Straight Talk: Phelps Hope, Senior Vice President, Meetings & Expositions, Kellen

September 16, 2021

After realizing that he wasn’t ready to pursue a career in engineering, Phelps Hope dropped out of college and took a job as a bellman at a local hotel. The decision turned out to be a life-changing one, prompting him to leave his home country of Australia to study at the University of Denver’s Hotel & Restaurant Management School while starting his career at Marriott at the same time. But it wasn’t until he’d spent more than a dozen years holding key positions with Marriott, Sheraton, Hilton and Loews Hotels, that he decided to chase his true passion: meeting and event planning.  

Forty years later, the Atlanta-based Certified Meeting Professional has enjoyed a long and successful global meetings and expositions career, culminating in his current role as senior vice president, meetings and expositions for the Kellen Company, provider of meetings, events and trade show management for associations and corporations. 

“As far as I’m concerned, I’ve been semi-retired for 40 years, as the event planning business is my passion, so never truly have I worked a single day in my life!” he said.

TSNN sat down with Hope to hear how his company and clients have weathered the last year and a half, how he sees the industry adapting and changing—for the better—and how Zoom has been instrumental in keeping him and his family connected with their loved ones down under. 

What is the biggest challenge your company has had to navigate during the last 18 months?

By far, it’s been the uncertainty of how to navigate our business through the pandemic by guiding and managing our client associations. This pandemic did not come with an instruction manual, so as with all of us, we had to make best-guess decisions, sometimes based on some form of experience and at times a discussion of opinions to gain consensus. We have had devastating times over the past 20 years, not the least being Sept 11, 2001, where the fear and uncertainty was similar to what we experienced in the first and second quarters of 2020, with the obvious difference being it lasted for many, many months, and all the messaging was confused by the political agendas.

While we are very adept at creating solutions in this industry, I do not think anyone was prepared for the length of time we would be dealing with this pandemic. As we approach our fall schedule of conferences (more than 40 in person), we are having to assess on a daily basis the status of each of the locations and frame out messaging to the respective association members to keep them up-to-date with the facts regarding COVID safety protocols and how they relate to them and their chosen conference. We are constantly having to cut through the noise of the national media and percolate up the message from boots on the ground, which is exhausting.

What are the biggest challenges facing the association and trade groups that you work with?

The two traditional challenges for all our association clients remain the emerging generations and the relevancy of the association to their careers, and the constantly changing technologies. More short-term are the typical challenges all associations face when there is a disruption in the workforce and membership has a high turnover rate due to job loss, career change, retirement, etc., which reduces the revenue flow of membership dues. This ripples over to affect the attendance of the association business events. In addition, the corporate sector is making decisions and policies that affect sponsorship and exhibitor revenues due to travel restrictions, supply chain disruption or simply more conservative spend decisions. Both of these challenges will right-size themselves as we all become more adept in managing this virus and its variants.

While no one likes that the pandemic happened, many acknowledge that there will be some benefit from it. What do you see as the biggest lessons from last year’s shutdown?

Perhaps one small shining positive from the lockdowns and the length of time is that we all got trained on virtual conferencing tools, which have been around for many years before the pandemic but we could not get a high enough adoption rate to create virtual-only conferences. This will help our associations be more nimble in adding new meeting and networking events as supplements to their scheduled in-person events, which will help make the association more relevant to the emerging generations. This will also help with sponsor and exhibitor revenue streams for some associations.

From what you can tell, how is the industry adapting to the pandemic, specifically the challenges presented by the Delta variant? 

The onset of the pandemic caught us all off guard, with no experience or developed skillset to make informed decisions, but we adapted really well, as we always do in this industry. We learned so many new skills and are now able to make decisions based on experience for the most part rather than purely theory as we did in the beginning. This means the onset of the Delta variant, and the ones that will no doubt follow, are more easily managed since we know from experience what to do and how to communicate. 

Were many of the changes that we are seeing in the industry going to happen anyway? 

I believe so. The emerging generations always change how we work and communicate with each other, but the pandemic accelerated that change almost overnight. We will all become more flexible, reassess the priorities of our personal and business lives, review corporate and association spending to focus on the high value/high return cost centers, and to a point we have a greater tolerance for each other in the work world, as we have a shared experience to help us relate to one another.

Do you think mask and vaccine mandates should be implemented at meetings and trade shows? 

As managers of the association and as their event organizers, we recommend and consult with our volunteer boards on our recommendations. If the board decides to adopt either or both of the mandates for their events, then it is up to the individual member whether they choose to attend or not. Our job is to design and implement any guidelines and mandates decided by the board. Personally, I have been vaccinated and decided to wear a mask indoors and outdoors when in a crowded environment.

What has been key for your mental health since the onset of COVID? 

Just connecting with peers, family and friends in any way possible. My family (parents, siblings, clan) are in Australia, and since I have not been able to travel to visit, we have scheduled a bi-weekly Zoom sessions on Saturday evenings to chat and catch up with each other. We have talked more frequently and laughed more with each other in 18 months than we have together in 10 years. Making the best of a rotten situation has really helped my mental health.


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