. Best Places to Work in the Meetings Industry 2014 | Meetings & Conventions

Best Places to Work in the Meetings Industry 2014

Where Women Thrive
Hotel giant Marriott International continues to rack up best-companies accolades, appearing again on the Fortune Top 100 list, one of only 13 entities that have appeared on it every year since it was first compiled in 1998.

Marriott also regularly appears on the National Association for Female Executives' list of the Top 50 Companies for Executive Women. As described in Working Mother magazine, women make up 58 percent of the managers, 40 percent of senior managers and 34 percent of corporate executives, and nine women head up divisions worth more than $100 million annually.

Guiding this phenomenon is Marriott's 15-year-old Women's Leadership Development Initiative, helping to bring women into management and decision-making positions. "Taking care of our associates is at the heart of Marriott's core values," said David Rodriguez when the company made the top 10 this year. "This acknowledgment reflects the achievements of the initiative." - S.B.

It's the people. That, in a nutshell, is the philosophy that runs through every company we have profiled in M&C's annual installments of the Best Places to Work in the Meetings Industry. Sure, each organization has its own unique culture and mission, but in the C-suite there's a strong belief that if employees are happy, customers will be happy.

For our third annual survey (find the 2013 entry at bit.ly/1cQx1sh and 2012 at bit.ly/1cSZSGQ), we combed the usual places, including the 100 Best Companies to Work For list from Fortune, Glassdoor.com's Best Places to Work, lists compiled by newspapers around the country and trusted industry sources. Several companies we have profiled in previous years continue to be lauded on such lists, including Marriott International, Hyatt Hotels, Southwest Airlines and Kimpton Hotels.

This year, we chose entities ranging from a perennial powerhouse entertainment and lodging company to a firm that specializes in  planning government meetings. Read on to see what makes them special.

THE WALT DISNEY CO.

In 2000, Victoria Hardison-Sterry had aspirations to become a wedding planner. A recent graduate from the University of Central Oklahoma, she wanted to learn the ropes on a larger scale, so she packed her bags and headed for Orlando, where she took a position at Disney's Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World as a front-desk hostess.

Soon enough, she was promoted to wedding event manager/convention service man­ager at Disney's Yacht & Beach Resort Club, but her ascent through Disney's ranks didn't stop there. "People know that there is opportunity and a future here, and that's critical when it comes to building loyalty and longevity," says Anne Hamilton, vice president of resorts sales and services with Disney Destinations. "Our cast members [Disney's term for employees] often find growth and success as much through lateral moves as just straight up."

Early on, Hardison-Sterry met Hamilton, who asked if she might like to try her hand at sales. When the wary employee admitted she didn't know much about that role, Hamilton's response was, "Don't worry. We can teach you all of that." Fast forward nine years, and Hardison-Sterry is assistant sales director for the resort sales and services team, which oversees the entire portfolio of Disney theme parks and hotels.

"My plan was to come to Disney, build a résumé and eventually have my own wedding planning business, but the company has been so good to me, I haven't found a reason to leave," says Hardison-Sterry.

Always learning
Clearly, Disney takes career development seriously. The company hires more than 14,000 interns per year (many of whom come back to work full-time) and offers more than 10,000 online resources, classes, and other education programs that range from leadership training to working with guests. Hardison-Sterry continues to take courses every quarter.

Managers can cull data from a learning-management program called the Disney Development Connection to help track an employee's progress and determine additional learning opportunities, says Julie Hodges, senior vice president of human resources. "By recognizing in­dividual learning needs, we enable our employees to develop their knowledge, uphold Disney traditions and feel they are actively involved in the company's success," she notes.

Perks in the parks
For those who stay with the company for 10 or more years, Disney holds an annual event to honor their commitment. The tradition was created by Walt Disney himself in 1965. Last year, the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif., treated veteran cast members to an evening of entertainment, food and exclusive access to theme-park attractions.

Many other employee team-building events take place in the parks. The Cast Canoe Races, which celebrated a 50th anniversary last year, pit teams of cast members in races to paddle canoes around the attractions at Disneyland Resort. Since its inception in 1963, the tradition has spread to Walt Disney World Resort, Tokyo Disney Resort and elsewhere.

