Best Places to Work in the Meetings Industry 2013

How four companies thrive by keeping their employees happy

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Find our profile of Southwest Airlines here.

How is your relationship with your workplace? Are you still in love? Or has the luster faded? In preparing our second annual feature on the best places to work in the meetings industry, M&C asked planners and suppliers for their input through the MIForum, Twitter and Facebook. We also considered Fortune's annual ranking of best places to work and's Employees' Choice Awards. Our selection criteria included factors such as a clear corporate mission, great benefits, a flexible work environment, accessible management, a strong sense of corporate social responsibility and more.

Our four choices for 2013 share some common threads: A strong personality at the top sets a tone for the corporate culture and demonstrates a commitment that employees will want to carry through. Far from ordinary office environments, these companies create a community so special that no one wants to leave.

MARKETING DESIGN GROUPMarketing Design Group inside
One sunny morning in January, Jessica Porambo, an account coordinator with San Diego-based trade show marketing agency Marketing Design Group, walked through a San Francisco neighborhood and slipped Scratcher lottery tickets into the mailboxes of complete strangers. The deed was one of 26 random acts of kindness employees at MDG completed to commemorate the 26 victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The companywide initiative had staffers returning to the office to share the results of their deeds with co-workers.

"It was really fun to be able to communicate who did what every day," says Porambo, 22. "Having things in common helps us work better together, and it makes the time more enjoyable when we have these experiences to share."

Indeed, the acts of kindness comprise one of the many activities that continue to build a tight-knit bond among MDG's 20 employees. Founded in 1967, the company thrives on a cohesive, collaborative office culture. The entire staff occasionally works on art projects together or takes afternoon field trips to see museum or gallery exhibits to "feed their creative soul outside the work environment," says Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes, MDG's president and owner. "It allows us to develop a sense of camaraderie and friendship that we can apply to work."

An atmosphere of creativity and professional growth is fostered in more direct ways, too. Every week, for example, a member of the account services team leads a discussion on a cutting-edge topic relevant to the industry, like potential marketing applications for Pinterest, or a recent experience with a client that might be of value to others. "Information is shared freely across the organization so we're all benefitting from each other's knowledge," says Hardcastle-Geddes. "We know that the best ideas come from a variety of sources."

The collaborative spirit is especially important because MDG employees enjoy a flexible schedule that allows them to do things like leave early to pick up their kids or participate in volunteer efforts, and that means there might be extra work for the rest of the crew during such absences. And, no need to rush home to walk the dog; it's a pooch-friendly office.

Other perks include a $75-per-month mobile phone allowance, a fully paid health-care plan and a profit-sharing program that functions like a 401K without requiring employees to contribute any of their own earnings.

The office is blocks from Balboa Park, where staffers often go for pre-work runs together or to walk their pups.

M&C Video: Tips on Building a Company Culture

If you stay at a Hyatt hotel, there's a good chance a Hyatt employee is staying there too: Full-time associates receive 12 complimentary Hyatt hotel room nights per year and a 50 percent discount on food and drink.

One of the many benefits of being a global hospitality brand is the ability to leverage unique resources -- such as hotel rooms -- and share them with employees. "This is by far the number-one perk that our associates talk about," says Doug Patrick, senior vice president of human resources, the Americas. "Staying at a hotel for a week's time can cost thousands of dollars, so allowing staff to visit one of our properties at no cost is a huge benefit and a nice recognition for their service. They receive a nice amenity when they check in and get treated like royalty."

Other Hyatt perks similarly stem from using the 56-year-old chain's worldwide inventory of properties. Employee of the year and manager of the year recipients receive a complimentary six-night stay at any Hyatt in the United States, Canada or the Caribbean; a $350 food credit; a $500 spending allowance; roundtrip airfare for two, and one week extra vacation time.

But it's not just free hotel stays that provide added value for employees, a cohort of 90,000 strong. "Thanks to our diverse and talented staff, we can give our associates around the world experiences that can enrich their lives both inside and outside the workplace," says Patrick. During "Celebrating Our People Week," for example, individual Hyatt properties pair up with another of the company's hotels somewhere in the world and share traditions, recipes and cultural activities. "Not only does this build a more well-rounded personal understanding of world cultures, but it also helps our associates better empathize with guests coming from all corners of the globe," Patrick notes.

Some programs are built around employees who can share a certain skill or expertise. For staff interested in learning about nutrition, for example, property managers might ask their executive chefs to give healthful food demonstrations in the hotel's kitchen. Other offerings, like on-site yoga instructors, Zumba classes or health fairs, can vary from hotel to hotel depending on employee interest. All of this is done to create a company environment where employees feel "recognized, valued and part of the decision making," says Patrick.

The effort has paid off in terms of retention. Nearly 14,000 associates have been with Hyatt for at least 10 years, with more than 6,000 holding a position with the chain for 20 years or more.

During their long careers with the company, many employees take advantage of professional development to climb the corporate ladder. More than 95 percent of general managers have been promoted from within Hyatt. In addition to internal mentorship programs and career-related resources, Hyatt provides a tuition reimbursement program and has partnered with Harvard Business School Publishing and eCornell, a subsidiary of Cornell University, to offer leadership training programs.

