You know what still works? Face-to-face meetings. Events at which people — actual people, not computer-projected images of people — mingle and talk and listen to someone discuss salient aspects of their industries.
Wireless and remote technologies were supposed to be the death of all that face-to-face stuff. After all, events are expensive when you factor in hotels, conference space, food, and travel. Companies, particularly those involved in tech and communications, were supposed to eschew live meetings and events in favor of teleconferencing and online gatherings because it was cheap, easy, and fast.
To an extent, they have. Many companies conduct tele-meetings and internal training through online video technology. But Janel Bonacci and Sally Maturana, owners of StoneHouse Meetings & Events in Lawrenceville, don’t buy into the predictions of doom for the old-fashioned event full of people.
Forward-looking members of the pharmaceutical industry in particular, Bonacci says, are re-embracing real meetings and proving the limitations of the wireless approach. And they’re finding that an old maxim still holds true — the most effective way to get your message across and to build lasting professional relationships is live and in-person.
“People kept telling us that pharmaceutical meetings were dropping off, or that companies were going to stop doing them all together,” Bonacci says. “But the truth is, pharmaceutical companies will always need to meet, to gather advice and feedback, and to inspire and reward their internal teams.”
Bonacci and Maturana, two event planning veterans who met at DesignWrite, a medical communications and marketing firm based at 175 Wall Street, broke off two years ago to form StoneHouse, the headquarters for which is Bonacci’s house on Eagles Chase Drive.
“People told us we worked well together,” Maturana says. “We saw the opportunity to develop something for ourselves. We traveled a lot, lots of flights, lots of delays waiting for flights. We had a lot of time to brainstorm.”
The women took the anti-agency approach, Bonacci says. She and Maturana do not need to entertain clients, so there is no overhead, no large staff, and no major insurance trouble to worry about.
StoneHouse works mainly with pharma companies (Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, based at 1 University Square, is one of its high-end clients), but also does some work with financial and insurance companies. The main reason for the specialization, Bonacci says, is that pharma was the area in which she and Maturana evolved professionally. Maturana, in fact, was Bonacci’s mentor at DesignWrite.
Maturana, who earned her bachelor’s in English and communication from Rutgers, began her career in the food and beverage industry before moving to the travel industry. She was a director at Carnival Cruise Lines and later owned a couple restaurants.
Her background in corporate travel planning eventually led her to pharmaceutical events planning. “I remember pulling out all the stops,” she says. “Luxury hotels, extended weekend meetings, gifts. And now, although the landscape has changed, the goals for pharmaceutical companies remain the same.”
After a decade or so at DesignWrite Bonacci and Maturana saw the future of staff events planners and large operations. Many companies were starting to lay off their events planning staffs, and the two saw the opportunity to build a business in what promises to be an industry of smaller boutique firms. Being small and unassuming, Bonacci says, has helped smaller companies who need to put together events without the Madison Avenue budget, and the two have run with the idea since opening in 2009.
In 2011 they still run, often together, and often before the start of their work days. “It’s amazing what you come up with on a five-mile run in the morning,” Bonacci says. Bonacci, who grew up in Warren, was an athlete in high school and at Ithaca College. When she graduated in 1998 with her bachelor’s in business management she continued running — marathons, half-marathons, the odd 10K.
She says it gives her the stamina to run around doing what she has to do — booking flights, meeting with pharma companies, figuring out who needs special meals, and, of course, traveling.
Bonacci says that she and her sister, Janeen, were “bitten by the travel bug” as kids. Their father worked as an agent for State Farm Insurance and traveled everywhere and often took the family with him.
“When I was about 15 or 16 my father took us to a sales conference,” Bonacci says. “He took me into this ballroom and said, ‘you see that young girl?’ She was probably 20-something. ‘She sets up all of these events for us. She sees the world on someone else’s dime.”
After two years at Merrill Lynch in Plainsboro, Bonacci entered the world of events planning. Janeen took ta similar career path. She works for the American Cancer Society, as executive director of the Great West division. “While she does some event planning, she focuses more on training volunteers and staff on how to run successful events,” Bonacci says.
Maturana also did a lot of traveling early in her life. Her father as a young man was a merchant marine whose wanderlustwas never fully quelled. He later spent 47 years at Goya Foods in Secaucus (he was the director of sales) and often traveled with the family.
For Bonacci, the professional circuit brought her face-to-face with her third significant relationship. Her father had ignited her interest in events planning and Maturana had helped her hone her abilities, but it was an audio-video tech at one of the events she planned that won her heart. She and her fiancee, who works independently in the New Jersey-New York area, are now planning a honeymoon in South Africa — specifically because it’s one of the few places Bonacci has never seen.
She also hasn’t seen eastern Asia, but her first trip to the continent might be her most vivid professional memory. In 2007 she helped set up a pharma industry conference that spent one week in Barcelona and another in India. Barcelona went fine. India, however, kept going dark. “Their infrastructure is not exactly fantastic,” Bonacci says. “The power kept going out.”
What made the conference memorable was the amount of on-feet thinking she needed to do (repeatedly) to keep things moving. She learned the most from that conference, she says. “The questions I ask now about generators and hook-ups — people look at me and say, ‘OK, there’s a reason you’re asking me these questions.’”
Of course, there are lessons to be learned on less dramatic scales, she says. For instance, should you ever decide to be an event planner, don’t let the band take its break 20 minutes before the end of the party.
“I had a band do that once,” she says. “Everybody thought the party was over. The band came back and there was no party anymore.”
Since things like dodgy power supply and absent-minded bands occasionally will themselves upon events, Bonacci says her job is never boring. But she and Maturana do their best to make sure all the excitement is their problem, not the clients’.
“These are important people and their time is valuable,” she says. “There’s no reason for them to think about what breakfast to serve. We offer them peace of mind.”
StoneHouse Meetings & Events, 610 Eagles Chase Drive, Lawrenceville 08648; 609-203-7177; fax, 609-895-6605. Janel Bonacci, partner. www.stonehousemeetings.com