How 10 Organizations Are Serving the Greater Good During Covid-19

Despite the lull in events business, these firms worked harder than ever to support their employees, communities and the meetings industry. 

chiquita-jeffery-TAABF
Caesars executive Rebecca DeLuca (left) congratulates TAABF service-award winner Chiquita Jeffery, facilities manager at Caesars Forum Conference Center. Photo Credit:Soliman Productions

For some companies, 2020 presented valuable opportunities — even if revenue was a struggle for many. Organizations with smart leaders and passionate teams took quick action to determine the needs of their own businesses, and how to best serve their clients, communities and ultimately the greater good of the meetings and events industry. 

The 10 organizations profiled here rose to the considerable challenge of making a difficult year better for others, and helped plot a strategic course for the future. They did so with empathy, wisdom and generosity. Here are their stories.

Meetings Made Easy | Hilton | Meet Minneapolis | Visit St. Pete/Clearwater | Associated Luxury Hotels International | Motivation Excellence | Events Industry Council | Marriott International | Bevy | The Above and Beyond Foundation

 

Meetings Made Easy’s Sarah Buchbinder (top left) and Mike Ferreira (bottom right) in Jamaica in July
Meetings Made Easy’s Sarah Buchbinder (top left) and Mike Ferreira (bottom right) in Jamaica in July

 

Meetings Made Easy

This small Las Vegas-based meeting services company added staff during the pandemic, boosting the planning team from 9 to 14. “We’re busier than we’ve ever been in four years,” says Mike Ferreira, who founded the company in January 2017. In what could have been downtime, Meetings Made Easy became a very vocal cheerleader and information resource for the industry. “A lot of people I know said, ‘I’ll just wait for this to blow over.’ That’s not my personality,” says Ferreira.

The strategy was instinctual, notes Sarah Buchbinder, who’s been with MME since 2017. “The ethos of our whole company is very big on social media, reaching out and educating people, letting them know what’s going on.” 

The team launched virtual speaker showcases, destination-focused trivia contests, and videos and articles on everything from ever-changing restrictions to critical contract concerns. A platform on LinkedIn Live made it easy to push out information to about 17,000 people at once, notes Ferriera. The tone of the messaging was decidedly upbeat. “We said let’s keep up the momentum. Let’s keep everyone encouraged. Let’s not put out negative stuff. Let’s focus on the positive stuff.” 

A few clients continued to hold in-person meetings. For others, MME suggested digital alternatives. “We were getting that message out to planners early on,” says Buchbinder, “making them feel comfortable with virtual and hybrid. I’m doing tons of hybrid meetings now. After the pandemic, we’ll have more tools than we started with.”

It was heartening to see third parties helping each other and joining forces for the greater good, adds Ferreira. “This was the only time in my career where we all said, ‘Screw it: We’re no longer competitors. Let’s all band together and help each other and educate anybody — so we can hopefully get face-to-face events back as soon as possible.’”

Hilton

For the seventh year in a row, Hilton scored 100 percent on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which measures how companies’ policies and practices impact LGBTQ+ employees. The hotel giant also took the number one spot on DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity in 2021.

Hilton, which has more than 6,500 properties worldwide, further accelerated its diversity initiatives over the past year, partnering with minority-focused organizations and historically Black colleges to build a pipeline of talent, and introducing a leadership-development program to ensure diversity in its executive ranks. 

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Laura Fuentes, Hilton’s chief human resources officer

The company has pledged to achieve global gender parity and 25 percent ethnic diversity at its corporate leadership levels in the U.S. by 2027. “As a global company operating in 119 countries and territories, diversity is who we are,” says Laura Fuentes, Hilton’s chief human resources officer. “We’re proud of the progress we’ve made... and we humbly acknowledge that there is still much more work to be done. That’s why we’re publicly releasing our data and commitments on gender and ethnic diversity.”

