Boom and bust, bull and bear markets—surviving economic ups and downs is a remarkable achievement for any professional. We spoke with event industry veterans who have done just that, achieving success and longevity in their fi eld the old-fashioned way: They worked for it. Here is their advice for following in their well-respected footsteps.
Marie & Birney Dempcy, Owners
Mayflower Park Hotel, Seattle
Marie Dempcy recalls looking for a job in Seattle on a bitterly cold day. While waiting in the Bon Marché’s (now Macy’s) heated entrance, she gazed across to the Mayflower Hotel and its Carousel Room and “hoped someday that I would have enough money to eat there. Little did I know that we would someday own that very same bar/restaurant,” she recounts. At the time, Marie was searching for a job to put her husband, Birney, through law school. The two had met at the University of Washington and married after graduation. Fifteen years went by, with Marie managing the household and four children and Birney pursuing a career as a tax and estate attorney, before the Mayflower Park Hotel came into their lives again.
Birney had done some legal work connected to the Mayflower, so when it went into foreclosure, he formed a limited partnership to buy it. With the neglected hotel—which was built in 1927—in disrepair, he immediately began renovations. “Several months later, he asked me to come down for a week or two and supervise the installation of some new furniture,” recalls Marie. “There was always one more thing to do, and so 42 years later, I am still supervising the installation of new furniture, and Birney is still overseeing the hotel!”
During those 42 years, Marie’s roles at the hotel have varied. At one point, she was its general manager, making her the first female general manager of a hotel in Seattle.
In addition to her work at the Mayflower, Marie is involved in the downtown business community. Since 1974, she’s served on various boards, such as the Downtown Seattle Association, the Seattle Hotel Association and the Washington Lodging Association. She was also the first woman to chair the Seattle-King County Convention and Visitors Bureau, in 1983 (now Visit Seattle).
In a low-demand market, Marie’s advice is to economize as much as you can without sacrificing guests’ comfort and to offer the best service possible. In a boom economy, she suggests putting as much money into the hotel or product as you can, but also setting up a savings account to help you and your employees get through the next bust—because, although you won’t always know when a downturn will happen, history has shown that it will happen again.
Good service is always a winner, says Marie. “The hospitality industry has stayed the same in one respect, and that is the desire to give the best possible service and experience to our guests. What has changed is that we now have modern technology to help us.” Computers can track which room or floor a guest prefers, plus any special needs or requests, such as an in-room refrigerator or a certain type of pillow. And technology makes checking in and out a speedier process.
Marie gets inspiration from her guests, meeting and exceeding their expectations at the hotel by listening to what they want and what they experienced. “It is always exciting to be improving your product, whether physically or service related,” she says. “When traveling, I like to spend a lot of time looking at other hotels and seeing what things they are doing. There is always something new.”
Lesa Mayer, President
CRG Events, Seattle and Portland
Sometimes the greatest source of inspiration is figuring out how to handle restrictions in an event’s budget, venue or timeline. “Constraints drive innovation,” says Leasa Mayer.
Mayer began working at CRG Events in 1987. Thirteen years later, she bought the business from its founder. The company, which primarily focuses on the West Coast, handles event production, including event strategy, goals, agenda, and services such as catering. CRG also assists in registration management, working with online vendors to create infrastructure and consulting with clients on their needs. The firm then provides support leading up to and during the event.
The events industry lags behind other industries when it comes to economic indicators, Mayer says. For example, the industry felt the effects of the recent recession later than other industries; it wasn’t hit hard until 2009. On the upside, this can provide event planners with a little time to prepare for the bust market, she says. You can use a savings account during slower times to invest in education, networking and marketing. During busier times, Mayer suggests making a list of the things you’d do if you had more time, such as taking classes. And when the market goes down (and demand goes with it), use that extra time to check off a few things on your list.
In a boom economy, Mayer recommends managing your capacities and knowing when you’ve reached your limit. She says that it can be tempting to say yes to everything, but if you overcommit, something will suffer: your employees, the quality of the event or both. “For us, our reputation is the most precious asset we have,” says Mayer.
The events industry has changed in that, over the years, it has become an actual industry, says Mayer. When she started, she notes, “event planner wasn’t a job title. The industry grew up in the last 30 years.” Companies have come to see events as part of the marketing mix. In the ’80s, company events were focused on training rather than selling products or building communities. Now, many events are held solely for the purpose of marketing.
