Thriving young businesses cater to convention-goers
Women across the country are now translating hospitality skills they have sharpened as wives and mothers and organizational talents they have developed through volunteer activities into professional careers in the convention, tour, and meeting-planning industry. And what they may not know about the fine points of business and marketing, they are quick to learn.
Peggy Schweig, president of The St. Louis Scene Inc., began her business six years ago as a veteran convention-goer's wife. Mrs. Schweig, now a widow with a grown family, explains that her husband had been a manufacturer who attended many conventions and conferences and that she had always gone along and attended the events planned for the wives. She was often struck by how mediocre that planning was and how much many of those well-meaning ''ladies committees'' needed professional guidance. She opened her own business to provide that kind of help.
Because she had been impressed by the services of Tour Gals in Atlanta, she paid a consulting fee to learn some basic points of operation from that successful 14-year-old organization. ''What I learned saved me two years of mistakes and showed me how to begin to solicit business and set up a business structure,'' Mrs. Schweig recalls.
''I discovered that such a business is far more complicated than it looks,'' comments this St. Louis professional, who regularly works 60 to 70 hours a week to keep all the facets of her enterprise under control. ''If even one conventioneer is without a hotel room, or gets lost, or misses a tour bus, we feel responsible,'' she points out. ''It takes a lot of hard work and telphone checking to make things happen at the right time at the right place and in the right way, particularly for an international convention attended by 13,000, or a day at the zoo for 7,000 police chiefs.''
She admits she had to learn a lot about business to speak as confidently as she now does about such subjects as cash flow, sales projections, and budgets.
Mrs. Schweig employs only women -mostly young matrons or women whose families are grown and who are looking for interesting and financially rewarding work outside their homes. Fourteen women are now part of the permanent office staff, 40 serve as guides and hostesses, and 10 work as shuttle-bus dispatchers. Most of the guides and dispatchers work part time and are paid by the hour - a system that fits well with their other family and community activities. All are chosen for their personal warmth and graciousness, as well as for their organizational abilities.
''We can teach people the history of St. Louis, what is going on here, and why it is such a great city. But we can't teach them how to relate to others in a helpful and friendly way. They have to come equipped with that ability,'' says Mrs. Schweig, who has herself written a 64-page manual for use in training new guides. She also conducts a monthly refresher update for all hostesses and guides to review current happenings in St. Louis.
She comments that her thriving city-on-the-Mississippi surprises almost all visitors with its many attractions and is probably ''the best kept tourist secret in the United States.'' That is one reason why all the women who work at St. Louis Scene enjoy showing thousands of visitors around the town each year.
The St. Louis Scene Inc. is one of 13 members of the Convention Service & Sightseeing Network, which is represented in 12 U.S. cities and by ''The Group Planner'' organization in Toronto.
The oldest member is probably Red Carpet Associates in New York. It was launched by owner Jane Beers in 1966 and for 15 years has been helping visitors to Manhattan feel like VIPs. Miss Beers operates with a staff of five and 40 freelance guides and hostesses. She works with corporations, women's committees of convention groups, schools, and organizations, developing special tours for special groups. Most first-time visitors to New York, she says, want an overview tour that includes all the well-known sights such as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. Then they like to take in cultural attractions such as museums, theaters, and music halls.
Mrs. Jean Smith, executive director of Tour Gals in Atlanta, says her distinctly ''for profit'' company was begun in 1967 and now has 80 women employees, most of whom are paid on an hourly basis.
''We are group specialists,'' explains Mrs. Smith, though the group might range from two people who want to take in the highlights of Atlanta, to arranging a convention for 20,000 or shuttle-bus service for 25,000. ''We do everything from meeting people at airports to registering them at their functions, to putting on educational programs. We stage 'theme' parties for thousands of convention attendants, and we plan and hire caterers for both large and small parties. Arranging special tours, however, is still the biggest part of our business, and we are greatly concerned with local history as well as in showing off new and contemporary developments in Atlanta. We do keep expanding our services and providing more opportunities for women.''
Mrs. Smith warns others who might feel attracted to the business that what can start out to be a nice thing to do in one's spare time can quickly become fascinating but all-consuming. Today, in addition to running Tour Gals, she is a vice-president of the Atlanta Convention Bureau and the only woman member of the Georgia Business and Industry Association.
Over in Houston, another booming Southern city, Nancy Block began her business as a shopping service. But as Houston expanded into a major convention city, she expanded, too, to become FCL Group and Convention Services, an important arm of the city's convention industry.
Other companies represented in the national network include Local Arrangements Inc. in San Antonio; Showcase Associates Inc. in Philadelphia; Image Inc. in Orlando, Fla.; Helen R. Dietrich Inc. in New Orleans; Dallas Personal Tour Service Inc. in Dallas; and California Leisure Consultants in San Diego and Los Angeles.