Also critical this year: helping furloughed hotel workers find jobs. Hilton was able to match employees with temporary work at the height of the pandemic, when many hotels had to close or reduce their staffs. Through the Hilton Workforce Resource Center, those affected were given direct access to temp jobs at Amazon, CVS, Lidl, Walgreens and other companies. 

Meanwhile, mental-health resources for employees were expanded, including the launch of a new well-being app in partnership with Thrive Global. 

Meet Minneapolis

Between Covid-19 and the murder of George Floyd, 2020 was particularly tough for the city of Minneapolis. 

Melvin Tennant, president and CEO of Meet Minneapolis
Melvin Tennant, president and CEO of Meet Minneapolis

At the destination’s marketing organization, some staff furloughs led to layoffs when recovery lagged expectations. But the remaining team was laser-focused on helping customers and the community heal — physically, emotionally and financially. 

For the 400 meetings that were cancelled or postponed in 2020, Meet Minneapolis offered flexibility and support. “Particularly for associations, meetings are revenue opportunities,” says Melvin Tennant, president and CEO of the bureau, “and we knew they were hurting if they couldn’t do a meeting.”

As a first order of business, the staff reached out to all 700 of the DMO’s hospitality partners to ask what they needed and produced monthly webinars to address pressing concerns. Among the efforts was the “We Need Us” campaign, launched in fall 2020 to urge residents to patronize local businesses. 

Immediate attention was focused internally, too. The first meeting after George Floyd’s murder lasted two hours, as each team member was encouraged to share their reactions to the horrific event. “We were able to leverage that emotion into a new internal task force that we call the Meet Minneapolis Legacy Project,” says Tennant. “It’s an internal social-justice and equity initiative to incorporate the needs of our team at Meet Minneapolis, our industry and our community at large.”

Part of that program includes a virtual speaker series featuring community leaders addressing such topics as racial bias, economic disparities, public health, and the intersection of public safety and commerce. 

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater

To date, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater has managed to weather the pandemic without losing any of its 48 staff members. The convention and visitors bureau on Florida’s west coast served as a central point of information and collaboration for its hotel partners. In monthly Zoom calls, sales directors talked occupancy levels and safety measures, and shared best practices. 

Suzanne Scully Hackman
Suzanne Scully Hackman, vice president of business development for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater

“It was an open forum to discuss what was happening, what the hotels needed and how we could help them,” says Suzanne Scully Hackman, vice president of business development for the bureau. Competition was set aside. Some hotels remained open, while others had closed. All shared the same mission of returning safely to full operation. 

The CVB sent out a weekly newsletter with updates on what was open and made efforts to ease the burden on properties that were short-staffed by answering planner inquiries and connecting them with the right hotel reps. To keep business on the books, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater offered to mitigate the expenses of moving a meeting to a hybrid format. According to Scully Hackman, the incentive was offered on a case-by-case basis and a handful of groups took advantage of it.

“It really helped the hotels,” she says. The groups were smaller, of course, but the program brought people into the destination and generated some food-and-beverage revenue, which was certainly better than having the customer cancel outright.

“In such a time of uncertainty we all came together as an organization and did everything we could do to help,” says Scully Hackman. “I think we’re stronger as an organization because of it, and our relationships with our hotel partners are much stronger.”

ALHI held its annual Leadership Summit at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate in June.
ALHI held its annual Leadership Summit at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate in June.

Associated Luxury Hotels International

When the country started shutting down, Mike Dominguez, ALHI’s president and CEO, scheduled a call with the sales organization’s 80-member team to talk about what was happening. “At the end of that call I said, ‘We are going to do this every day until we don’t.’ And we are still doing that call every single day.” Beyond sharing information, he says, “we were counseling each other and starting to learn about each other.” 

Early on, Dominguez told the team, who represent 250 independent hotels and resorts, “I have zero expectation on what the revenue numbers look like. What I do expect you to do is reach out to our members and clients every day, just to see how they’re doing.”

