MeetGreen's annual retreat (pictured), in Netarts Bay, Ore., culminated with a group selfie on a cliff.
Many factors go into a great workplace. One common thread is an employee-first philosophy, which ultimately translates to prideful efforts and pleased customers. This year, for our fifth annual examination of the best places to work in the meetings industry, M&C has selected two planning firms, a hotel company, an airline and a convention center.
To determine what places to feature this year, our editors combed Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For 2016, job website Glassdoor.com's Best Places to Work 2016 and similar rankings. We also reached out to industry sources to learn about smaller organizations that wouldn't appear on such compilations.
Here's what makes these five honorees true standouts in our industry.
Planning meetings with the care of our home planet always in mind, this small Portland, Ore., firm holds its employees' well being in equally high esteem.
"Never before have I had a team or worked with a group of people who are just happy to be together and happy to be doing this work," says founder Nancy J. Zavada, CMP, proudly speaking of her staff of 13.
At any given time, five to seven people are in the Portland office, a cozy 100-year-old Craftsman bungalow with a covered front porch sporting rocking chairs, a nice yard, a koi pond and a friendly old black Labrador retriever. In the summer, the conference room table (with hard-wired Internet) is moved onto the porch for meetings or an outdoor workspace.
Others work in home offices in New York City; Pittsburgh; Vancouver, B.C.; and Washington, D.C. "While we might not be in the same office, we have a strong company culture and have developed virtual systems to work seamlessly together," notes Zavada.
Each Monday, MeetGreen holds a full staff meeting using Zoom, team software offering cloud video conferencing, simple online meetings and group messaging. A central communications wiki is a repository for project information, schedules, ideas and more. Twice a year, the whole group gets together face-to-face for strategic planning, collaboration and just to enjoy each other's company.
While recognizing the limitations of a small firm, Zavada does what she can to offer her employees perks and help the community. Birthdays are paid holidays, for example, while Martin Luther King Jr. Day is devoted to volunteer efforts for charitable causes.
"One of the best benefits we all agree on is the flexibility to work virtually, during the hours that are best for the project and for family/life commitments," Zavada says.
Staff members are encouraged to further their education, whether taking college classes or striving to earn professional designations like the Certified Meeting Professional. MeetGreen covers the costs for industry-related programs and college courses that directly relate to an employee's position.
As the company's mission is to help organizations hold more sustainable meetings, MeetGreen's staff practices what it preaches in its charity work. Throughout the year, employees plant trees; volunteer at Portland's Rebuilding Center, where construction materials are resold to reduce waste and build the local community; and donate to the Oregon Food Bank. They also support efforts such as Clean the World, which recycles hotel soap and other personal cleaning products; women's shelters; an anti-bullying organization, and more.
"At our holiday party last year, we all went out to lunch, and then went to Schoolhouse Supplies to sort donations," says Zavada, referring to the organization that runs a free store for teachers, stocked with items donated by the community.
"There's no infighting here, there's no backstabbing," Zavada adds. "We genuinely like each other. People go to each other instead of coming to me if they need something. It's so gratifying to have a company like this. We have this team, and I wouldn't trade one of them for anyone in the world."
New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center
This award-winning venue, singled out as a Best Place to Work by The Times-Picayune and nola.com, differs from the other firms profiled in this story in a significant way. As a public entity, the gargantuan center, with 1.1 million square feet of exhibit space, can't offer employees many of the perks -- presents, trips, incentives -- that private companies can; anything "extra" the facility can do to make it attractive to employees has to meet strict legal guidelines.
The center's comprehensive SPICE employee-training program, launched in 2008, has become a key tool for stoking the morale of its 500 employees. It must be working, as the facility has an annual worker-retention rate of about 90 percent. (SPICE stands for "Serve with flexibility and a sense of urgency. Perform with pride and passion. Identify issues and provide solutions. Convey a positive attitude. Exceed expectations always.")
Quarterly SPICE meetings are conducted as rallies, complete with a theme (one year it was Cajun, with training areas decorated like Cajun cabins) and, since this is New Orleans, lots of delicious snacks. Sessions often include live music, games and races.
"We want people to let their hair down, not be lectured or bored," says Rosalie Mortillaro, communications manager for the center. "These sessions reinforce camaraderie and allow people who work in different departments, who otherwise might not cross paths, to meet."
Professional development is a building block of the center's culture: Employees take 16 core hours of required courses and may opt to take several hours of elective courses of their choosing, all offered by the center. Other perks include a wellness program, where employees can earn personal time off for tracking their physical activity and healthy behaviors.
