For Maritz Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Malley, winning the MPI Foundation Industry Leader Award in front of his friends and family in the flower-draped Mellwood Art Center during World Education Congress’ President’s Dinner in Louisville, Kentucky, was a time to reflect on how he accidently found the meetings industry—and whether those same accidents of chance are available for the next generation of meeting professionals.

In introducing O’Malley, the MPI International board of directors chair, MPI President and CEO Paul Van Deventer used the word “humility” to describe him. When Smart Meetings met with him after the lights had turned off and asked about his more than 34 years at Maritz, his roots in the hospitality industry and expansive volunteer roles with MPI and SITE, O’Malley said, “Humility is just the ability to look back and understand how lucky you are. My career was a series of fortunate events.”

Start with Gratitude

When O’Malley took his first job at a resort as a college student, he had the split-second choice between being a bus driver and a concierge. His friend took the bus driver role and had moved on to another industry in a matter of months. O’Malley chose concierge and eagerly opened himself up to learning other jobs while there. “That made all the difference,” he said. “Whatever role you take on first, there are so many adjacent roles, so many opportunities to learn more. Once your shift has ended, always raise your hand, find out if somebody else needs help. There’s always more you can learn,” he said.

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O’Malley ended up serving as a banquet captain, and that appetite for learning connected him with Maritz, which was putting on an event there.

O’Malley now sees many more opportunities for people to go into hospitality intentionally. “Now there are great hospitality programs at colleges and universities across the world, and those students are being exposed to the legion of opportunities in the industry.”

The massive entry of new meeting professionals post-Covid—and the retirement of many who ushered the industry through the hard times—is another opportunity, in O’Malley’s mind. “For young people who really want to apply themselves and want to learn, the world is theirs,” he said. “We need their good thinking, their diverse thoughts on sustainability and technology. If they can adopt AI and use it to take mundane work out of the equation, that’s going to make it even more attractive for young people to jump in. This is a golden age for young people to join our industry and quickly become leaders and make a difference,” he added.

The Evolution of Incentive Programs

The current focus on using generative artificial intelligence to streamline idea generation comes on top of all the changes in the practice of using incentive travel to motivate results that happened over the last 70 years at the company that popularized watch gifting to top performers.

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“We are more concerned about the individual now than ever before…and rightly so,” he said. “We had been moving in that direction for a long time, but the pandemic emphasized the point that people want agency over how they consume any experience, be that incentives or meetings.”

Many of the clients Maritz works with are not just offering one grand European city tour, but multiple choices so that people can travel domestically if they are more comfortable with that. And once they arrive, the event offers multiple choices within the destination, with plenty of free time, as that is what people say they want most.

“We still want to improve their performance and drive them toward becoming the best version of themselves, so offering choice is absolutely critical,” he said. “People are working very hard, and they value the time they can spend on an incentive trip with their guest. The beauty of that is, even with inflation, free time cost you nothing.”

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What hasn’t changed is the emphasis on the heart of hospitality. “One of the things that my team has probably heard all too often is the importance of treating each individual as though they are the most special person in the world,” he said. “That requires being in the moment, looking at the guest and finding out what it is we can do to serve them best,” he said.

“What we do is noble work,” O’Malley said, comparing the philosophical ideal of “all beings as one” to the role of hospitality professionals. “There’s nothing that separates anyone you might meet on the street. What we get to do in the events industry is show people how similar we all are, and how special they are in the eyes of everybody else. It is important work, and that will never change.”

What One Thing?

When asked the one thing that made all the difference in his career, O’Malley didn’t hesitate. He quickly replied, “Taking chances.”

He continued, “When I graduated from university, I had never really traveled at all. I found this very loosely structured volunteer program to teach high school in Kenya, and I went over there with nothing. I backpacked up to the most northwest province of Kenya, walked into the Anglican archdiocese, and the archbishop said, ‘Steve, you’re the answer to my prayers.’ He drove me out to a school that day and for a year that’s how it worked.”

A similar trust in outcomes happened when he moved to Colorado. He didn’t know anyone and didn’t even know how to ski, but it worked out. “All throughout my career, I have been willing to say yes to unknown and as a result, I’ve gone down some blind alleys but for the most part, I’ve been able to find success.”

O’Malley encourages his team to say yes to some scary things because “you never know what could happen.” You could even win the MPI Industry Leaders Award.