What people needed most, the team found, was a trusted source of consolidated information. A series of LinkedIn posts became weekly Zoom meetings, led by Dominguez, with updated Covid statistics and analysis, minus the drama often found in news reports. Initially, invitations went to 1,800 contacts; the list of participants grew organically to 3,000. 

Those meetings were “a lifeline for our industry,” says Tina Madden, co-CEO and chief customer officer for Meetings & Incentives Worldwide. “It was  difficult to understand facts vs. fiction and decide what to listen to… Mike’s weekly updates cut through the noise and did it with facts and optimism.”

Most importantly, ALHI did not lay off or furlough any staff. Member properties, meanwhile, had to reduce staff dramatically. “When you look at our model, we’re an extension of the independent properties’ sales teams. When they lost their sales teams, we were the only thing standing for them.”

Planners contacted ALHI to reach  chain-branded properties, too, which don’t belong to the sales organization. “We were just helping get them in touch with somebody. We didn’t care what jersey anybody was wearing; it just mattered that we were taking care of our community,” says Dominguez.

Motivation-Excellence-CSR
Motivation Excellence keeps the team engaged by supporting employee-chosen charities.

Motivation Excellence

This company was that rare standout in the incentive community: While most companies had to lay off or furlough staff in 2020, the Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motivation Excellence, which was named one of Chicago’s Best and Brightest Companies to Work For in 2019, was able to retain all 30 of its team members, even during the pandemic’s darkest days.

It helped that ME’s standing policy is to cross-train all employees, regardless of their area of expertise, notes CEO David Jobes. When travel-program cancellations began rolling in, the team was well-positioned to shift gears and propose alternative rewards programs, particularly for clients in thriving industries (such as pet care) that were helping to keep the lights on.

The company was also ahead of the curve with its established flex-time policy and engagement activities, such as supporting an employee-selected charity of the month. 

With no worries about job security and having time to take care of personal issues, employees performed better, says Jobes. “I don’t care if you work from home a couple days or if your work gets done in the middle of the night… because you don’t have a business life and a personal life. You have one life.” 

Events Industry Council

When the pandemic landed with a thud, meetings industry organizations struggled to provide guidance. But whose “best practices” were really best? The Events Industry Council, the umbrella organization that represents 30 industry entities, provided the platform for a unifying voice.

The APEX (Accepted Practices Exchange) Covid-19 Business Recovery Task Force was launched in May 2020, with 43 members representing the industry’s far-reaching constituencies. The group quickly produced two important white papers: the Meeting and Event Design Accepted Practices Guide, and the Health and Safety for Hotels Accepted Practices Guide, and in the following year published five more. All seven are available for download, along with additional resources including a code of conduct for the Covid era that reminds participants of their own responsibility to follow health-safety protocols established for every event.

Amy Calvert, CEO of the Events Industry Council
Amy Calvert, CEO of the Events Industry Council

“We asked, ‘What does the industry really need right now? And what will they need two years from now?’” says Amy Calvert, CEO of the EIC.

These important works have become living documents that the task force will continue revising together at least through the end of 2021. 

Even members of the task force rely on the resources they produced, says Allison Kinsley, owner of Kinsley Meetings in Colorado, who chaired the APEX Commission and was part of the Meeting and Event guide’s working group. The risk-assessment grid is particularly useful with clients, she says. “It lets us figure out if we can hold a meeting, and then apply some best practices.” 

Marriott International

In a year that was devastating for the world and the travel industry in particular, Marriott International incurred the additional hardship of losing Arne Sorenson, its beloved and respected president and CEO, following his battle with pancreatic cancer. It’s fitting that Marriott is now being recognized for causes championed by the former leader.

Marriott was named this spring to the DiversityInc Hall of Fame — the first hospitality company ever to achieve that honor — thanks to its leadership accountability, diversity metrics, talent programs, workforce practices, supplier diversity and philanthropy. 

The hotelier has ranked highly on corporate diversity and best-workplace lists for many years leading up to this. “We celebrate inclusion and pride every day,” says Apoorva Gandhi, Marriott International’s vice president of multicultural affairs. “I know it’s cliché to say that, but it’s every day, every month throughout the year, because we’re open for business every day.”

