take on a wide variety of projects and be self-supportive,” says Sean Huurman, Dallas-based director of recruiting for KPMG’s fledgling Web design firm, Metrius.

Employees also need to understand how areas of marketing public relations and trade shows, for example cohabitate. One might be expert in promotions, but how do those programs mesh with the dot-com’s marketing plan? Can an effective ad campaign piggyback on the promotions program?

Gonzolo Manucci, manager of promotions and events for AltaVista, an Internet search engine based in Palo Alto, Calif., says he honed a talent for juggling while at another Internet company. Manucci was spearheading the online promotional strategy for CMPnet, a technology Web site, which required him to work with four to five departments within the company as well as people outside the firm. “We were constantly on deadline,” says Manucci.

Granted, all of this demands an extremely high energy level. “You have to be flexible, dynamic, energetic [and be] able to make decisions very quickly and respond very quickly,” says Lesley Hess, promotions director of New York City-based Typically she plans events two months out, compared with the six to 12 months she had while working at the Food Network, based in New York City.’s office is across town from that of its bookstore-chain namesake. The dot-com has separate management, budgets and employees. So, despite her company’s brick-and-mortar origins, Lesley Hess had a typically dot-com experience convincing the decision-makers of the need for “offline” events.

Hess spearheaded the online store’s Lounge Series, where authors are invited to read from their recently published works in an urban setting. The first, in New York City, featured comics Janeane Garofalo and Ben Stiller, co-authors of Feel This Book: An Essential Guide to Self-Empowerment, Spiritual Supremacy and Sexual Satisfaction. “Conan O’Brien showed up,” exclaims Hess. The event attracted a few local television networks and a bevy of photographers.

“It really sold itself to the executives. They got to touch and feel along with the customers.” Hess has been given the go-ahead for 12 Lounge Series events this year, which are being co-sponsored by American Express. She also has hired an events manager to plan them.

Being part of what is essentially a start-up, dot-com planners talk about a certain camaraderie, a bond among both co-workers and supervisors that is not found in a typical corporate culture.

Marlo Klein says fewer walls both physical and psychological exist between departments. “I have easy access to my CEO. If I have a brainstorm for an event, I can walk in,” says Klein, whose background is in television, where she handled promotions for the Lifetime network and was a location manager for the television series Law & Order. The absence of bureaucracy makes things like changing a salary investment plan as easy as a sticking a Post-It to the desk of someone in human resources. “The easy access we have to each other helps us grow,” Klein says. “I would never go back to the corporate culture.”

“You don’t go to a dot-com to have a nicely organized day-in, day-out kind of job,” says’s Boylan. “But people get to do more than they would have in traditional companies. They get to see impact very quickly.”

“I wanted to work for a dot-com where I had the ability to make a difference,” says Allison Saget of DigitalThink. In addition to overhauling the process of planning meetings and events, she developed a more efficient lead-generation system that enables her salespeople to track leads from a trade show before they even return to the office. When a sale is made, she knows when it has been generated from one of her events, and she is sure to let her bosses know about that.

It is not unusual in the dot-com world for planners to influence the direction of the company and take significant responsibility for its success. “You’re not a coffee cup-counter anymore,” says Mary Ann Pierce of Events Digital. “You become the messenger of the content. The planner is the person who really is managing the experience and the communication that delivers it.”

When Jonathan Fader was hired as DigitalThink’s director of marketing and given the directive to “ramp” its growth, he looked specifically at how the company was handling events. “It was more than bringing on an events planner; it was bringing on a strategic thinker,” Fader says.

Derek Gordon brags that Saget reinvented DigitalThink’s trade show presence, which at that time consisted of a 10-by-10 booth of pipe and drape with a hand-scrawled banner. “She has essentially come in and said, ‘If you want to be the industry leader, you have to do this.’ She did an evaluation, from booth property to the clothes we wear to how you wine and dine and deal and schmooze. Allison recognized every event we do is a communications opportunity. Once you take that perspective, it puts everything in a new light.”

Once a month, the people at DigitalThink would devote the first 15 minutes of a company meeting to introducing new employees. Since most meetings at the relatively young firm took place in the hallway, it was a rather casual event. As the new strategic events manager, Saget thought, “What am I going to do to make sure they know I’m serious?” To make a splash, Saget hired “the best production company in the city” to stage and light the meeting. She collaborated with corporate communications and public relations to draft a meeting agenda. She added neat rows of chairs to a room that could be used for meetings.