Charity is highly valued here. The facility holds an annual food drive, collects toys for disadvantaged kids and donates funds to the local Ochsner Hospital for Children.
The response to these programs has been "overwhelmingly positive from employees," says Mortillaro. "The success also is reflected in both feedback from our clients as well as interest from other businesses in New Orleans. And we've received numerous letters from clients praising the heightened level of service they receive from our staff."
Among the happy employees is guest services manager Chris Smith, who joined the center last April, based on what he had heard about the SPICE program. "We had a terrific training class that took us around the city and showed us the history and places that make New Orleans such a magical place," he says.
Smith adds, "I've had some great hospitality jobs in my 41 years, but never one that took the time to really delve into the city and make sure the employees have a good background of where it is that we work and live."
Barkley Kalpak Agency
When every staff meeting ends with the president wishing his team "big love around the room," you know the Barkley Kalpak Agency is a different type of planning company, especially considering it's based in a city -- New York -- not known for fostering touchy-feely work environments.
Other perks that seem more in line with Silicon Valley's work culture than Manhattan's -- the office margarita machine, impromptu parties to celebrate anything from "have fun at work day" to "wellness Wednesday," and a paid day off every year for employees to devote to financial planning -- underscore why this small company has appeared on Crain's New York's Best Places to Work list for two years in a row and one of Event Marketer's Best Places to Work in 2015.
In a stressful field, BKA aims to foster an environment of caring, humor and mutual respect, according to president Jeff Kalpak."We decided that if we were going into business, it was going to have to be fun," he says.
The culture of appreciation and the family-like atmosphere owe much to the theater roots of co-founders Kalpak and Lynnette Barkley (who has since left the firm to return to directing). They parlayed their stage background into corporate entertainment, launching BKA 26 years ago. Since then, BKA has diversified its offerings to include site selection, planning, production, experiential events, content development and more. Consequently, the staff of two burgeoned to its current head count of 27 and includes a mix of Millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers,with an average tenure of seven years.
BKA's present-day office is a far cry from its first digs -- Kalpak's or Barkley's bedroom. The loft-like headquarters in Manhattan's Creative Arts Center has an open floor plan, natural light, a large-screen TV, a Wii station, a hallway that is "perfectly proportioned for playing our Brooklyn-themed cornhole game," notes Kalpak, and ever-present music, ranging from disco to pop.
Celebrations of both traditional milestones and obscure holidays (the day M&C spoke with Kalpak, the office was paying homage to National Margarita Day) are very much a part of the BKA culture. "Our clients, partners and people who interview here always remark on the good vibe of the office," Kalpak says with evident satisfaction.
The team likes to share its infectious enthusiasm and professional creativity through its various social media channels and inventive videos (youtube.com/user/barkleykalpak).
For a small agency, BKA offers an impressive array of benefits. In addition to health insurance, dental, flex spending, a 401(k), a pension plan, profit sharing and tuition reimbursement, the firm gives its employees the aforementioned annual "financial day of health" to devote to tasks such as negotiating better credit card rates, refinancing a mortgage or drafting a will. And everyone is entitled to an annual "flake day," where they can decide with a day's notice to skip work.
In addition, BKA offers its employees flexible schedules and the ability to work remotely. And if a team member provides BKA with a contact that leads to a business booking, the employee receives a cash bonus for the referral.
Professional growth is strongly encouraged: Every employee is eligible to apply for access to the BKA Education Fund, which is used to pay for industry conferences, workshops and classes to advance career development.
Employees also can apply for the BKA leadership scholarship, awarded to two people each year, which offers a yearlong custom-crafted curriculum that pairs winners with a mentor who meets with them on a monthly basis to act as consultant and advocate.
Philanthropy is very much in line with BKA's identity. Under it's team-led #BKACares umbrella, the company donates time and financial aid to philanthropic causes ranging from the American Cancer Society to Project Night Night, an organization that assembles tote bags packed with stuffed animals, security blankets and books for children living in homeless shelters.
"We've seen our teammates get engaged, rescue pets, run marathons, get married -- marry each other! -- have babies, beat cancer, or grow from intern to vice president," says Kalpak. "We are a family."
Delta Air Lines
Affordable travel is a huge perk for Delta Air Lines employees, but the Atlanta-based carrier offers plenty of other standout perks.
More than 80,000 people are employed by Delta worldwide and, yes, all can fly free or at reduced rates on a space-available basis throughout the system, but they also can travel on other carriers for reduced fares.