Tammy-Routh
Tammy Routh, senior vice president of global sales for Marriott International

To support clients, the company held two hybrid events for planners, focused on personal safety measures as well as tech tools to reach virtual audiences. Marriott continues to collaborate with suppliers and educate planners via “hybrid-event learning labs,” held in hotels across the country. 

“In my whole career, I’ve never spent this much time in think tanks and work groups,” noted Tammy Routh, senior vice president of global sales, during a recent learning lab in Chicago, “because no one party can do this on their own. That’s why we’re bringing our tech and other suppliers together and saying, ‘If you don’t partner with us, we both won’t make it.’ We’re in this together.’”

Bevy

How does one rising event-tech company distinguish itself from the others that raised massive funding in 2020 by helping people to gather online? Since its founding in 2017, Bevy has made community-building its unique proposition. And with the explosive growth the platform enjoyed in 2020, the company both intensified that focus and established a noteworthy approach to practice what it preached.

Derek Andersen, CEO and cofounder of Bevy
Derek Andersen, CEO and cofounder of Bevy

Bevy grew out of a community — the technology was a side project from the founders of Startup Grind, a global network for entrepreneurs and their nascent companies, who decided to build the tech solution they couldn’t find. CEO and cofounder Derek Andersen and his team began selling Bevy to help other companies build and grow their own communities. Its popularity soared last year when it became a natural place to host virtual events, as well. 

Bevy’s growth coincided with that of the Black Lives Matter movement, and it galvanized Andersen to ensure the company better reflected the diverse communities it serves. 

When Bevy announced in March it had raised $40 million in Series C funding with a $325 million valuation, the news wasn’t so much about the amount as it was about the people who invested. Seventy percent of Bevy’s Series C investors are Black and 30 percent of the round’s investors are women. “We’ve built a coalition of investors that reflect the communities that we live in every day,” said Andersen. “We’re committed to radically reducing the racial inequality that exists in the tech industry.” 

And because Bevy’s executives believe representation is crucial, all the investors and advisors are pictured prominently on the company’s website. 

Bevy is committed to reflecting that diversity in its workplace as well — as it expands from 100 employees to 250 this year, Andersen has set a goal of having Black employees represent 20 percent of the company’s workforce by September — up from 14 percent this past March, and zero in February 2020. As of July, efforts have paid off: The company’s U.S.-based workforce is 19 percent Black, 30 percent people of color and 51 percent female — an increasingly diverse community in Silicon Valley. 

The Above and Beyond Foundation

The pandemic hit frontline hospitality workers first — and hardest. Within weeks, The Above and Beyond Foundation, a nonprofit already dedicated to recognizing these employees, began collecting and distributing $500 grants to those who had lost their jobs when the travel industry came to a standstill.

Mary Jo Valentine Blythe, founder and CEO of The Above and Beyond Foundation
Mary Jo Valentine Blythe, founder and CEO of The Above and Beyond Foundation

“Having $500 fall into their laps was such a ray of sunshine for so many people who were really desperate,” says Mary Jo Valentine Blythe, founder and CEO of TAABF. “They were able to use that to provide food for a family of four for a month. That’s a big deal when you’re looking at your checking account and nothing is coming in.”

Since April 2020, TAABF has raised $617,000 in donations and given grants to more than 1,000 people. As the industry recovers, funds will go to frontline workers facing other hardships, such as life-threatening illnesses. 

A new program, Heroes of Hospitality, delivers $2,500 grants for frontline workers who have performed extraordinary acts of service over the past year. “Quite a few hospitality industry workers who were employed through this whole situation were doing the jobs of five or six people,” says Blythe. “It was all hands on deck, and so many people really came through. We’d like to recognize that.”

Another new effort invites meeting attendees to nominate staff members who provide outstanding service during an event. The participants vote on the winners, who receive a cash award — and kudos — at the end of the event.