Then, to prove her resourcefulness, she called a friend who agreed to donate aluminum coffee cups to every employee in the company. At the meeting, she raised the cup high in the air and exclaimed, “This was free.” says Saget, “They saw I could deliver something, and I had only been there for three days.”

Dot-coms also need planners to be strategic about money, as they do not have the budgets of a traditional corporation. Many, even heavy Internet hitters like, are hesitant to participate in costly trade shows. “We’re funneling most of our money to build the brand,” says spokesperson Mike Darcy.

But increasingly, event planning is taking on a critical role for dot-coms, as competition forces them to reach a broader range of businesses and consumers through traditional marketing arenas like trade shows. “I would argue that events are more important to a small dot-com than to a Kraft Foods,” says Dimitri Boylan of

With smaller budgets and resources, dot-coms need to be selective about the shows they participate in. Jim Shissler, corporate public relations manager for AltaVista, says, “I think ‘how much is it going to cost, and how much do I have to spend to gain a presence?’ You have to pick and choose the places you go.” The company might not be able to dominate the Comdex show, but it can create a presence at smaller events. “I think that’s something a lot of companies don’t think of trying small shows and gaining a presence there,” Shissler says.

For Information Week’s spring conference, attended by corporate executives, DigitalThink was one of 11 sponsors. During the event, held March 5-9 in Amelia Island, Fla., the company paid for a technology session, a turndown service and a cigar reception. Saget says, “I’m spending a lot per person, but I have a higher profile of audience. All I need to do is close one deal.” She figures she spends between $500 and $1,000 per attendee at every conference in which the company participates.

The fact that many dot-coms do business only in a virtual world makes the tangible experience even more necessary. In many cases, these companies’ products or services are brand new and have to be explained. Five years ago, who had heard of a content provider or a search engine? “We struggle to explain to customers the medium, the business model and the service,” says Boylan. “In a traditional market, you know Daimler Chrysler, but some company called X3, I don’t know what they do. The marketing pressure on the company is much greater. They have to explain what they are and how they fit into this new world order.”


Paralleling the booming dot-com industry is the fact that the country’s unemployment rate remains incredibly low. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C., the rate has been hovering around 4 percent for the past several months and under 4.5 percent for the past two years. This is the lowest it has been in 30 years.

“It’s so difficult to find great qualified people that dot-coms are very competitive with stock options, benefits programs and flextime,” says Allison Saget, strategic events manager at DigitalThink in San Francisco. “If you looked at my calendar you would see that every Friday is blocked out for the next two years because I have chosen to work at home.”

Granted, while she spends much of her time in her pajamas on Friday, she’s still working. “The beauty is that I can work anywhere, anytime that is our business model,” says Saget. The model has its downside, she adds; a workday can last 18 to 20 hours.



Thanks to the tight labor market and a growing need for superior talent at middle- and upper-management levels, dot-coms seem to have opened the glass ceiling for women. Female executives have been making an exodus from traditional firms to powerful posts at dot-coms.

Among those who have risen in the online ranks: Heidi Miller this March left her position at Citigroup, where she was executive vice president and chief financial officer, to become CFO of Jeanne Jackson, former head of the Banana Republic division of Gap Inc., has taken the helm at

They’re in good company. In 1999, 45 percent of management positions at Internet companies financed by venture capital firms were held by women, according to San Francisco-based VentureOne, a research firm. Of those, 6 percent held CEO positions.



Will today’s promising dot-com still be around six months from now? Before devoting yourself to a dot-com, ask these probing questions of your potential employer and of yourself.

Does the dot-com have a real product, or will the company risk collapse if the Web site fails?

Is the company making a profit?

Are prominent venture capital firms backing the dot-com? Who are its partners?

Who are the executives at the helm? Are they recognizable names from the industry? What is their previous track record?

Has the dot-com gone public?

Does the office culture match what you are looking for?

What is the buzz about the company? Is there a lot of hype about its upcoming IPO, or is the company still struggling for an identity?

What is your own level of risk?

Are you willing to forgo a higher salary for stock options?

Are you willing to work long hours?

Are you confident and enthusiastic about the dot-com’s business and the company’s strategy?


Back to Current Issue index
M&C Home Page
Current Issue | Events Calendar | Newsline | Incentive News | Meetings Market Report
Editorial Libraries | CVB Links | Reader Survey | Hot Dates | Contact M&C