Best Places to Work in the Meetings Industry 2015

M&C's popular annual feature highlights how some of the most progressive and iconic companies in the meetings/hospitality universe put their employees first

Best Places 042015

In this, M&C's fourth annual roundup of terrific companies to work for in the meetings industry, a recurring theme over the years continues to ring true: Take great care of the people you have, and great people will want to join your team.

To select winners to profile for this year's list, we combed Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For, 2015; job website Glassdoor.com's Best Places to Work in 2015 (Google topped both of those lists, by the way), and similar rankings. We also reached out to industry sources to learn about smaller organizations that wouldn't appear on those larger compilations.

On the pages that follow, prepare to be inspired -- and perhaps even a bit envious.


The Third Party: Red Velvet Events
This is what you want the owner of your company to say when she talks about meeting planning: "It is a fun industry; oh, my gosh, it's so fun!"

Those are the words of Cindy Y. Lo, owner and event strategist for Red Velvet Events, a Global DMC Partner, in Austin, Texas, established 12 years ago. "I was in corporate America, a technical project manager," says Lo, who heads up an office of 16 (and growing). "When 9/11 happened, I was a road warrior. About a year later, I decided I wanted to stay put in Austin, to get to know the house I'd bought." But when she sought jobs with other companies, they thought this perpetual traveler was a flight risk, so Lo started her own business. "I figured I would soon stop once I got hired by someone else, but I never closed shop."

 

Red Velvet (motto: "Outplan. Outplay. Outparty!") operates in a wide range of areas, from destination management and creative services to full planning for corporate, social, government and nonprofit events. But while the focus of the work is outward, a lot of care is given inward, to the staff that has become a family. Some employees really are family: Lo has brought her two sisters, Sarah (vice president of operations) and LeeAnn (marketing coordinator), into the fold.

Small companies often lack attractive benefits, but that doesn't apply here. One big perk: Every five years of service earns you a full month's paid sabbatical. Red Velvet also is moving toward offering unlimited paid time off, with blackout dates, a new trend in progressive workplaces. Currently, the company awards two weeks off a year, including sick days; every year of service adds an extra day and a half. "We give employees as much freedom as possible, letting them know it is a freedom they have to earn," Lo points out. "They have a responsibility to our firm and to our clients. Beyond that, we try to be as flexible as possible with vacations."  

 

The office itself is wide-open, adorned with a life-size cow figure (a relic from Austin's 2012 CowParade) decorated with souvenirs from the many destinations to which Red Velvet employees have traveled. Another nod to Texas culture is the office cowbell. Whenever a team member closes a piece of business or has anything to celebrate, he or she vigorously rings the bell to mark the occasion.

Lo is the only person who has a traditional office; everyone else works in the open layout, and there are spaces throughout for gathering, to find solitude or to have fun. Each department has been given a budget to decorate its corner of the long space, and there are scooters to ride from one end to the other. "There are races," says Lo. "It's definitely silly."

A game room is equipped with shuffleboard and  ping-pong, and the kitchen is stocked with fresh fruit, almonds, candy, a Keurig machine and more.

As pleasant as the office is, "if you need to work from home and you know you work better from there, then do it," says Lo. "Just make sure the client is taken care of. We want to give the client the best in creativity and ideas. We want to stand out."

Team members often socialize outside the office. One employee initiated Lunch Wednesdays, where a restaurant most haven't tried is chosen, and a group sets out to taste test. Fun Friday excursions are scheduled once a month, perhaps to an indoor sky-diving center, a Hill Country wine tour or a go-kart racing facility.

Life at Red Velvet is not only about fun and games; the company also encourages employees to grow professionally. Association membership fees are paid, and people are encouraged to belong to at least one if not two organizations. "We want them to be on a committee or a board," says Lo. "We want them to be certified, and we cover that." Lo herself and director of business development Rachel Paisley are working toward their DMCP (Destination Management Certified Professional) credential, while senior meeting planner Nikki Armesto is racking up points to earn her CMP (Certified Meeting Professional).

Every month, Red Velvet initiates or participates in a charitable event. In February, the company hosted a blood drive and launched a social media campaign inviting locals to join in. Staff members volunteer at animal shelters, serve a Thanksgiving feast to the needy at the Austin Convention Center, wrap and deliver holiday gifts, pull weeds at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and build houses with Habitat for Humanity.

