President / Chief Creative Officer, Total Event Resources
Kathy Miller lives and breathes events. After 35+ years and countless projects with Fortune 500 companies, major trade associations and not for profit organizations, she still thinks it’s fun. Kathy started Total Event Resources, a global, certified woman-owned meeting and event planning agency with a reputation for making waves, in 1995.
One of her proudest accomplishments is being hand selected to participate in, and completing, the inaugural class the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program in Chicago.
“Someone recently described me as having ‘moxie.’ I’m honored to be described that way. It’s been said, ‘when you've got moxie, you need the clothes to match.’ And I sure do! A seasoned planner can and should be confident and contemporary. Just because we are seasoned doesn’t mean we need to be frumpy.”
"I run the other way when leaving a meeting and a staff person says they want my badge to collect it!
I started collecting my name badges 6 or 7 years ago. If I’d started collecting them when I started my career I would have needed a van to get them to the photo shoot!
Each badge has a story and an experience that either influenced or affected me or influenced our industry or someone in our industry. Some of the badges are from meetings or conferences I attended or spoke at where I was educated or perhaps educated others. Other badges are from meetings or events our company has produced for a client.
I think every planner can relate. We all collect something from our events because each event comes and goes so quickly and we move on to the next. Seeing these badges is a good reminder of all the amazing work my company does and the incredible opportunities I’ve had to attend industry conferences and events."
Kathy Miller: I’m a Chicago City girl; I grew up and lived in many different parts of Chicago. My parents were apartment dwellers for many years so we moved every year. I attended five schools before the 5th grade, when we finally settled into a two flat that my parents bought in Albany Park. I was a very active child in school. I participated in lots of sports, was active in theater and became a majorette. It wasn’t until later in life that I appreciated school for the education part of it; I think I was too busy trying to keep busy.
My parents were both blue collar workers - my Dad was a truck driver and my Mother was a waitress. My Mother worked very hard over the years and she became a single Mom after my Dad died. They didn’t have money to send me to college, yet I really wanted to go away to school. In my senior year of high school I entered the work-study program, working two jobs while going to school, and saved up enough money to attend Robert Morris College in Carthage, IL. I graduated with a Secretarial Certificate and went to work for Hyatt Hotels, where I started my career in the meetings and events industry (and have loved it ever since). I followed in my mother’s footsteps of becoming someone with strong work ethics and a determination to follow my passion.
I started my first entrepreneurial job at the age of ten when I lived across the street from Wrigley Field and sold coffee and lemonade to the Wrigley fans.
MM: What was your first experience with the meetings industry? What do you remember most about it?
KM: When I graduated from Robert Morris, I started a job at a bank working as a secretary in the Trust Department; it wasn’t my cup of tea. One of my friends I went to school with worked for Hyatt Regency Chicago in the Convention Services Department and every day she would tell me how much fun it was there. I had no idea what she or the Hotel did; however, I was determined to get a job there… and I did. I started working for two sales managers who were awesome bosses; they were strong, tough and caring enough to mentor me. I decided I loved sales and marketing and wanted to become a sales manager.
What I remember most about my start in the hotel industry was how young I was and what a great opportunity I received from Hyatt. At the age of 17, I entered the workforce with Hyatt. I was promoted four times in my eight years and am proud to say that I held two positions as a Director of Sales and Marketing, one at the Hyatt Lincolnwood and the other at Hyatt Oakbrook.
Back in the 70s and 80s the hotel industry was very different - you worked hard and you played hard! Not that we industry people don’t work hard and play hard today, it’s just different. I have so many fond memories of my Hyatt days and start to my career. They taught me so much that I still apply to my business today.
MM: Total Event Resources started in a spare room of your home and has since produced thousands of events. What’s been your “secret to success?”
KM: First, I surround myself with people who have the same passion for our industry and those that can make me look good. When I started to build my business, I realized if I surrounded myself with people that knew how to do the things I didn’t and loved what they did, it would be a great way to grow our company and provide a wide range of services. It’s how we have continued to grow our business today.