Perks like free theme-park tickets, hotel discounts and special rates on official Disney gear are among the most popular as charted by Glassdoor.com, which gave the resort its Employees' Choice Awards as one of the 50 Best Places to Work in 2014.

Embracing diversity
Factors beyond happy employees have put Disney in the No. 2 slot on Barron's list of the World's Most Respected Companies. Among lauded initiatives is Walt Disney Parks & Resorts' Domestic Diversity Council, a group of senior company executives who meet to discuss issues and make recommendations on diversity and inclusion strategies.

"Diversity fuels creativity, and our company benefits from the uniqueness of our work force," says Julie Hodges. "Our perspectives have to include a multitude of ideas, sensibilities and experiences, and for that to happen, our own people must be inclusive."

It doesn't take long for new hires to realize there's "a respect here for the individual and a conscientious effort to make each person feel trusted and valued," says Hamilton. "It's that feeling of being part of something really special, and that is the basis for everything we do." - MICHAEL C. LOWE

federal

 FEDERALCONFERENCE.COM

Not many startups can claim a three-year sales growth of 24,830 percent. That startling statistic earned FederalConference.com a second-place finish on Inc. magazine's Inc. 500 list last year, an annual ranking of America's fastest-growing private companies. In 2012, the six-year-old firm planned some 3,000 government meetings and events, with revenues hitting $49.6 million.

FederalConference.com, headquartered in Dumfries, Va., is a small business (with just 23 employees at present) owned and founded by Stephen Davis and Paul Trapp with a simple goal: to eliminate the anxiety and frustration of researching, planning and executing conferences for clients.

It was an idea that co-founder and CEO Trapp, a service-disabled veteran, conceived when he was chief of recruiting for the Army National Guard. "At the time, I was a sales manager for 5,000 recruiters," he explains. "I was planning awards ceremonies, training programs, banquets, workshops. I had a staff of 14, and practically all they were doing was planning events. That wasn't their job description, it was just something that had to be done. And it just consumed them."

Trapp attempted to outsource the work to a meeting planning company with experience in government contracting. "There really wasn't anything just like that," he notes. "The government wants someone they hire to do all of the work, submit one invoice and wait 45 days to be paid -- and to front all of the costs."

Thus the idea for a business was born. "The company was established in 2006, and we did our first event in 2007," says Trapp. "I was still in the military until 2009 and running my company at night and weekends. I retired from the military in 2009 to do this full-time, and then it just went crazy."

Managing Muffingate
Business thrived, and FederalConference suddenly had 50 employees and was planning thousands of events each year. "We won the Inc. 500 in August 2013, and in October our entire operation came to a halt. As soon as the scandals hit -- GSA, Muffingate -- about four agencies that we do business with really took a huge hit, and that caused some knee-jerk reactions across the board. Senior leaders were very hesitant to put their signature on something. They didn't want to be on the front page of the Washington Post."

Business has since improved, says Trapp, but a lot has changed. One example: "For one agency, I used to do an annual conference for 800 people. Now I do four conferences of 200 for the same agency." All 800 still need that training, he says, but it's less likely to be questioned as four smaller meetings.

Random acts of kindness
His company's culture is designed around one key principle, says Trapp: "If we get it right with our employees first, then they'll get it right with our customers."

Years earlier, during a period of financial hardship, Trapp found an anonymous envelope in his mailbox, with a note that read, "You're a good man and you do good things. Please accept this gift." Inside was $1,000. Trapp never learned the identity of his benefactor, but he continues to pay it forward: Every year, each employee gets $1,000 to give to a charity of his choice. The recipients are invited to a breakfast where the checks are presented by employees.

"Spontaneous recognition" happens on a weekly basis during Bagel Friday, when headquarters employees gather in the conference room and others can join via videoconference. "Anyone in the company can recognize someone for an Act of Greatness or and Act of Kindness," says Trapp. A dozen envelopes are tacked to a pinboard. They might contain anything from a $25 gift certificate to a trip for eight to Las Vegas. Honorees pick an envelope at random, and can choose to trade with one another before they are opened.

