31 March, 2023, 04:01

Looking Back and Ahead with Benchmark’s Burt and Alex Cabañas

A revered pioneer in the meetings industry (and founding board member of IACC), Burt Cabañas founded Benchmark in 1980 and has helped steward it through decades of growth and attentive service to clients. His inspirational story is documented in his book, Benchmarking A Life in Business, and continues today, as son Alex Cabañas took over as CEO in 2014. We had the unique opportunity to speak with Burt and Alex on topics including how the meetings and events business has changed over the years, why video conferencing isn’t always the answer, and how the rise of remote workers could impact the industry.

Alex, how do you walk the line of honoring what Burt has built and implementing your own vision?

ALEX: I’ve been with the company for almost 13 years, so I was able to understand and grow with the company before taking on the CEO role. Of course, so much of Benchmark’s success is attributable to Burt, but the legacy I think about isn’t a family legacy, but the Benchmark legacy. We think of the constituencies that count on Benchmark: the ownership groups, our guests, our employees, the communities we live in, our industry partners – so much of that is what drives the success of the organization. Really, Burt’s story means more to the company right now than Burt does as an individual. His story – as an entrepreneur, Cuban immigrant, and a true American success – that has legs forever. That can inspire anyone from the housekeeper all the way to the general manager. I’ll never have that story. That’s not the way I grew up, or the education or background I have. My experience came in organizational development, finance, business development, and growth strategy. The skill sets were very different, but the right ones for each era.

BURT: Had Alex not come along and become part of the company, I don’t know that I would have kept the company. I might’ve sold it. Our commitment to our clients, to the culture, to the over 7,000 employees that we have, that’s not an easy thing to hand off. If you look at other companies, they change every time the CEO changes. The great thing about Benchmark is that Alex grew up with the company. The issues that are mechanical to the company, even though they’re different and better under Alex, transition like a warm knife through butter. The issues relative to culture and people are much more difficult, but not with Alex, because he understands the culture, and how people should be treated. I think it would’ve been a difficult situation to pass on to someone else.

Burt, what did you understand about meeting professionals in the early days that others didn’t?

BURT: What most meeting planners appreciated about us was the fact that every operating decision we made took the meeting planner into consideration first. Everything else, including leisure travelers, was behind that. Secondly, we established a direct reporting line from the director of conference services to the general manager so that important decisions could be made quickly.

In most hotels, the contact person for a meeting planner is a sales manager or a conference planner that has to go through F&B or marketing, and several other stops before the general manager. For us, on Day One, we had directors of conference services reporting directly to the general managers, thereby helping the meeting planners understand that their needs were our needs first.

Were there copycats?

BURT: There were very few companies that could do what we do. Some would try to copy our terminology – mostly hotels – but their operating characteristics remained the same, and they just couldn’t get there.

ALEX: Every hotel company does group business, but the specificity and understanding and actually owning the conference centers, that was a relatively small niche. Today, it’s much broader with the hotel world catching up in some respect, and with the internationalization of the industry there is more focus on the groups side now than there was. Most of the competition we grew up with in the ’80s or ’90s has been acquired by major brands – we’re one of the few that is still independent.

What’s something that has changed about the meetings business that surprises you?

BURT: Baby Boomers, in the era the company started, wanted to be together. They wanted to have face to face meetings. Major oil and gas companies would triple people up in a room. We used to have a 70 percent double occupancy ratio. Millennials have now taken it in a different direction – they spend more time on their phones, and find less value in face-to-face meetings – and double occupancy has now dropped to the low 20s. That’s been a big change.

ALEX: Now, there are platforms that consolidate a lot of information, and it homogenizes what differentiation we can offer, since there’s such an easy path for a planner to go and search for whatever their criteria are, without the need for a face-to-face interaction. There’s an ease to that for the planner, but from our side, we’ve had to advance our own technological skill and proposal process to differentiate ourselves in a commodity-driven tech environment. It’s not necessarily a surprising trend, but it’s difficult for a direct sales company to assimilate to.

Has your main value proposition evolved over the years?

ALEX: It went from more of a physical product to an overall experience. Today, everything we talk about is transformational experience, with a tremendous amount of focus on content, and how we deliver at the property level. It’s a major differentiator for us. Gone are the days of a group showing up to a property for a few days, not leaving the property, and eating all their meals on-property in the same place. While that still may exist in some segments, today, most are looking for some outside experience, catered events, unique functions, some local infusion of culture. The level of creativity is where we differentiate today While the design of those corporate event spaces may have changed since the ’80s, we’re still starting that process by thinking of the planner’s needs. So the tables, chairs, technology, AV, the way acoustics comes into play, how the building is separated between the meeting side and leisure side – all those things are still relevant today, so those experiences we talk about are still built on a fundamental physical product.