The company participates in a recognition, reward and engagement program called YouEarnedIt, through which Red Velvet staff members recognize their co-workers for jobs well done. Points accrued in this process can be used to buy gift cards.

And then there's Pockets, the red-headed troll doll, a bright sign of peer appreciation. Each Monday at the staff meeting, whoever currently has Pockets on her desk passes the doll to another team member to recognize the successor's accomplishments over the past week. The recipient adorns Pockets with a new accessory (once, her toenails were painted), then passes her on at the next meeting.

The company even foots the bill for employees' smartphone data plans. Now that's a perk.

List-Worthy Hospitality
Each year, Fortune magazine works with the Great Place to Work Institute, based in San Francisco, to conduct the comprehensive survey that results in the magazine's list of 100 Best Companies to Work For. Not many hospitality companies find their way onto the list; this year four were recognized: Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants (#11), Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts (#47), Marriott International (#53) and Hyatt Hotels Corp. (#78).

M&C's list features Marriott this year. Read our previous profiles of Kimpton and Four Seasons at mcmag.com/bestplaces2012, and find Hyatt at mcmag.com/bestplaces2013.

Our 2014 list of the Best Places to Work in the Meetings Industry, which features Benchmark Hospitality and others, can be found at mcmag.com/bestplaces2014.



The Conglomerate: Marriott International
The company that started out as a root-beer stand in 1927 now employs 102,868 people in the United States alone. A perennial of Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For, Marriott International is among the elite 11 that have appeared on the list all 18 years it has been published, moving up four spots this year to number 53.

"Whether opening hotels in Miami Beach or emerging markets in Haiti and Rwanda, we value our passionate associates, who deliver on our commitment to care for people and the communities where we live and work," says David Rodriguez, executive vice president and global chief human resources officer for the Bethesda, Md.-based hotel chain. Employees are expected to live up to the hospitality company's core values: Put People First, Pursue Excellence, Embrace Change, Act With Integrity and Serve Our World.

Adhering to these values not only puts Marriott on Fortune's Best Companies list every year, but it also has led to the hotelier being named by Fortune as one of the World's Most Admired Companies as well as one of the World's Most Ethical Companies in 2015 by the Ethisphere Institute. Not surprisingly, people are flocking to work for the hotel chain. Over the past 12 months, nearly 1.8 million job applications were submitted.

Once aboard, it's easy for employees to seek new adventures within the company, as they can apply for openings right from their smartphones. The Marriott mobile careers site even provides nearby jobs based on GPS coordinates and calculates potential commute times. The "Stay in Touch" feature sends updates and alerts based on one's geography and job preferences. Traffic on the career site is up 31 percent over the last year, and more than 100,000 mobile applications were received from Jan. 27 to the middle of March.

Meanwhile, the Marriott Jobs and Careers Facebook page has more than 1.2 million likes and is said to be the top career page on the social media site. The hotel company's 30-person Talent Community Crew responds to all posted comments and provides up-to-date information on recruiting efforts and career events.

With an employee universe that is spread far and wide, Marriott uses numerous tactics to connect its associates. The "Share Your Space" photo contest, held last spring, had everyone from a bartender on the beach in Thailand to a concierge in Atlanta posting shots of their work environments. Eight winners were chosen from more than 17,000 pictures, and their hotels received $1,000 upgrades to their common space, such as a new TV for the associate break room (photos are viewable at yourspace.marriott.com).

Marriott has spent a lot of time trying to find out what makes its employees tick, conducting hundreds of hours of research that resulted in the "Marriott, Where I Belong" campaign, which promotes the company's culture, diversity and inclusion. The effort aims to attract, retain and engage associates, and has been taken on by individual Marriott brands as well.

 

Associates show their company
spirit at China's Ritz-Carlton
Shanghai Pudong.
Associates show their company spirit at China's Ritz-Carlton Shanghai Pudong.

For instance, Residence Inn has an "Our Culture" page on the company intranet that includes a game called "RImix Your Culture," a document containing "Cultural Sustainment Best Practices" and a bevy of podcasts, videos and other resources. Courtyard by Marriott also has a company-culture section with features such as a peer recognition program. Nominees are called out during individual Courtyard properties' Daily Smart Start meetings.

