Meetings & Conventions - Charge Accounts - May
About faces: Sara Rontal, About.com'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 About.com, 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?”
About.com’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
About.com’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
Hotjobs.com 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
“You’re going to see the development of infrastructure at these
companies simply because they have to survive,” says Hotjobs.com’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,
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 BarnesandNoble.com.
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
BarnesandNoble.com’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
“It really sold itself to the executives. They got to touch
and feel BarnesandNoble.com 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 Hotjobs.com’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 Priceline.com, 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.”LAND OF
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
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 Priceline.com. 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
C.B.SHOULD YOU RISK
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
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
Has the dot-com gone public?
Does the office culture match what you are
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
Are you willing to work long hours?
Are you confident and enthusiastic about the
dot-com’s business and the company’s strategy?
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