"I've seen people give the envelope to someone else before even opening it," says Trapp. "Someone might be nominated and say, 'Thanks, but so-and-so really went above and beyond this week.' "

Then there's Employee of the Quarter. Everyone gets a company roster and selects three people who performed outstanding work over the past three months. When the results are tabulated, says Trapp, "We tell the winners, 'You've worked very hard to earn this recognition. For the next three months, we want you to relax a little bit when you're home.' Then we send a maid service to clean their house for the next three months." Those who don't want that service can opt for $750 in cash.

Poised to branch out
Going forward, Trapp says, "My goal is to work more toward strategic levels with the government side, and to go after the big long-term contracts." Many of the larger agencies are adopting a system that requires meetings to be outsourced to a single entity for multiyear business.

Another objective is to extend the firm's footprint beyond it's traditional bread and butter. "When we were doing such a high volume with the government, we essentially cried uncle," says Trapp. "We were doing 3,000 events per year and had to have at least three bids for every piece of business, so we needed 9,000 hotel quotes. Site-selection was daunting."

A relationship with third-party giant HelmsBriscoe was the answer. "We had an initial conversation in 2011, and we gave them all of our site-selection business," says Trapp. "Then we signed an agreement in 2013 to become an option for housing and registration solutions for HelmsBriscoe Clients under DavisTrapp, a subsidiary we created that works as a completely separate entity.

"Right now," Trapp Adds, "about 95 to 98 percent of what we do is federal government work. I expect in two to three years the DavisTrapp thing will be bigger than the government piece." - LOREN G. EDELSTEIN

benchmark

 BENCHMARK HOSPITALITY

The stereotype of a family company has siblings squabbling, grumblings about nepotism and staff halfway out the door. The reality, at least at The Woodlands, Texas-based Benchmark Hospitality, is that harmony reigns at the top and all 6,400 employees are highly valued -- and they know it. That was a key mission when chairman Burt Cabañas founded the hotel development and management company in 1980, and continues to be a reigning principle since he passed on the title of CEO to his son Alex this past January.

The elder Cabañas, born in pre-Castro Cuba, came to the United States when he was 10. Over the past 35 years, he has built up a company with some 30 managed properties throughout the continental U.S., Hawaii and Japan, including 10 public facilities that are members of the International Association of Conference Centers.

"I wanted to work for an organization that really values its people," says Karen DiFulgo, vice president of human resources, who joined Benchmark a little more than a year ago. "A lot of companies talk about it, but to live the values and live the words they put out there is a different experience."

As new CEO Alex Cabañas puts it, "We don't talk about Benchmark as our family, Burt and I, but as the Benchmark family."

Learning, growing, giving
A visitor to the Texas campus first notices the overall ambience. Reflecting Burt Cabañas' love of art, works by local artists decorate the hallways, and the reception area is graced with an original mosaic whose many tiles represent each of the individuals who make up the company.

At the on-site Z Café (named for Bob Zapatelli, Benchmark's first vice president of food and beverage, who died in 2009), employees meet to eat lunch together. Nearby is the Quiet Room, where anyone can take a yoga break, play cards, read or just recharge.

As part of a hospitality company, Benchmark's employees get the usual travel discounts (a rate of $39 per night at most properties, plus a friends and family rate of $79, depending on occupancy and availability).Those who take advantage of the perk are treated like royalty: General managers typically provide employee guests with welcome gifts such as logoed T-shirts and mugs.

Education is a major focus at the company, whose Benchmark University is devoted to the individual's internal and external development. Online classes are available at a discounted rate through a partnership with the University of Phoenix. Classroom instruction also is given at the property level, and those who want to supplement their learning at a local university can apply for tuition reimbursement. "The classes do not have to pertain to hospitality, but we do encourage it," says DiFulgo.

Employees who go above and beyond can earn the instant recognition of a gift card or a free lunch. But the company also prizes a storytelling tradition, which has been turned into a companywide program. " 'Be the Difference' is the overarching culture of who we are," says DiFulgo. "We achieve it through storytelling, on conference calls, pre-shift meetings. Employees tell their own stories, or a property receives a great TripAdvisor rating or a guest calls in to praise someone." The program is about sharing and reinforcing the team spirit that infuses the company.