Like many corporations today, Marriott encourages its employees to be healthier, an effort strongly supported by inveterate exerciser CEO Arne Sorenson. Launched in 2010, the TakeCare initiative is all about smart diet and working out, boosted by wellness champions at each company location.

A new feature is the Healthy Hotel Certification program, designed to identify properties that go the extra mile to create an environment of well being. Hotels can apply for platinum, gold or silver certification and are evaluated on property leadership, wellness champions, wellness challenges, healthy nutrition, physical activity, stress management and more. Also just launched is the Wellness Champion Spotlight, which first focused on sales coordinator Tricia Chan at the Courtyard Mt. Laurel (N.J.). A runner and health fanatic, Chan engaged 95 percent of her hotel's staff in weight-loss challenges, classes, walks or gym membership.

Rather than a gold watch for long-term service, Marriott associates have something more golden to work toward: Those who stay at the company for 25 years get free hotel rooms for the rest of their lives.


The Boutique Hotelier: Omni Hotels & Resorts
One hallmark of a great company is the engagement of its executives. At Dallas-based Omni Hotels & Resorts, which last year was named one of Forbes' 10 Best Travel Companies to Work For, the enthusiasm is palpable during a conversation with Joy Rothschild, chief human resources officer.

"The good thing about our culture is that it is completely embraced at the top of the organization," says Rothschild of an operation encompassing some 20,000 employees spread across 60 properties throughout North America, "and they are unwavering, whether business is wonderful or not so wonderful."

That culture is built on the service levels expected at each Omni property and reflected by recognition programs and performance appraisals, both internal and external. "If you have a general manager whose property doesn't have a good TripAdvisor review, he or she is not going to get a good performance review," Rothschild acknowledges.

Salespeople, of course, have set goals to achieve, but once their booking targets are met (bonuses are paid on a monthly basis), they continue to earn a percentage of the revenue they bring in above that. Top performers, those who make or exceed their goals three years in a row, join the President's Circle and are awarded $30,000, doled out over the next three years. They also go on luxurious trips: Last year's incentive gathering was held at the posh Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, Calif.

 

Omniemployees
Hospitality's helping hands: Among many philanthropic efforts, Omni employees recently participated in a Salvation Army toy drive (left) and helped build a house for Habitat for Humanity.

Among the general managers, awards are distributed on several levels, and typically the prize is a Rolex watch. The People's Choice award goes to the GM who has the highest score on Omni's associate engagement survey; the service award goes to the GM whose hotel has the highest rankings, and another reward is based on revenue. The GM of the year hits the mark in all three categories. The most coveted prize, however, is the Dick Mason Award for Ideal Mentoring, named for the former GM of the Omni Parker House in Boston and a nine-year veteran who came back to Omni two weeks after he retired and spent two years nurturing talent at the company before passing away in 2009.

On the property level, each general manager has a pool of money to bestow on associates who are not part of a formal incentive plan. This Omni Service Champions program gives monthly awards of $75 in three areas: people who deal with people; employees in the heart of the house; and "wows," for those who have gone above and beyond their job descriptions. "At the end of the year, we count the awards, and the top person gets $1,000," says Rothschild. "Numbers two and three get $500 each; and numbers four through 10 get $300 each. Employees love it because they can keep winning."

The hospitality company has an internal charitable arm, called the Omni Circle, created to help colleagues in need. Established in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 -- about 600 employees lost just about everything -- the hotelier's workers donate their time off and money, the latter matched by Omni's corporate owners. Employees in need can apply for a grant (not a loan), which is reviewed by a rotating group of five managers, and their recommendations go to Rothschild. "If I approve it," she says, "it goes to the CEO, and we usually turn it around within 48 hours."

One of Rothschild's favorite stories involves an associate whose wife and daughter had remained behind in his ancestral home in Rwanda. When his wife died, he didn't have the monetary means to fly his daughter to the States, so he applied for and won the grant. "His daughter just graduated from high school," Rothschild says. "She got a full scholarship to college. And he is an employee for life."

Fun traditions at the company include providing special surprises during National Housekeeping Week in September, such as bringing in massage therapists and having the executive team cook meals for the housekeeping staff. Every month each property holds a coffee klatch, featuring food and awards for staff. At the corporate office in Dallas, Halloween is wild, with everyone dressing up and angling for a raft of contest prizes.

