Best Places to Work in the Meetings Industry

Kimpton Hotels Chicago Pride Day 2017

(Pictured) Kimpton Hotels nurtures an inclusive work force, here celebrating Chicago Pride Day 2017.

In an ideal world, every office would be a welcoming workplace, where all employees feel appreciated, the atmosphere is fun and friendly, and career advancement is expected. Happily, in the meetings industry, many organizations deliver on those ideals.

M&C's seventh annual feature on the best places to work in our industry applauds four such companies: an experiential-event planning firm, a conference center company and two hotel chains that have made this list before, but are even more deserving this year, now lauded among the top 10 on the "Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For" list for 2018.

Here's what makes these honorees true standouts as employers in the meetings realm.

Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants
When M&C last checked in with Kimpton in our first edition of Best Places to Work in the Meetings Industry (April 2012), we talked about the independent hotel company's diversity programs and its philosophy of welcoming feedback and ideas from everyone, at every level.

Something big has changed since then: Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants was purchased by InterContinental Hotels Group in 2014, a much larger entity. Yet Kimpton's independent spirit has remained intact, right down to its home base. While IHG is headquartered in Atlanta, Kimpton has kept its central offices in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, as a division of IHG, Kimpton has continued to notch higher on Fortune's Best Companies list, from 16 in 2012 to number 6 this year.

Another change: Mike DeFrino became Kimpton's CEO in 2015. DeFrino started with Kimpton 21 years ago as general manager of the Alexis Hotel in Seattle, and fully embraces the legacy of those who came before him.

"The stewardship that we've all had was first created by Bill Kimpton 37 years ago," DeFrino says. "He set the tone and the level of inclusivity and diversity. No old boys' network. It happens to be a great way to do business."

Among reasons for the brand's beloved status is its practice of promoting from within, DeFrino believes. "We're looking for somebody who's just about ready for the next job, whether in the hotel or restaurant they are at or at a new one we are opening up, and we take a chance on them," he says. "We have fast career advancement that gives us a competitive edge, and we are not afraid to make a young man or woman a general manager or a director of sales or a director of catering. That goes a long way to making people happy. That stimulates a lot of loyalty."

That loyalty paid off for Nick Gregory, who joined the company in 1991 as a doorman at the Hotel Vintage in Portland, Ore. In 2016, Gregory became senior vice president of hotel operations for the brand.

Kimpton offers the usual incentives program for its sales team, but high performance is rewarded throughout the organization. "We've opened up our bonus programs to more and more people," says DeFrino. "We put a lot of emphasis on the property level on rewards and recognition, and you'll see examples of special days at the properties. There'll be days when they shut the office early and a shuttle will take everyone to a dock for a sunset cruise,  or we'll buy baseball tickets for the whole team. Ultimately, this brings employees together and helps people who work together care about each other."

At the Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt in Austin, Texas, management offered ukulele lessons to the staff for a "Wellness Wednesday" session. Other hotels bring in yoga instructors at the point of a shift change, so housekeepers finishing up can work out their kinks.

Three new partnerships with charities have been established after being championed by employees. A pet cause of DeFrino's is No Kid Hungry, which provides breakfasts to inner-city schools. To help support that effort, next month DeFrino and 11 Kimpton chefs will cycle 100 miles a day for three days to bolster awareness and donations for the cause.

The Kimpton team also is involved with the Trevor Project, which focuses on crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth. In addition, Kimpton shares a commitment with parent IHG to support Clean the World, which gathers leftover soap and cleaning supplies at hotels and sends them to third-world countries to fight hygiene-related deaths.

DeFrino's philosophy for Kimpton is succinct: "We don't service the rule book, we service the employees," he says. "And happy employees make happy guests."

CE Group
March was particularly busy for the CE Group, an experiential marketing firm that specializes in event production and management, sports events, venue management and more. The company, cited on the San Antonio Business Journal's 2017 list of Best Places to Work, had about 30 events on its docket, all geared toward the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball's Final Four weekend, which took place in the Texas city on March 31 and April 2.

Emily Becher, CE's director of national events as well as its destination-management arm, was in her office at San Antonio's Pearl Brewery complex one morning last month when the firm's president, Janet Holliday, stopped by to ask what kind of support she needed to make sure all the gatherings were flawlessly executed. "There are now four extra contract employees on my team anchoring my project," says Becher, "because Janet's main motto is, 'I don't want anybody to tip over.'"

Holliday, who co-founded the company in 1990 and became the sole proprietor about 15 years ago, firmly believes in supporting her team in any way possible, which means promoting from within and challenging people with new responsibilities.

"I'm really proud of how we are of all ages," Holliday says of her staff of 20 (19 of them women). "I have a lot of darling Millennials, but we also have people my age [60s]. I've worked hard for Millennials to have a career path here. All of my divisions are run by someone under 40." In fact, many of CE Group's employees started as interns, including Becher and Megann Pettit, now senior marketing manager.

Benefits at the firm are impressive for such a small group, including 401(k) matching, profit-sharing and yearly gym memberships for $10. When employees reach their one-year anniversary, they earn John Hart luggage valued at $200; and at five years they receive a $400 item from the same collection. Reaching 10 years merits a trip for two for a week anywhere the employee wants to go. Holliday is proud that three staffers will be enjoying their free getaways this year.

The company handles branding for a number of clients, evidence of which often becomes part of the décor in the colorful office -- such as the Final Four stickers that decorated the floor last month. "We also brand our own attire," says Becher, who says the staff loves trying on sample T-shirts and other CE-logoed apparel that comes to the office.

