Best Places to Work in the Meetings Industry 2012

Five fun companies that inspire excellence and reward loyalty

Many people have a love-hate relationship with their jobs. But in some companies, the love is pervasive. To find such places in the meetings industry, M&C scoured reputable business sources such as Fortune's annual ranking of exemplary workplaces in the United States, and also asked planners and suppliers for their input via the MiForum, Twitter and other networks.

Thus armed, we hand-picked five firms in our world -- two event planning outfits, two hotel chains and an airline. The common thread: All have created a culture of caring, committed employees who genuinely find their jobs to be great fun. Here's how they do it.

Red Frog Events Headquarters: Chicago
Employees: 62

It's a brisk morning in Chicago's River North neighborhood, and Munirah McNeely, who helps organize races for Red Frog Events, has to get to her desk on the opposite side of the office for a conference call that's about to start. She debates making a mad dash for her cube, but instead grasps the office zipline, a 50-foot-long cable that traverses the floor, and is whisked past her co-workers until she lets go, hits the hardwood floor and drops into her seat as the phone rings. Just as McNeely picks up the handset, a colleague pedaling a cherry-red tricycle glides by and slaps her a high-five.

This is just another day at "Camp Red Frog," as the company's headquarters is informally known in a nod to its summer-camp atmosphere. Along with the zipline and tricycles, the office has a rock-climbing wall, a conference table made of 50,000 Legos, and a bar permanently stocked with two kegs of beer (they've just upgraded to Leinenkugel, according to McNeely), along with Red Bull and soft drinks, not to mention a foozball table, free candy dispensers and a fire pit. The biggest head turner in the office, however, is a $100,000 tree house with a slide, a rope bridge and two meeting rooms outfitted with bean bag chairs.

"It's hard to measure the payoff of those kinds of things, and I'm sure investors would be pretty skeptical about spending $100,000 on a tree house, but I believed in it and went through with it," says Red Frog founder Joe Reynolds. "We're in the business of selling fun, so creating a fun culture always has been one of our top priorities."

The Warrior DashReynolds, who produced the company's first event, the Great Urban Race, in 2007 with a $5,000 investment and the help of free labor from friends, believes the office culture has been an invaluable recruitment tool and a catalyst for innovation. This year, Red Frog Events is expected to earn some $65 million in revenue and produce more than 90 events on three continents, including the Amazing Race-style Great Urban Race, where teams solve clues and complete mental and physical challenges, and the Warrior Dash, an extreme 5K mud run. This month the company will launch the Firefly Music Festival, its newest and largest event, according to Reynolds; its location and details remained secret at press time.

"Working here is all about being creative, so having an office space like Camp Red Frog has really helped flourish brilliant and fun ideas," says McNeely. "It's really hard to be lame when you're on a swing set." (Yes, they also have swings.)

The physical office, which is being expanded this month to make room for a real RV that will serve as meeting space, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to employee perks. Red Frog Events also offers unlimited vacation days, a generous 401(k) program, company-paid health insurance that requires a zero deductible and minimal copay, and the freedom to set your own hours. Oh, and then there's the monthlong sabbatical entirely paid for by Red Frog to anywhere in the world that employees receive after just five years on the job. Better still, they get to bring a guest, who also travels on the company dime.

"People produce better work when they're happy at work," notes Reynolds. That's not to say it's easy; event organizers might log some 100-hour weeks loaded with high-stress days and late nights. Still, Reynolds says, "If our employees can handle the responsibility required for running our events and run them well, then they can handle the liberties we give them."

That sense of trust seems central to Red Frog's breakout success. "There's very little micromanaging happening, and that freedom makes you your own boss," says McNeely. "We each have a lot of responsibility, so we learn to balance our workload and meet deadlines. I don't know anyone who has abused the perks."

How hard is it to get a foot in the tree-house door? Applicants must first complete an internship or, at more experienced levels, a trial period as an event coordinator. Red Frog has 45 to 130 intern positions at any given time, and Reynolds gets nearly 2,000 resumes each month from applicants vying for those coveted spots. Those who nab one are on trainee status for three to four months, and about one in five are hired on as employees. The internships are full-time and pay $500 per week before taxes.  

"By the time you become a full-time staff member, you understand how Red Frog works and know what you need to do to do your job well," says McNeely, who started with the company as an event coordinator in 2009.

"We understand this type of culture won't work for every business," admits Reynolds, "but I hope more companies will consider it."


Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants Headquarters: San Francisco, with 51 hotels and 54 restaurants in the U.S.
Employees: 7,000

Niki Leondakis"If you're not willing to laugh at yourself and be silly, then we're not the company for you," says Niki Leondakis, president and COO of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, founded in 1981. And that includes enthusiastic participation in the annual Toilet Paper Your General Manager competition, part of the Housekeeping Olympics, a celebration for the firm's hardest-working employees.

"Our sense of humor goes way back," says Leondakis of the company, which was started in 1981. "Our founder, Bill Kimpton, felt that the happiest people were in touch with their inner child. And when our employees are having fun, then our guests are having fun."

That culture has helped Kimpton climb up the ranks of Fortune magazine's annual list of 100 best companies to work for. Kimpton is #16 for 2012, a rise of 67 spots since last year and the only hospitality company to crack the top 50. (Three other hotel chains made the list: Marriott International at #57, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts at #85, and InterContinental Hotels at #100.)

Another pillar of company culture is Kimpton Moments, a companywide awards program that encourages selflessness among co-workers. Employees nominate peers who have gone above and beyond for a guest or colleague. At year's end, one deserving nominee wins an overall prize of fulfilling a dream -- within a budget of $10,000.

One past winner was a bellman who had voluntarily driven a guest home all the way from Seattle to Portland, Ore., for Christmas in a snowstorm when flights were grounded. Even his dream reward was selfless: to send his parents to Italy. Kimpton made all the arrangements and created the trip of a life­time for a proud mom and pop.

Beyond setting business objectives, all Kimpton employees must outline personal goals, such as going back to school, eating more healthfully or learning to control stress. Supervisors work one-on-one with their charges to provide resources to help them achieve these objectives.

Diversity is ingrained in the company and plays out in a number of affinity groups, all of which have private Facebook pages allowing members to interact across the United States. There's the Kimpton women's group; KPride, for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees; and groups for Asian, Latino and African-American employees.

The Kimpton philosophy welcomes feedback and ideas from everyone, at every level. "We are intense listeners as a culture," says Leondakis, who tweets as herself (@niki_leondakis) to encourage open conversations about policies and problems. She even hosts quarterly TweetChats and holds fireside chats around the country with other senior leaders to keep in touch with the front lines. "It's like painting the Golden Gate Bridge," she says. "We start at one end of the country and when we're done, we start all over again."


JetBlue AirwaysHeadquarters: New York City
Employees: About 14,000

For most companies, the customer comes first, but not at JetBlue. "Here, crew members come first and customers come second," says Allison Steinberg, spokesperson for the New York City-based airline company. "We think that if our employees are happy, they'll take better care of our customers." And it shows: The airline  has won the JD Power and Associates honor for customer satisfaction seven years in a row. ("The plaque is sent to every city in our network, and staff take photos with it," says Steinberg. "They love showing it off.")

JetBlue keeps its 14,000-person work force happy by adopting a culture of "sharing and caring," says Steinberg, who points out that one of the company's five core values is "fun."

One of the ways the company reinforces fun is with an annual competition known as the Blue City series, for which employees at 70 airports around the world compete on work-related tasks, such as cabin preparation and baggage handling. Times and scores are tracked for two months in the summer. The winning station receives a personalized trophy in the form of a blue bat and a
company-paid party to celebrate. "It's a fun way to bring some competitiveness to our daily work," says Steinberg.

JetBlue also runs numerous contests for its employees that tie in with external marketing campaigns. When the carrier adds a new city to its list of destinations, free tickets are often up for grabs. When JetBlue ran a Valentine's Day contest asking travelers to share their stories of long-distance romance, a similar contest ran internally. Winners (both customers and crew members) were flown to meet their partner and accompanied by a six-foot-tall teddy bear during the flight.

JetBlue staff celebratingDuring July 4th and Memorial Day, the company has barbecues for staff around the country, and for its 10th anniversary in 2010, the carrier held a carnival with rides, games and food. Even on the job, JetBlue employees are encouraged to get festive. During this year's Dominican Republic Independence Day in February, crew members distributed paper Dominican Republic flags to passengers traveling inbound and outbound to the country. At the airline's Santiago station, a traditional folk group donned costumes, masks and colorful silk as they greeted customers and danced.

"Happy crew members are bound to be more productive and creative," notes Steinberg. "We take the time to thank people and show we appreciate all that they do."

Back in the office, schedules are flexible and the environment is casual. And, of course, the 2,000 reservations operators in Salt Lake City who work from home "can work in their pajamas if they want," says Steinberg.