Cultural committees at the home office and at each property create opportunities to support local and national charities. The company as a whole supports the United Service Organizations, whose purpose is to "lifts the spirits of America's troops and their families." At headquarters, Benchmark participates in yearly themed dragon-boat races against other nearby businesses to benefit the South Montgomery County Family YMCA; the team-building event features competing groups of paddlers who are urged on by drumbeat. "We've also done events for local women's shelters, pet shelters," says Melanie Perdue, human resources generalist for the company. "We have partnered with the Interfaith of The Woodlands for about 25 years, collecting backpacks and school supplies for kids who need them. We sponsor local walks and runs."

Perdue started at Benchmark in a part-time position eight years ago: "I was able to help people, and every day was different, so I decided to stay. Having Burt or Alex come down to my office to have a professional or personal conversation with me speaks volumes. It's a unit, it's a team, it's a family. I look forward to coming here every day." - SARAH J.F. BRALEY

eventbrite

 EVENTBRITE

Last April, the three co-founders and executive team of Eventbrite took the stage under the bright lights of the Supperclub in San Francisco. Clad in black, the crew executed a choreographed dance to the hit K-Pop song "Gangnam Style." The crowd, some 200 Eventbrite employees (or Britelings, as they're called), went nuts.

It was the annual talent show of the San Francisco based self-service event registration and ticketing company, where employees can strut their stuff for colleagues. It's one of the many activities that help create Eventbrite's close-knit community, at times referred to as a second family. It's a fitting description for a company whose CEO and president are husband and wife.

Kevin and Julia Hartz were engaged when they founded Eventbrite in 2006 along with Renaud Visage, the organization's current chief technology officer. Via the website, Eventbrite.com, clients can create events, sell tickets and manage registrations. Last year, the firm sold 58 million tickets through its platform (up from 36 million in 2012) in 187 countries, amounting to $1 billion in tickets (a leap from $600 million in 2012). The platform also allows potential attendees to purchase tickets and share activity on social media channels.

The Eventbrite mobile app, which was downloaded 2.3 million times in 2013, lets event-goers to access their tickets and uses geo-location to discover activities nearby. Event organizers can use the app to transform their smartphones into ticket scanners and
registration-management devices.

In September 2013, the firm acquired Eventioz, a Latin America-based ticketing service, and Lanyrd, a London-based event-data firm. Even now, with about 320 employees, the Hartzes personally interview all new-hire finalists to make sure they are a good fit for the family.

Few trappings of hierarchy
Transparency and executive visibility are core tenets at Eventbrite. Every Thursday, employees can attend a meeting, during which the Hartzes sit down to go over recent events or answer questions. "We are a transparent company almost to a fault," says Miles Parroco, head of recruiting, who adds that the company's legal department isn't always thrilled with what its founders divulge to staff. "We try to share as much as we can so people understand how the company is doing and how what they do affects the bottom line," he notes.

Company headquarters, known as Briteland, features an open floor plan where even top executives sit at desks alongside the rank and file. "It doesn't matter if they're the CEO or president or a VP. If we want to go up and talk to them we can," says Parroco. The Hartzes have moved their desks around the office several times to embed themselves within different departments. "It's a clear nod to everybody that we're all on the same team," says Parroco.

Later this year, when the growing company moves into a new office just south of Union Square, the open floor plan will remain, using design and décor ideas contributed from employees via a Pinterest board.

If it's Tuesday, it must be yoga
An enviable roster of office perks helped win Eventbrite a slot as one of the 10 Best Places to Work by the San Francisco Business Times four years in a row. "Most candidates come here because they're interested in the opportunity to work on our product and contribute to the bigger picture," says Parroco. "But they definitely pay attention to the way we treat our employees."

