Corrections or additions?

These articles by Barbara Fox were prepared for the January 14,

2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Mixing Business with a `Sense of Smile’

If Michael Young hangs the "Gone Fishing" sign on his office door, he

may actually be working. He might also be working if he hung signs

saying "Gone Rafting," "Gone Hiking," or even "Gone Dog Sledding."

Those are just some of the activities that Young has used in his daily

job which essentially involves helping other companies’ employees have

fun while they also accomplish some business. With one of his two

firms, Meeting Dimensions, Young plans meetings and events for clients

ranging from IBM to the federal government. With the other firm,

Activities Event Specialists, he provides the for-fun components of

the meeting or event.

Lest you think Young’s work is all fun and games, remember that his

job is a pressure cooker; he must try to prevent any of the 5,000

things that can go wrong from going wrong. Young’s nerves of steel

were strengthened by his ironclad duplication policy (always have a

backup for every piece of equipment) and honed by years in the food

business (his family owned Don Young’s restaurant, first on Olden

Avenue in Trenton, then in Ewing, for 33 years).

"I tend to attribute my success to my hospitality upbringing," says

Young. "One minute I would be working with the dishwashers, and the

next minute, seating the governor for lunch. It taught me how to work

with people and respect people. My father had a reputation not only

with the public but also with the employees. If you could work for

Don’s, that’s what you did. He handpicked the chefs and the bartenders

from the best places around – he assembled the best of the best."

When Young graduated from Middlesex County College’s program in hotel,

restaurant, and institution management in 1976, he was managing the

175-seat restaurant at Glen Roc Shopping Center on Scotch Road (now

under different ownership and known as Metro Grill). But after 15

years, says Young, "It just became the same old thing for me."

He left in 1987 to open a catering company and work out of the back

door of the restaurant, but at a convention in California he was

introduced to the event-production business. A California-based event

firm propositioned Young to open its East Coast branch, and he

accepted. No longer would he have to lug heavy trays up and down

steps, he realized, "or even pick up a spatula."

That first firm, now known as Activities, Event Specialists, was an

independently-owned separate corporation, but he and the California

entrepreneur referred business to each other. Young opened the second

firm, Meeting Dimensions, because he was having trouble getting

recognized as a serious meeting planner. "A woman from IBM said that,

because of our name, she had pigeonholed us as events planners and

would not consider contracting with us to plan a meeting."

Thanks to the economy and a general nervousness about travel, the past

two years have not been good for meeting planners or, indeed, anyone

in the corporate travel or convention business. But Young says that is

not why he moved his firm to smaller quarters at Pennytown Shopping

Village. The real reason is an optimistic one: He is working towards

the goal of a paperless, mostly virtual office. "We don’t require as

much space because our staff is working virtually and we don’t need to

file marketing packages," he says. "Now you can go to a 360-degree

virtual tour online and look at current rates and menus. It works

quite well."

Each company represents 50 percent of his bottom line. The combined

companies do 20 meetings and 50 to 60 events a year, and one-fifth of

the work is for nonprofits or trade groups, and 70 to 80 percent is in

New Jersey.

Though Activities Event Specialists can do the minimal, supplying a DJ

or a character actor for a company party or meeting, but Young focuses

on business events. His biggest so far was a thank-you luncheon for

7,200 Educational Testing Service employees at a New Jersey convention

center, but he also has done a company picnic for 3,000 Computer

Associates employees in Yardville, a Lucent Technologies meeting for

200 people in Key Biscayne, Sarnoff Corporation’s 10th anniversary

dinner for 400, a pharmaceutical company’s launch dinner for 500

people in an airplane hangar, and a biotech’s "thank-you" weekend for

the families of the R&D team at Skytop Lodge in the Poconos.

He does not do bar mitzvahs. "We’ve done it all, and we do it all when

we have to, but corporate work is what we prefer," he says.

Let’s say your company has a budget for a retreat to improve team

performance. Decide whether you want a team building experience, a

team bonding experience, or a sports adventure such as a snowboarding

trip, a sport fishing tournament, or a mountain climbing experience.

Such adventures are mostly a reward for hard work, in contrast to the

team experiences. "What we are doing with team building and team

bonding is trying to draw analogies with what they are doing at work,"

says Young.

At $150 to $450 per person, a team building session is more expensive

than team bonding, which typically costs $50 to $125 per person,

sometimes including food. That’s because team building sessions are

conducted by a facilitator with an HR or psychology background, and

they end with formal debriefings. "There are no winners and losers,"

says Young, "and we never tell them how they should have done it. We

ask how it could be done better."

In contrast, the bonding is supposedly just for fun, and the

facilitator is a rah-rah referee type of person who runs, for

instance, a mini-Olympics, a veggie race where everyone makes cars out

of vegetables, or a casino night with competing teams. "We do a lot

more bonding than building, partly because of the price," says Young.

"People say they want to do team building, and what they really mean

is team bonding. We also do hybrids of the two, taking something that

is 80 percent fun and adding true building elements, or we take an

exercise that is learning-based and build in some fun stuff."

To illustrate the difference he tells of a program for 40 executives

of a Route 1-based flavors company at the Howell Living History Farm.

Using the theme "Field of Dreams" he staged a crazy-mixed-up softball

game that required the players to recite a list of flavors before they

could stay on base. When the game ended everybody thought the day was

over, but no, they boarded hay wagons to ride down the road to the

"Field of Dreams" corn maze. Young counts this exercise as 90 percent

for bonding, with 10 percent team building because the challenges were

related to the business.

