Our 25th Anniversary: Wellington CEO Shares Lessons Learned, the Word That’s Shaped How We Do Business

In 1994, a gallon of gas cost $1.04. The Channel Tunnel opened between England and France. The Netscape Navigator web browser debuted. And on July 1, 1994, Joan Wells and Jada Hill founded Wellington.

“Jada and I were both K-Staters and both worked at Proctor & Gamble,” Joan says. “When I was there, I was frequently put on special assignment to develop unique and creative ways to produce our sales meetings and contests.”

That’s when Joan had a light bulb moment: it’s these meetings, contests, events and experiences that provide value not just to a sales organization, but also to the entire company. And so she made a deal with herself.

“My husband and I lived in St. Louis at the time,” she says. “He got a job back in Kansas City, and I was interviewing for a job at Hallmark. I told myself that if I got the job, I’d take it. And if I didn’t, I’d start my own event planning company.”

Together, Joan and Jada set out to put their own spin on the meetings and events industry. That includes keeping pace with—and often leading the way—in an industry that’s undergone a momentous shift.

“We’ve taken the gamut of live experiences and morphed that to really refine the industry,” she says. “Instead of meetings and events being what they were in the 80s and 90s—you produce an event, you create an event—we realized our clients wanted more. As a result, we’re owning the whole live experience.”

That’s a key word: experience. As you’ve no doubt found in your own meetings and events, attendees want experiences. They want to engage, discover and share, both within the attendee population and to their larger networks through social media.

That focus on experiences has also impacted segments within the meetings and events industry. Take gifting, for example. With the explosive growth of eCommerce sites like Amazon, consumers have more buying power than ever. That means that once-coveted gifts like high-end backpacks or luggage make less of an impact. As Wellington worked more frequently with gifting clients, Joan spotted another opportunity to lead the way.

“We added a full-service gifting division in 2001,” she says. “We create the customized experiences the gifting occurs within. By changing gifting to an experience, you create a psychological resonance that also helps build the power of your brand.”

There’s so much to celebrate in this last 25 years. But there’s been a fair share of challenges, too. Joan remembers receiving an unsettling phone call in 2000 after years of working with a major auto manufacturer.

“They said, ‘Just so you know, there are 250 companies like yours that people in Ford have worked with over the last decade,’” Joan says. “They told us they narrowed that list to six companies, and Wellington wasn’t on it.”

Rather than accept defeat and focus on finding a new line of work, Joan and Jada took a proactive approach to the unexpected obstacle. They asked their existing clients in the auto company to lobby for them. Then, they secured an appointment with the company’s executive team. After a successful presentation, Wellington was approved to oversee the company’s global events. And in recent years, they’ve proved their value and staying power.

“Throughout the years, the other companies either went out of business or were removed from the program,” Joan says. “Now it’s just Wellington and one other company. It would have been devastating to lose that business, but instead, it shows a part of who we are: we’ll hop on a plane and pitch to anyone, anywhere, any time.”

That willingness to meet with and pitch to anyone, regardless of location, played a pivotal role in how Wellington weathered the mid-2000s recession. Instead of putting prospective business on the back burner, Joan and the Wellington team were out talking to companies about what they wanted to accomplish once the economy recovered.

“When the companies received their budgets, they called us and we hit the ground running,” she says.

Now, Wellington is in the midst of another strategic pivot: association management, which now has its own division within the company. Just as meetings and events have shifted from purely logistical to experiential, association management companies are more focused on moving away from operating simply as a membership model and instead toward a role as a community builder.

“We’re helping people in the association management industry understand that community building is experience,” Joan says. “It’s tied to the association management company’s brand, programming and experiences that add value to these associations.”

In addition to building Wellington’s association management division, Joan says technology continues to be a top priority. Plans for several pieces of proprietary technology are in the works, which will reduce the need for third-party platforms for engagement-building event tools like mobile apps and registration websites. It’s mind-boggling to think that, when Wellington was founded, there was no Internet—just fax machines and phones!

Yet if anyone can stay ahead of a fast-moving industry curve, it’s Wellington. No matter how much the industry has changed, the company stays committed to the core values that Joan and Jada helped establish in Wellington’s early days. Joan and Jada also remember the early lessons they learned that continue to guide the company today.

“When we first started Wellington, a man interviewed with us but we didn’t hire him,” Joan says. “Yet when his father-in-law, an international scientist, needed help with producing an event for 5,000 global attendees in Seattle, he gave his father-in-law our names. Things fall into your lap that way because of those personal touch points. You never know who you’re talking to and how they might help you when you least expect it.

We’ll be celebrating our 25th anniversary throughout 2019, so stay tuned to our blog for more lessons learned, success stories and company milestones. Here’s to the next 25!

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