I also believe that it’s always important to be flexible, nimble and willing to learn something new! I continue to be educated in our industry, to educate, to mentor and to be a mentee. It has always been important to have people that support me and our business because operating a business isn’t always easy and you need to have the support in the good times and in the tough times.
We have an incredible team at Total Event Resources. They all have unique skills and passion and they want our company to be successful and that is no secret!
MM: What is most rewarding about your job; what makes it all worthwhile?
KM: “When I do what I love, I love what I do.”
I really love the sales and creative process. It’s always been rewarding to find new projects where we can make a difference, one that we can assist in driving the strategy, the creative, the production and the logistics.
I love that no two events are EVER the same and we get this opportunity to deliver exciting, innovative and unique meetings and events all over the world.
And what makes it all worthwhile is seeing the event in action. Watching the attendees delight in the experience, understanding how it moves business forward and then after it’s all over hearing from our clients what an amazing experience it was and what an incredible job our team did…That makes it all worthwhile!
MM: What challenges do you feel meeting and event planners face today and what is your approach to those challenges?
KM: I believe meeting and event planners are faced with a constantly changing meeting and event environment. We are faced with proving the significance and ROI of producing a meeting or event more now than ever before. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just more challenging based on the creative world we live in as well as the “instant gratification” we look for.
Social media has certainly helped in providing information and metrics when in the past you may have had to wait for days, months or years to determine the “payoff” for hosting a meeting or sponsoring an event. Now you can see how many people followed you on Facebook, tweeted, retweeted etc. And you can track how and when those followers turn into business opportunities.
Our approach to making sure we are providing great ROI is to fully understand the depth of our clients’ goals and objectives. We recently built a customized mobile app for a client that had a wide range of capabilities including gamification and lead generation sharing. We were able to track results in real time. In the course of a day, more than 27,000 business cards had been exchanged and 147 leads generated among 1,200 attendees. That is great information for our clients.
I also believe educating corporate procurement executives on how to best evaluate our business is an important initiative that I would love to be involved in. There are many companies using online technologies to evaluate our proposals; this is not always easy unless the only goal is comparing dollars to dollars. In a world that revolves around our creative solutions, it is very difficult to put that into an online technology and have it evaluated without having face-to-face input and conversation. I hope we find the balance. What we provide is not a commodity, it is a creative service.
MM: Any interesting challenges you’ve faced and overcome over the years?
KM: Wow, that’s a tough question. There have been many opportunities for my own personal growth as a business owner, an industry leader and a mentor. Over 18 years I have learned so much about myself and how to manage challenges. By far the most rewarding challenge we were faced with, and overcame, was the economic downturn of 2008. My three words after 2009 were… “We made it!” I know there were many industry colleagues and friends that didn’t make it, their business didn’t survive or they lost their jobs. This was definitely not an easy time. However, I try to take away one good thing from every challenging situation and that one good thing was a pretty big one… we made it through a very tough time.
MM: How do you keep up on industry trends?
KM: Read, read, read! I am always looking at industry magazines online or hard copies. When I’m traveling, I will make sure I take a magazine or two with me.
At our company we have two initiatives to help us all keep up on, or ahead of, trends. First, we have interns year-round and we ask them to report on a new resource or interesting article at our weekly team meetings. We also conduct “lunch and learns” where we gather as many of our team members as possible and ask a supplier to come into our offices at lunch to present their capabilities. This has been a great way to learn about what is happening and what the latest and greatest products and services are for our clients.
I attend numerous conferences throughout the year, both as an attendee and a speaker. I always take away something from every session I attend. As a speaker I have to be on the cutting edge of our industry; therefore, we are always researching.
And our Total Event Resources team is committed to staying on top of the industry trends as we travel the globe producing meetings and events.
MM: You live and breathe this industry. What advice do you have for your peers, and those new to the industry, when it comes to keeping the passion alive?