Charitable efforts at headquarters include donating to the Salvation Army's toy drives and building an entire Habitat for Humanities house in 2014. Each individual property is encouraged to find a cause and embrace it; for example, on Patriots' Day in Massachusetts, football-happy team members at the Omni Parker House in Boston pay $5 for the privilege of wearing New England Patriots gear for the day. The money benefits the Jimmy Fund, which supports Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Omni also has partnered with a Christian organization called HIS (for "Hope in Salvation") Bridgebuilders to help unemployed people find their way back into the work force. Those who complete the intense training program are hired temporarily at the Omni Dallas, where they continue to be mentored. After finishing that program, they are eligible to become permanent employees. "We have hired about 119 people through this endeavor," says Rothschild. One man, now a lobby porter at the hotel, sent a letter: "A year ago I was eating out of garbage cans, and now I have a job and can have Christmas with my family."



The Startup: DoubleDutch
Step into the offices of San Francisco-based DoubleDutch and you're likely to be greeted by one of three dogs, perhaps Oscar, a Glen of Imaal Terrier and an honorary "executive" at the young meetings technology company.

As for the office atmosphere, "The buzz is palpable," says Lawrence Coburn, CEO of the event-app provider, which he co-founded in 2011. "It's crowded; often there will be phone calls and meetings taking place on the floor or in the halls. There are ideas bouncing everywhere, demos happening, customer calls, brainstorming and more." (For a glimpse at DoubleDutch's workplace, see the video at bit.ly/1IyQCsd.)

The company now employs about 200 people, most of whom work out of the Mission District headquarters, while about 50 are in the Amsterdam office in the Netherlands; a new Hong Kong outpost is just starting to grow.

Coburn knew the odds were against surviving this long: "If you believe the data, only three out of 10,000 startups will get as far as we have. But we always believed."

The basic benefits for employees are generous. Insurance coverage is paid 100 percent for workers and 75 percent for their dependents, including medical, dental, vision, and life and disability insurance. "If we move outside of that boring HR stuff," says Brooke Greco, senior manager of people operations, "we have a lot of perks that are both a draw and help us retain employees."

 

DoubleDutch employees enjoy
a team-building Random Lunch.
DoubleDutch employees enjoy a team-building Random Lunch.

A popular example is the technology stipend: Every employee gets $250 per year to spend on some kind of device. They are encouraged to upgrade their phones, buy wearable gadgets, get new tablets or the like. "We want you to have it, and we want to help you buy it," says Greco. To encourage camaraderie, the company has instituted the DoubleDutch Random Lunch, where employees who don't necessarily work together directly are sent out on the company dime; everybody goes to two lunches a month. On Fridays, everyone enjoys a fully catered lunch, and breakfast is served on Wednesdays. "We also have a chef's kitchen," Greco notes.

DoubleDutch provides free drinks from a coffee shop around the corner, and free massages at the office once a week. To blow off steam, people head to the game room with its ping-pong and foosball tables, a huge TV with a gaming console and several old-fashioned video arcade games.

Community outreach opportunities abound in the Mission neighborhood. "We recently held a clothing drive because a large fire across the street displaced about 45 people," says Greco. "Between us and a bar down the street, we were able to fill an entire Salvation Army truck." Through an initiative called Technovation, the company works with a local girls' high school, teaching students how to build apps.

Since DoubleDutch is such a young company, the routes to moving up are growing organically. "For instance, on our sales team, many joined with limited experience, and we have given them a path," says Greco. "We always give opportunities to apply to new roles when they crop up, and if you are as good as an outside candidate, you will get the job." Over the next couple of months, the company will roll out specific training plans for each department to help employees continue their professional development.

There are no individual offices or cubicles at DoubleDutch, and in this open environment, everyone is accessible. Coburn, who sits across from Greco, still interviews every final-round candidate applying to join the company. The close quarters can become overwhelming, so when people need to get away from it all, they step out on the deck to swing on the swings or just take in some sunshine sitting on a bench.

For Coburn, the future looks bright: "I'm proud that we've survived, and to see so many of our early employees thriving in leadership roles. I'm proud that we've kept the talent bar high to join. I'm proud that our customers love us, that attendees love using our app, and that we always try to stay true to our values. There are plenty of things we can still do better, but overall, it's been an amazing experience."