Mayer notes that the one thing that hasn’t changed in the events industry is the fact that, regardless of how well you plan an event, you should always expect the unexpected. “If things didn’t go wrong, we wouldn’t have jobs,” says Mayer. She adds, “It takes resourcefulness and poise under pressure, and all of those amazing traits event planners have, to deal with the unexpected and make events happen.”
Wendy Popkin, Executive director
Education Foundation, Oregon,Restaurant & Lodging Association,Wilsonville, Oregon
Wendy Popkin’s career in events began in 1984 when she interned at the Valley River Inn in Eugene, Oregon. Since then, she’s worked in national sales for Travel Portland, worked on the presale of the Oregon Convention Center and planned events for hotels and conference centers.
She now leads the efforts of the Education Foundation for the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association (ORLA), which supports individuals with workforce development and training programs. “It’s been such a great career for me, and I want to encourage others to have the great experiences I have had,” says Popkin. Her work at the nonprofit is varied. On any given day, she can be doing everything from fundraising to working with teachers, students, or nonprofits and industry associations like Travel Oregon.
Her job also requires that she travel often, staying in hotels and attending conventions and meetings. This allows her to mine the events and hotels for smart ideas to replicate and bad decisions to avoid.
It’s essential to treat clients with honesty and respect, Popkin says. In a weak economy, clients will choose event coordinators who they know will treat their customers well. “Always be professional, up front, honest and sincere and you’ll get your fair share of the market that way,” says Popkin. It’s also important to understand the business. “Then you know the things that can be negotiated,” she says. “If you really understand the industry, you’ll do better; you’ll know what to leverage.” A good reputation and partnerships will also help when the market takes a downturn.
So much of the industry is now virtual, Popkin notes. Site visits used to be essential, but now with photos and reviews, seeing the space in person isn’t always necessary. But the events industry has been, and still is, all about people working with people. “A successful supplier is going to treat guests well and exceed their expectations,” says Popkin.
Popkin’s advice to students sums up the realities of a career in events: “It’s a really rewarding industry. But it’s a lot of hard work. It’s not an easy one; it takes a lot of hours.” If she could give advice to her younger self though, Popkin would encourage her to pursue the industry nonetheless.
When asked if she could do anything else, Popkin doesn’t stray far from the industry, choosing camp counselor as her alternate career—a profession that is also all about creating experiences.
Maria Corvallis, Creative director and general manager
Peter Corvallis Productions, Portland
Maria Corvallis has worked in her family’s business for almost as long as she can remember. After a brief hiatus in Los Angeles and San Francisco working in television and corporate communications during the late ’80s, Corvallis returned to her family’s company in 1990 to work with her parents and grow Peter Corvallis Productions. Today, Corvallis and her sister, Athena, increasingly share leadership of the company as their father approaches retirement. Her responsibilities include sales, client services and operations.
Her 37 years in the industry have allowed Corvallis a perspective on the rise and fall in demand in the events industry. But boom or bust, Corvallis’ advice is the same: Support your employees. “In a bust market, I would suggest, take care of your people. In a boom market, it’s [also] all about taking care of your people. In our business, we cannot do it without them. This is a critical focus of our company, no matter the economic climate.”
Her clients are her inspiration. Working with clients who communicate clearly and collaborate as partners makes her job a joy, she says. “Much of what we do is help people or organizations with fundraising or celebrations of various kinds. These things are really important,” says Corvallis. “When an event is a success, my clients and their concerns are successful. That is very rewarding and inspiring.”
If Corvallis could give advice to her younger self, it would be to find the parts of the business she loves the most and focus on those. It’s advice she follows now, too. “The dynamics of a family business do not always afford that luxury, but it is something I try to do every day,” she says.
A lot has changed in the events industry since she first joined it. For one, clients are more creative and demanding than they once were. “Once upon a time, we were a rental company that provided tables, chairs,linens and everything that went with them,” says Corvallis. “Today, clients hope to throw functions in the least imaginable spaces with even more challenging themes.” Innovations in communications, planning, operations and technologies have also had a huge impact in the past 10 years.
Through it all, what has stayed the same in the events industry is integrity, which Corvallis calls “a timeless ideal”: doing what you said you were going to do, when you said you were going to do it. “My father taught me that the definition of ‘professional’ was to do it right the first time. That has not changed.”