Tony Conway, CMP, says his move from hotel catering to off-premise event planning was all about freedom. “I had spent my entire 20-year career in a ballroom,” he explains. “I was ready to get out and be in different venues, be a bit more creative.”
Fortunately, he ran into colleagues Kendall Collier and Teresa Day right about that time, and the three launched Atlanta-based Legendary Events. In a mere five years, the company has grown from a small catering business into a $6-million full-service event enterprise, handling 400 events a year with a staff of 25 full-time and more than 200 on-call employees.
According to Conway, the company's success can be credited to a great balance of skills among the three principals. Day designs the look of events while Collier handles budgets and accounting issues. For his part, Conway brings in the business that keeps the show running.
Sales — a concept that strikes fear in the hearts of some event professionals — is Conway's singular passion. “I love selling,” he says. “I love talking with customers and trying to find out what their needs are and how we can be selected for what they need. If I didn't have to do the paperwork part of it, I would just continue to sell all day long.”
Part of his success in sales, Conway explains, has come from learning to listen to customers. “In my younger years, of course, I thought I knew everything,” he says. “I said, ‘This is how we're going to do it, this is the way we do it.’ But that's not always what the customer wants to do.” Though he has trained himself to let customers express their wishes, he confesses, “I still find myself getting so excited by what we're talking about that I have to remind myself to shut up and listen.”
Over the years, Conway has listened to — and won over — such clients as Mercedes Benz, Coca Cola, the American Cancer Society and Saks Fifth Avenue. But he says his greatest pride comes from having achieved “the balance of running our company and giving back to the community.” While donating time, money and services to causes from AIDS research fund-raising to pet care for patients with terminal illness may seem like a sacrifice, Conway doesn't see it that way. “I truly believe it's a privilege for us to be a part of helping our community,” he says, adding, “It goes hand in hand. If the company I'm working for is giving, it comes back to us.”
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“We have to partner with suppliers so that as a team we can give our clients more for their money. It's a cycle. People will remember when times get better. It's those companies that say, ‘Here's the price — take it or leave it’ that are going to be left. If we don't work with our customers on budgets and better ways to take the dollars they have and create what they need, we're going to have some trouble.”
“We're seeing that our customers want us to talk about how to do things in their own city — how to look at something that they might have taken elsewhere and do it in their own headquarters. That's good for those of us who primarily work in the cities we're based in. We need to learn how to change the environments in their offices to the point where they're not in their same environment.”
“I've always said our industry is an industry you either love or hate — you don't just tolerate. You have to look at your team. If they're not totally passionate about what they're doing, now is the opportunity for them to make a change and for you to make a change, and bring that level of passion and customer service up in your company.”