Has that meant becoming greater experts in the destinations too?

ALEX: We’re well ahead of that. In all our destinations, we’re years into developing those relationships and content, so we can be a connector to those experiences for our clients. The planner can rely on us. The planner has all these different needs and generations to satisfy – the level of creativity that they’re expected to bring to an event has gone up – so the more resources we have in any destination, the more we can serve them to support that effort.

BURT: There are fewer full-time meeting planners in Fortune 1000 companies than there were a while back. The meeting planner job used to encompass everything – culture, having people feel rewarded – so we’ve filled in some of that space for the part-time meeting planner by offering all of these potential opportunities and expertise in order to create that environment that they’re after.

How would you pitch someone who leans heavily on tech-based meetings on why in-person meetings still matter?

ALEX: I was just on a GoToMeeting conference call that cut off three times during a 30-minute call. So while technology to connect people remotely has certainly improved, for decades, the industry has talked about it being a total replacement for face-to-face. It hasn’t happened, and I don’t think it will. Nobody has been able to develop a product that lets you have actual bookings of meetings online, because of the complexity of a group event. While yes, meeting rooms themselves, and setups, and the booking side of the guest rooms are relatively simple, all the other elements of designing a meeting still require an in-person sales process, a dialogue that can’t be put into an app.

I don’t think there’s any replacement – even in a remote workforce environment – for getting people face-to-face. There’s a level of relationship building, camaraderie, alignment, understanding that you get in person. When you’re physically with someone, you see the body language, you get those subtle cues, and you’re not distracted by the screen. Of course there’s a place for tech. Technology only increases collaboration opportunities – but it doesn’t replace face-to-face. With a remote workforce today, face-to-face is that much more important.

Even a video conference doesn’t do it, right?

ALEX: I like the joke that “dogs can’t see in two dimensions, and we can’t feel in two dimensions.” We really can’t. Yes, it helps when you can see the video, but it’s not the same when you’re in the room, shaking hands. One-to-one video conferences, you can feel it more, but when you have nine people on a screen, it’s just not the same.

BURT: You can’t build culture, loyalty, or pride if you’re not looking at them and they’re not together. You can’t do it on a phone, and you can’t do it on video. And those things are very important to the growth of a company and the retention of good people.

What are some examples of how “be the difference” manifests itself at Benchmark?

ALEX: I describe it as a state of being – not a slogan, bumper sticker, or button. They’re the top three words in the company. Our product is creating memories and emotions for a living. So when any guest of ours – planner, individual attendee, or leisure guest – leaves, what are they going to say? They don’t leave with a physical product, so hopefully they’ll walk away with a good memory – something that they remember about the event that was particularly meaningful and worthy of advocacy or a story – or an emotion, a way we made them feel, whether it was welcome, cared-for, special.

If we just deliver the basics – good rooms, technology that works – just the stuff that’s expected, we still may be different, because frankly, in a lot of places, the bar is low, but that’s not enough for us. “Be the difference” happens in those special moments, with attentiveness, attention to detail, engagement of our team, and meeting your expectations that we’ll deliver on the highest level. Beyond that, it’s knowing the personality and those personal habits of the planner. If a guest mentions a birthday or a special occasion, we can surprise them with something unique. It’s just that extra level of care, as if the person were a guest in your home. Internally at Benchmark, it starts with storytelling and getting our team to see themselves as actors in the story, and “be the difference” as a cause that they can get behind. We try to share examples of what “be the difference” looks like – and it doesn’t have to be something big – with our team, as often as we can.

What are your thoughts on the remote worker movement, and how does Benchmark fit into it?

ALEX: We’re connected to it in some respects because of the investment we made in etc.venues which really has us following how the workforce is changing and how the workplace is evolving, from coworking to workplace-as-a-service, to remote workers – we’re paying an awful lot of attention to it. I think it impacts our industry positively. To me, that’ll only increase the need for people to find gathering places throughout the world, since they won’t physically be in the same space. If you assume that what we said earlier is true – that face-to-face is uniquely important in connecting people – if they’re not working together in the office, they’ll need face-to-face meetings.

BURT: I’m a believer that everything is cyclical. When it comes to the need for team-building and to have exchanges with people that are spontaneous and not tech-driven, we’ll see a return to a not-so-separated workforce. What form that takes, I’m not sure. I think the best ideas happen when you’re walking to lunch with someone, not necessarily intentionally getting on the phone or meeting about a given topic. So, maybe there’s a central social gathering place that people go to at the end of the day to recharge their batteries on the human side.