KM: When it comes to keeping the passion alive for those that are new to the industry, I try to help them understand that although what we do includes long hours, hard, physical work and that trying to constantly meet deadlines can be stressful… if it’s in their blood then they will survive, and even thrive, in our world. This is not an easy business. After 35+ years I still feel the drive and the passion. I’m blessed in that way because I absolutely love what I do. Numerous young professionals have entered this industry wide eyed and eager and I’ve had many of them decide it’s not for them. They see the glamour of traveling, attending “parties” and creating something unique and special; they love the thought of all of the logistics behind planning these “parties”. Then something clicks for them. Maybe it’s the day we do a day of pre-sites and they show up in their stiletto heels and by the end of the day they can’t walk! There is this realization that it’s not all glamour and it’s a ton of hard work.
We have spent many days in another part of the world; sometimes you are working in a hotel ballroom and realize that you haven’t stepped outside for three days - time to take a fresh air break. We work hard and it’s important that we have fun while we do it, so there are lots of laughs as we gather at the end of the night or the end of the event to decompress and tell funny stories… maybe it’s over a glass of wine!
As for my peers, I’m not sure I can tell them anything they haven’t already thought of or experienced. My advice is when you are feeling down, tired or unsure of what you do, reach out to that industry friend that can lend an ear and be empathetic to the hard work you do. I have lots of industry friends who are always willing to listen and be supportive.
This business is hard to “turn off,” especially as a business owner. I would highly recommend that you figure out how you can balance your life in an industry that is truly 24/7. Find something that you love to do besides work. I love to swim and I try to do that as often as I can.
MM: Your commitment to growing and educating the meetings industry has been tireless. From public speaking, dedicating your time to serving on industry boards and committees and volunteering… what’s next?
KM: A vacation!
It’s a great question, I don’t see myself not continuing to be involved in the industry; however, I can’t say I have a big, new volunteer position that I’m stepping into when my ISES board responsibilities are finished… I’ll wait and see. My term as ISES International President was a highlight of my career and a position I took very seriously. Eight years on an International Board is a big commitment. I know I will continue to speak because that is something I truly enjoy and I believe the rest will reveal itself.
MM: How do you decompress after an event?
KM: I tend to want to be at home “nesting” to decompress. Because we spend so many hours in our industry working, I love it when I can be home with my family enjoying a wonderful family dinner together.
And as I mentioned above, decompressing with your team and clients is also important. We try to take the time to celebrate our successes and tell stories that make us laugh. It can be easy to simply move on to the next project, but it’s so important for everyone to take time to reflect on the successes and hard work.
What I Like…
That would surprise people who know me: I was a majorette in High School and twirled two fire batons!
Possession: My wedding ring and my great grandmother’s broach.
Memento: When my mother passed away I found two things that I have treasured. One was a wrapped Christmas present with my name on it. It was May and buried at the bottom of a box, it was fate that I found it. The gift was an angel pin. The second was a video that two students produced about my mother called, “A Day in the Life of a Waitress.” I found it the day after my mother passed away. Two gifts I will always treasure.
Time of year/season: I love summer for the warm weather and I love fall for the beautiful colors.
Books: The E-myth Revisited is a great business book. This is the first book I read when I started my business, a great gift from a wonderful mentor of mine.
Apps: Mindfulness - a great meditation app. Sometimes three minutes is all I have and I can close my door for some quiet time.
Movies: Ghost, Wind Beneath My Wings!
TV: For some reason, I really got hooked on The Voice. I think it has to do with the fact that we are always searching and researching the next innovative, creative idea, which includes talent.
Dessert: I LOVE dark chocolate!
Drink: Not much. ☺
Quote: Given to me in a letter from my son: “To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.” Anonymous
- Kathy Osterman Award, MPI-CAC
- Enterprising Women of the Year, Honorable Mention, Enterprising Woman Magazine
- Volunteer of the Year Award, ISES International
- Supplier of the Year, MPI-CAC
- Rising Star, MPI-CAC
- Lifetime Achievement, NICE (NACE ISES Chicago Excellence)