Birthdays, weddings and other milestones are celebrated; an ice-cream truck might show up in the summer; mimosa or margarita Mondays find their way onto the calendar, and the annual holiday party features a DJ and dancing.

"This doesn't just happen," notes Holliday. "I can provide the canvas, but everybody else creates this culture."

Two Villanova University classmates are the brains behind this conference-center company, which started in 2009 and now manages 17 venues in New York, Boston, the D.C. metro area and Philadelphia, with more locations on the horizon.

College buddies Chris Kelly and Ryan Simonetti, now president and CEO, respectively, focused on creating a contemporary company culture from day one. "Eight years in, it's a living and breathing thing," says Kelly. "We think of our employees as our first customer."

When the number of employees was ready to expand from 30 to 50 (the ranks now number 400 and counting), the partners felt it was time to reflect further on the values they wanted Convene to embody. "We asked what had made us special up to that point," says Kelly. That question resulted in GRIT, an acronym standing for Convene's ethic of passion and perseverance.

G is for "genuine," respecting the individual, finding amazing employees and embracing them for their strengths and weaknesses. R is for "relentless," in urging employees to be 1 percent better every day. I is for "integrity," and doing the right thing. Sometimes, Kelly notes, with complex economics and legal contracts, "judgment can get mixed up. The Golden Rule is important to us."

Last but of utmost importance is the T for "teamwork." As Kelly puts it, "We succeed and fail together. We really try to think about the interconnectivity of people and our lives. We try to envision the experience of every single person going home and being asked, 'How was your day today?,' and we try to take responsibility for that answer."

Convene holds a companywide town-hall meeting twice each year, complete with video feeds from the company's new Lower Manhattan headquarters and executives stationed at each property to answer questions. Such gatherings can easily turn into love fests: At the event held a few weeks ago, a technician stood up and spoke about how much he was a fan of superheroes when he was growing up. He then cited Kelly and Simonetti as his current superheroes and gave them superhero T-shirts to show his appreciation.

Convene "family" gatherings include an annual summer picnic and an all-out holiday party in January, the latest featuring the Convene band (with Kelly on drums). On the departmental level, leaders plan activities for their teams, says Kelly, noting, "What's fun for the tech team is different than it is for the marketing team."

Employees are encouraged to initiate CSR efforts, such as participation in Cycle for Survival (raising funds to cure rare cancers) and J.P Morgan Chase Corporate Challenge runs that benefit charitable organizations in the cities where the races take place.

Convene is committed to promoting from within. Every time a new property opens (one in Chicago will join the ranks later this year), 20 percent of the staff is comprised of legacy employees. Another tenet of the company is its focus on training. Each team member takes at least 65 hours per year of in-house classes, with titles such as Train the Trainer and Igniting Inspired Leadership. Kelly says the company is looking to up the education game by expanding benefits for those seeking college degrees.

Hyatt Hotels Corp.
Like Kimpton, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts has worked its way onto the top 10 of Fortune's Best Companies to Work For list, coming in at number 9.

We last profiled the hotel giant as a "best place" in April 2013, and the chain now employs more than 110,000 people across the globe, with about 35,400 working in the United States. Full-time associates still get 12 complimentary Hyatt hotel room nights per year and a 50 percent discount on food and drink at most properties. But the philosophy at the Chicago-based company has been updated.

"In 2016, Hyatt refocused its purpose, which is now to care for people so they can be their best," says Nikki Massey, vice president of human resources for the Americas. "By continuously listening to those around us and making each interaction meaningful, we've cultivated genuine relationships with our colleagues. This in turn helps to create a welcoming environment in our offices and our hotels."

Beyond sales incentives bestowed for reaching goals, hotels and specific departments have created their own programs where employees who exceed their sales or excel at day-to-day tasks are eligible for bonuses and gift cards.

Inclusivity and the language surrounding the concept have infiltrated the organization. "To care for people so they can be their best, we approach culture through the lens of understanding," says Massey. "At Hyatt, uniqueness is celebrated, feedback is heard and collaboration is encouraged."

Special events during the year echo this ideology, connecting colleagues through cultural experiences ranging from International Women's Day to Pride Month to the Chinese New Year.

Also, the new-hire orientation process was recently overhauled to lessen the focus on policies and procedures and emphasize peer interaction and the philosophy that a good idea can come from anyone in the organization.

The chain's new main office, called the Hyatt Hub, overlooks the Chicago River and uses hotel elements to create a warm environment, with flexible spaces for working, meeting, dining and socializing. The look, created with white oak, gray terrazzo, dark brick, polished concrete and clear glass, is augmented by plush fabrics, sculptural light fixtures and works by local artists. Along with several on-site nursing rooms are quiet rooms for rest and meditation. Individual properties often have staff lounges featuring quiet spaces, computers and video games, as well as lobby-like lounge furniture and libraries.

"We've been in our new space for less than one year," says Massey of the Hub, "and often times, colleagues tour the space with their friends and family. To help employees feel connected to the broader Hyatt family, we encourage them to create and share social-media stories with companywide hashtags -- #inahyattworld and #beyondyourbestselfieathyatt."

With such a far-flung global Hyatt family, the company's charitable works tend to focus on local initiatives. In 2016, team members volunteered more than 140,000 hours.

All employees receive annual training for their specific jobs, but there is also an online platform -- My Hyatt Learning -- that uses videos, elearning and mobile communications to offer about 500 courses. An online questionnaire helps carve out the user's path to reach his or her goals. The company also has taken an outreach step by providing skills training to local youth to help prepare them for the future.

As Massey notes, "We refer to ourselves as members of the Hyatt family, because it really feels that way."