As a 24/7 service, Delta spends most holidays making sure customers are getting where they want to go, but the company takes one day as its own. "Each February, either on Valentine's Day or the nearest business day to it, the company observes Profit Sharing Day," says Jennie Ho, managing director of specialty sales and Canada.
This past Valentine's Day, the company paid out a record $1.5 billion (yes, that's a "b") to the workforce -- an average of $18,350 per person, or about 21 percent of an employee's eligible 2015 earnings. This year's event also was marked by a Guinness World Record for the World's Largest Greeting Card replica, a thank-you card to Delta employees printed with more than 80,000 names.
Another cool payout comes from the Shared Rewards program, giving eligible employees from $25 to $100 a month when the airline finishes first among its peers or meets internal goals in baggage handling, number of flights completed as scheduled and on-time arrivals. If all three goals are met, everybody gets an extra $100.
The well-being of the workforce is handled in a similar way for those enrolled in a health-reimbursement account or a health-savings account. Under the latter, employees receive rewards in the form of pretax dollars for completing preventive-care actions like biometric screenings and annual physicals.
To get people together outside of the office, Delta holds block parties in major cities such as Atlanta and Minneapolis. The 2015 Atlanta Block Party welcomed more than 40,000 Delta employees and their family members for a day of food, drink and entertainment.
The company is equally committed to giving back to the communities it serves. "We contribute time, energy and millions of dollars to a host of philanthropic causes," notes Ho. "Our pillars of community support and focus are advancing education, expanding global health and wellness, promoting arts and culture, saluting our armed services members and veterans, supporting global diversity and sustaining the environment."
Among the many groups Delta supports are the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, amfAR, the United Services Organizations, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the Nature Conservancy and local community food banks.
During the year-end holidays, kids become the focus of goodwill efforts. Delta encourages donations to the Marine Toys for Tots Campaign, among other special initiatives. This past December in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles and other major cities, hundreds of children battling illnesses or those who had lost a parent in military service went on flights to the "North Pole" (actually a ride on a plane around the tarmac) or watched Santa arrive at a holiday party complete with a magician, face painting and a sack full of toys.
Career advancement is strongly supported via an internal Learning Management System, says Ho. "LMS offers classes in both face-to-face and online settings, providing training on Delta's operations and business practices, as well as professional development."
Those who decide to pursue a college degree are qualified for help from the Delta Scholarship Fund. This year, the carrier will offer more than $1 million in such funding to employees and their eligible family members.
Commune Hotels & Resorts
Commune CEO Niki Leondakis has appeared in M&C's pages before. For our 2012 "Best Places to Work" story, she was featured as president and COO of honoree Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. She left Kimpton in November that year, however, to become the top executive for San Francisco-based Commune Hotels & Resorts, which was established in October 2011, following the merger of Thompson Hotels and Joie de Vivre Hotels.
"There was a lot to do, because Commune was the result of a merger of two boutique hotel companies that had their own distinct cultures," Leondakis says. "My first order of business was to focus on defining the new company culture. To me, that's an essential part of the overall business strategy. A healthy and engaging culture, where the team members are happiest, is one of the vehicles for achieving your business goals."
Leondakis strove to create a sense of purpose at the company from the bottom up, holding many meetings and asking employees to define what they saw as Commune's greater mission. "We came up with something like 77 core values, and we distilled it down into themes," she says.
Ten tenets were identified, and now the company of 4,600 people -- 65 in San Francisco, 22 in the New York regional office, and the rest at 45 hotels and one ship -- runs on the Spirit of Commune values: celebrate individuality; be thoughtful; listen; laugh often; live with the heart of an innkeeper; be humble; continuously improve; seek balance; cherish our resources; and follow your angel, ignore your devil.
A number of company initiatives aim to bring these values to life. "Wellness Wednesdays" have been instituted in San Francisco, featuring a yoga teacher who also exercises a sense of humor. "On nice days we hold class on the roof deck," says Leondakis. "It brings us together and gives people who have tense jobs some moments of relief." Likewise, many Commune hotels host staff fitness classes and morning warm-up/stretching sessions.
Leondakis and her charges are starting to go through the culture-defining process once again, as the company processes its recent merger with Destination Hotels, marrying Commune's more urban oases with Destination's resorts. "We're going to go through a very similar process to what we did when I came to Commune, harnessing the ideas of all employees across both companies," says the CEO. By the summer, she expects the combined entity to have a new name, with a new set of core values in place by early fall.
One tenet will not change: "People matter most," affirms Leondakis. "If you just try to manage results, it's not going to be sustainable. Involve the people equation in all business decisions."