Some of Young’s ideas:

Set the tone in an unusual way. Most meetings open with videos, but

Young likes to use live theater.

Add the arts. For a 200-person Lucent gathering that used a "Bringing

the Best Together: Rhythm of the Business" theme, Young hired a

professional drummer and put Lucent’s logo on percussion instruments –

cowbells, wood blocks, and tambourines. Each group of instruments

played on a different beat while trying to listen to the others. "Once

we got them into the rhythm, we had hidden the professional drummer

behind the curtain, and he was playing with the same rhythm. We pulled

the curtain and he went off into a whirlwind of drumming for a high

energy finish."

Use "do-it-yourself" opportunities, like team cooking. At the

now-defunct David’s Yellow Brick Toad in Lambertville, some teams had

cooking assignments (they did the pre-prep for each course), other

teams did the balloon sculpting and the floral centerpieces. Meanwhile

another team tended bar and served drinks to the workers. They were

their own entertainment, because while the teams ate, they created

skits that were performed during dessert. The key to a do-it-yourself

evening, Young says, is to bring in professionals for each task –

florists, decorators, chefs. "We are leery of letting our clients

touch knives, and we keep them away from the heat."

For a travel publisher, he conducted a sport fishing tournament, and

two years ago, for a group of manufacturing executives, he partnered

with a Moorestown-based firm on a dog sledding race in Colorado.

Young has 14 partners who provide cost-effective extra services. "We

bring volume to our partners here, but we also do events all over the

world," he says. Young’s activities company also provides services to

other meeting plan companies. Janet Pickover of JR Associates on Poe

Road, for instance, is a meeting planner who runs a speakers bureau.

Young has used her services to book speakers, and she has tapped him

for special events. Pickover compliments Young on the time that he

placed clever Burma Shave-type signs for people to enter the meeting,

then changed the signs for when they went out.

In his move to a paperless office, Young selects his vendors by how

well wired they are. "I tell them, if they can send their package

electronically, then send it. If they can’t, we tell them not to

bother."

He has a virtual private network for two sales people who work out of

their homes, and everyone in the company uses a chat program on MSN.

"Not only can we type-chat, but we can also verbally communicate."

Meeting planners are in the forefront of the electronic revolution,

particularly with electronic registration, which Young says "is one of

the biggest and best things in the industry. Some people estimate that

it costs them a fifth of what it used to cost to do it manually. But

many clients are not as technically savvy as you might think, and 80

percent of the registrations are done by fax."

Nevertheless, technology can’t take away the more scary glitches and

it sometimes causes them. Take the time that Young was in charge of

what was then the world’s biggest HDTV demonstration for the Sarnoff

Corporation’s 10th anniversary. Four hundred people were gathered in

the banquet hall to hear Jack Welsh, then the CEO of General Electric,

give the keynote speech and see a razzle dazzle sound and light show.

Sarnoff CEO Jim Carnes pressed the button – and nothing happened. The

$8,000 projector had failed. It’s a good thing Young had followed his

own "double backup" policy, because within a minute the second $8,000

projector had taken over. The show went on.

Young has an even scarier story, about the time he almost went out of

business when he had just gone into business. Part I: He and Richard

Van Fleet were long time friends. Van Fleet is now the owner of Slide

Design Interactive and Interactive Media Group, and he designed

Young’s website, but back then he and Young were both working in the

restaurant business. When Van Fleet got a job in a slide company and

brought a sleeve of slides to show Young what he was doing, Young

asked how much one slide cost. "He said $45," Young remembers. "I

wondered who the hell would pay $45 for a slide."

Part II: Young found that out the hard way. Brand new in the events

business, he was doing his first big event, a 1,200-person meeting for

IBM, a job that had been referred to him by his California-based

counterpart. "We used 2,000 slides, some costing $25 and some more

than $100. That morning I had given out 1,200 binders with the copies

of the slides for the closing presentation. Richard showed up at 4

p.m. and handed me the binder with the original slides. I was in the

middle of a heated discussion with the chef, the general manager, and

the sales manager. They had given me a low price for the veal, and I

had asked how they could do veal for that price, and I had asked them

about it several times. And the chef was getting ready to dish up, not

1,200 plates of veal, but 1,200 veal patties," relates Young, the

former restaurateur who still gets angry when he thinks about it.

"We went in the kitchen and I put the binder down on a shelf. That

night after dinner the IBM manager asked, `Are we all set for

rehearsal tomorrow?’ and my heart sank. I had lost the binder. I had

five managers going through a linen room piled high with dirty

tablecloths from the dinner. Rich was on the phone. No facilities in

New Jersey would do replacements in the middle of the night, and

somebody in New York could do it, but there would be a 300 percent

rush charge. I told the hotel staff that if someone found it there

would be a nice reward. We gave up looking at 2:30 p.m. and the phone

rang at 2:45 p.m. A bellman had found it. I gave him $200. I would

have given him anything."

As a planner, says Young, you are always relying on someone to get the

job done. You are always in the middle. So while you are touting your

ability to make people happy (Young’s special motto is "the Sense of

Smile") you have to be ready for any disaster. You have to have nerves

of steel.

Meeting Dimensions, Box 150, Princeton 08542. Michael D.

Young CMP, CEO and president. 609-466-1007; fax, 609-466-5414. Home

page: www.meetingdimensions.com

Activities Event Specialists, 53 Pennington-Hopewell

Road, Pennytown Shopping Village, Suite 32, Pennington 08534.

609-466-4100; fax, 609-466-5414. Home page: www.eventsbiz.com


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