Four Seasons Hotels and ResortsHeadquarters: Toronto, with 86 hotels in 35 countries
Employees: 33,000

Four Seasons line danceMary Sullivan has been working for Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts for almost five years, "and it seems like just a second has passed," she says with a smile in her voice.

Perhaps the most appreciated perk is the freedom to book a free stay at any Four Seasons hotel during vacation time. Employees in any position can enjoy R&R in such posh spots as Hawaii or Nevis, New York or London, Tokyo or Bora Bora. The inside joke is that children of Four Seasons employees won't let their parents leave the company once they've experienced a vacation at one of its properties.

But satisfaction runs deeper than that prized perk. "We've created a community at work that people want to be a part of and feel that they have a vote in," says Sullivan, who is the senior vice president of corporate human resources. "It's a proxy family in many instances. Somebody does care that you are fulfilled, that your job is not overtaxing, and that's what I think is the secret sauce." Monthly gatherings in each hotel are held allowing employees to bring up new ideas, issues and recommendations.

Four Seasons often ends up on best companies lists, Sullivan thinks, because although it's a large corporation, "we feel like a small one. We have a forward-thinking, bright CEO [Kathleen "Katie" Taylor], who is fundamentally an approachable person. People here feel that they have a personal relationship with their boss, the boss's boss and the CEO."

A few years ago, Four Seasons launched an initiative called the Employee Experience, aimed at enhancing the everyday environment for workers. "We are in a 24/7 operation, so we can't tell people they can work from home and we can't tell people they can clean a room at their leisure," says Sullivan. "Nevertheless, we are committed to making sure that the hours people spend working are fulfilling. We have initiatives on wellness, fitness rooms for employees, special menus in the cafeterias and community outreach programs. Everyone gets to vote on who should be employee of the month and the quarter. We try to involve everyone as much as possible."

Allowing for job transfers to other locations also is an accepted practice that keeps employees in the Four Seasons family. As Sullivan puts it, "You can satisfy the wanderlust that many of us have in the industry, especially since we're very committed to promotion from within, and we believe you're a better employee for working at different properties."



M&C Video Extra
Nicholas Giambelluca, guest service manager at The Muse Hotel in New York City, talks about his uniquely Kimpton experiences at mcmag.com/
webexclusives.
For more insights from Kimpton employees, visit imkimpton.com.

Briggs Inc. Headquarters: New York City      
Employees: 17

"I have an old-fashioned work ethic," admits Anthony Napoli, president of New York City-based destination management company Briggs Inc. "I'm used to everyone being in the office by 9 a.m., no exceptions." But when employees recently asked for the freedom to set their own hours, Napoli, a 25-year industry veteran, gave it serious thought -- and then agreed. "My employees work extraordinary hours, and they wanted to be able to adjust their schedules to suit their time, so we said yes. It's an honor system, and people love it. No one has abused it, so I'm OK with it," he says.

Their hard work is rewarded in other ways, all year long. Achieving certain goals, like winning a new piece of business or getting a glowing a client letter, earns workers points. At regular intervals, Napoli rolls out a giant game-show style prize wheel, and those who have accrued 900 points can spin for prizes. Winnings have included a paid day off, 25,000 American Express travel miles and tickets to a Broadway show.

"It sounds silly, but everyone loves spinning the wheel," says Napoli. "I could easily just give them an award or prize, but the wheel adds this crazy element to it. It really does make everyone want to work harder."

The annual incentive trip has a twist, too: Everyone goes. The excursion is a true VIP experience, with meet-and-greets, tours, dinners, upscale venues and team-building activities. "This works out really well," says Napoli. "It brings the company together, and it also reinforces what we do as incentive planners."

Other annual events include a Christmas activity and dinner that Napoli plans, but he doesn't reveal the itinerary until the day of the event. One year he took the whole team to The Nutcracker ballet in the afternoon, followed by a bus trip to the Woodbury Commons Premium Outlets, where employees were handed $250 in cash and told if they didn't spend it all before they got back on the bus, they would forfeit the unspent money. A show-and-tell of the purchased items was held over dinner.

Briggs also throws Friday happy hours and offers half-price gym memberships. A healthy work-life balance is important, says Napoli, as is creating an environment where employees continue to want to come to work. "You have to love this business to do it, but if you hate the office environment or the working culture, that can deplete your love for the job fast," says Napoli. "We want our team to have a rich personal life so they can share it with the office. It makes everyone that much better."