"It's important to keep our associates with us, because guests appreciate employees who know the property and understand the industry," says Patrick. "When our associates are so engaged, it's really noticeable in the guest experience."FREEMANDon Freeman and Carrie Freeman Parsons
On the surface, the Dallas-based Freeman Co., which specializes in the nuts, bolts and décor of bringing a trade show or exhibition to life, might not seem like a typical best place for employment. "The work is incredibly challenging," says Carrie Freeman Parsons, vice chair and chief marketing officer. "There is significant weekend work, a lot of travel and a lot of late nights. It's an arduous and taxing environment."

The job might be tough, but the employees are loyal -- a significant number of the 4,600 people working for Freeman have been there 10, 15, 20 years. Freeman Parsons attributes this largely to the fact that the company, which was started in 1927 by her grandfather, Donald S. "Buck" Freeman, always has been family oriented.

"I've always felt there was a blurred line between my blood family and the company family," Freeman Parsons says. "I give credit to both my grandfather, with his boundless enthusiasm and big personality, and my father, who brought in a strong sense of integrity and selflessness." Her father, Don, serves as chairman of the firm, while son-in-law Joseph Popolo Jr. has been CEO since 2008.

Paramount to fostering this family atmosphere is the open-door policy followed by company executives. "It's interesting to me how many people come into our business from other corporations and industries, especially IT and finance, who say they haven't experienced true accessibility like ours," says Freeman Parsons. "This comes from my father, who never has his phone calls screened."

Back in 1985, the family gave 38 percent of the company's stock to the employees, creating a long-running and healthy Employee Stock Ownership Plan. However, Freeman Parsons says that in recent years, employees becoming eligible for the plan didn't recognized its value, because the bulk of the shares were held by veteran staff of more than 20 years' standing; younger workers weren't getting the same return on investment. So the company bought back 20 percent of the stock and reinvested it in the plan, to be redistributed among all eligible employees. Those who had some of their shares purchased were able to roll the money into their 401ks.

"There was the risk of some people feeling they were losing something, but most understood the value of the plan and realized this would allow more employees to engage in it," says Freeman Parsons of the transaction, which closed in March.

The company also focuses on the physical health of its employees. One program, called Walk Across Freeman, has employees outfitted with a Fitbug (, a device that monitors physical activity, and working in teams to see who walks more. Their everyday steps are tallied and applied to a course plotted from Des Moines, Iowa (where Freeman was founded), to the firm's 40 locations around North America. An online map shows where all the teams are. "It's getting competitive out there," notes Freeman Parsons.

A number of performance awards are up for grabs every year, including the Buck Freeman Person of the Year award. For the peer-nominated Star of Excellence, the best of the best are recognized for embodying the company's values day in and day out. The prize: three extra days off and $1,000 in cash. But just the act of being mentioned positively in a client's performance survey will catch the eye of management.

"We don't have a high degree of politics here," says Freeman Parsons. "We've been fortunate to have people who have been with us for a long time; they've been keepers of our culture, and we hire people who we think will be a match and share our values."SPEAR ONEValentine's day at Spear One
On Friday afternoons when the weather is warm, the staff of Spear One can be found on the patio outside their offices, enjoying a Dr Pepper Happy Hour. This is just one way the Irving, Texas-based firm, which specializes in developing and administering incentive programs, as well as meetings and events, practices what it preaches, making sure the 30 employees are interacting and keeping ideas flowing between them.

There's lots more fun to be had throughout the year at Spear One, facilitated by the Culture Committee. One favorite this year was the pre-Super Bowl chili cook-off. But it gets even wackier, such as "Salad Dressing Day," where employees came to work "dressed" as their favorite dressing. (One employee came as a cowboy to represent ranch dressing, another wore a toga for Italian dressing.) And on "Spirit Day," everyone is encouraged to wear their college colors to work.
Ice cream truck visits spear one
Among other efforts to bring smiles to the office, during an entire Groundhog Day, the classic Bill Murray movie played continuously in the company's colorful break room, where many of these events are held. The relaxing space is stocked with free snacks, sodas and a Keurig coffee maker. On a chalkboard, staff are invited to answer a weekly question, such as "What was your favorite school supply?"

Overseeing this light-hearted roster of perks is president Mike May, whose own warm personality is evident in the firm's policies. "It's a personal commitment of his, to enjoy working with every single employee," says Theresa Allen, Spear One's creative director.
"I think that what people see in me is somebody who is personable and caring," says May. "You hear about the open-door policy all the time, but people see that side of me." But May is quick to credit vice president Rudy Garza, who came to the company from Frito-Lay two years ago, for instituting the Culture Committee to foster a more cohesive office environment.

"One of the things we tout as our differentiators in the marketplace is our creativity," says Allen. "Allowing us to exercise that at the office every day strengthens our ability to give new ideas to the client."

Spear One's staff also gets to play together outside the office once a quarter, whether it's bowling, laser tag or competing at Top Golf, a specialty driving range. "The fact that our president is willing to take us away from our work space during the workday and concentrate on our relationships is unheard of in anything else I've done," says Allen.
Importantly, recognition is bestowed throughout the year. "Our workloads can fluctuate dramatically, so we have to find creative ways to respond quickly," says May. "That usually means helping out a colleague." To reward people for going the extra mile, employees can win a monthly SOOP (Spear One Outstanding Performance) award, which includes use of a coveted covered parking spot for a month and a free lunch.

May also believes in continuing education and helping his staff improve their expertise. Classes have been developed internally in areas such as channel marketing, tax rules for incentive marketing, F&B trends, how best to source a transportation company and group air-travel rules.

"We have many people who started at an entry-level position out of college, and they can look around and see a career path," says May.

Read about last year's best places to work here.