And what they find are benefits like subsidized in-office massages, yoga classes in a large conference room twice a week, acupuncture and free healthy snacks like hummus, veggies and kombucha (a sweetened, fermented tea) on tap. Staffers are routinely treated to catered meals inspired by cuisines from around the world, such as grilled tofu skewers with a sambal teriyaki glaze, Filipino pork tacos, chicken goulash, and pork schnitzel, not to mention an accompanying keg of beer.

The company offers standing workstations and a treadmill desk, available upon request. Employees get a wellness stipend of $60 per month, and an extra $100 monthly is added to everyone's paycheck for transportation.

Many other initiatives enhance the sense of community. Following the monthly all-hands meeting, different departments are tasked with throwing a themed happy hour. Last fall, the sales team held an autumn-themed party complete with hard cider and Irish coffee, and a crackling autumn fireplace projected on the office walls. Britelings can embrace their competitive side during the quarterly Game Night, featuring activities such as ping-pong, bean-bag tosses and more.

Britecamps, held about twice per month, are opportunities for employees to share knowledge or hobbies with one another. Past topics have included espresso-making, photography, ergonomics and jujitsu.

"Because people are spending the better part of their day here, we want to be able to host meals so they can eat together, do yoga together, enjoy being together," says Parroco. "If you have happy employees, it will show up in the product." - M.C.L.

DALLAS CONVENTION & VISITORS BUREAU

When Phillip Jones came on board to run the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau 10 years ago, he brought an athlete's vision of persistence and hard work to the problems at hand. "When I arrived, the organization was in some turmoil, and it took me about two years to get us on a solid path," says the seasoned triathlete. "We have tripled citywide bookings since then and hired terrific people. That's why I think we have been ranked in the Dallas Morning News' Top 100 Places to Work for the past five years."


Fitness and other perks

In keeping with Jones' training mindset, one of the fun benefits of working for the CVB is a free gym membership; coupling that with a very flexible approach to the workday has produced an increase in productivity and a decrease in sick days. "We try to provide workplace flexibility, allowing people to manage their home lives," says Jones. For instance, employees who are on goal can work from home one day a week, although being in the office isn't such a chore, since it is in the Republic Center in the heart of the city and was reconfigured last year to add more collaborative work spaces.

Another fun aspect of being part of the CVB is testing the product that visitors to the city will use. "We take our team on all-staff outings to experience new venues, giving them firsthand experience of the product we're selling," says Jones. They are also encouraged to volunteer for events coming to town, which can have some unexpected benefits. This month, the NCAA Division 1 Men's Basketball Championship Final Four is being held at nearby Arlington's AT&T Stadium; the person who signs up for the most volunteer hours will win tickets to the final game.

Both individual and staffwide training is important to the organization, which employs 65 people. Hands-on and all-staff classes cover topics like technology and new trends, and speakers are brought in regularly. Examples of staff events from this year and last include a talk by Andy Rittler from the LBJ TEXpress Express Project (about Texas highways); a visit from Beverly Davis with Spark! Playground for the Mind, a facility being built to encourage creativity in children 7-17; a talk and tour with Erin Murphy of Trinity Groves, a 15-acre restaurant, retail and entertainment destination that is aiming to be incubator space for restaurants; "Women Working Together" with Heidi Murray, COO of Leadership Women; and a tour of the Federal Reserve Bank's museum.

"We cover trends in the industry and beyond, to get our employees engaged and knowledgeable about what is happening in our world today," says Jones.

Each month, birthdays are celebrated in one big party; quarterly staff meetings feature recognition given in front of peers.

They heart Dallas
Paying back the community they work for also defines the CVB. Book drives collect for local organizations. Employees are encouraged to join the boards of charitable groups throughout Dallas. One event the bureau participated in last year was a huge success for the North Texas Food Bank. Playing on the CVB's marketing program called "Dallas: Big Things Happen Here," using huge Bs and Gs (a person standing in between the letters becomes the "I"), the letters were painted orange and set up at food bank drop-offs throughout the city; bureau employees prepared meals, packed boxes and manned collection points.

A common love of Dallas defines the bureau's culture, says Jones. "We have a core group of very enthusiastic employees who are passionate about the city. We are innovative, energetic, always striving to be the best -- and proud." - S.B.