Company takes stress out of event-planning

WILLIAMSBURG – Imagine this scenario: You’re working for Pegasus Plastics, a local manufacturer. Your boss taps you on the shoulder and says, “We’ve decided to pay for a booth at the Worldwide Plastics Tradeshow. Come up with a fantastic booth display, some small but memorable gifts, some fun activities, and keep it under budget. Oh, and we’d like a nine-foot Pegasus to use for the closing ceremonies our company is sponsoring.”

Where to begin! Just how many phone calls is this going to take to pull off? Only one, according to the staff at The Executive Selection. “No matter what the idea, no matter how involved the project , we can say ‘No problem’ with total confidence,” says employee Susan Wischman.

It appears that confidence has never been a problem for Cathy Keelan, owner and founder of The Executive Selection. Serendipity and a copy machine played a role at the start of her career. In 1972, already gainfully employed but waiting to use a shared copier, a man stepped out of his office and asked, “Are you here for the job interview?” Not knowing what the job was or who was asking, she answered ‘yes’ anyway, and began working for Cherry Central Co-Op Marketing.

“I had wonderful mentors at Cherry Central,” Keelan recalled. “Al Belfour and Frank Stulen saw my potential, taught me a lot, and eventually put me in charge.”

Belfour and Stulen retired, and Keelan was ready for a new challenge. So, she and Sandy Plaga started their own balloon delivery and gift shopping service, The Executive Selection. While making a delivery at the Grand Traverse Resort, then-chef Hermann Suhs (known to all as Chef Hermann) took notice of their creativity and asked them to decorate the restaurant for his Sunday brunch feature. Keelan and Plaga created monthly decor themes to complement the brunch menu, and a new service was born.

In 1991, Plaga took over the family business, Traverse Bay Woolen Co., but kept her hand in The Executive Selection. In 1992, Keelan acquired Plaga’s share of the business, initiated an extensive marketing program, upgraded props, and computerized the business. The following year, they added new clients to an extensive list of repeat corporate and association businesses, and continued to plan sales meetings, conventions, and special events for groups from 20 to 2,000.

In 1996, the company added professionally-built, award-winning floats to its long list of services, moved into new offices, and added an 8,000 square-foot warehouse. In 1997, it expanded into Sault Ste. Marie, Grand Rapids, and Lansing. In doing so, Keelan established strong relationships with such resorts as Shanty Creek, Boyne USA, Grand Hotel, Amway Grand and Bay Harbor.

Adding tradeshow design and decor in 1998, the company worked with major food brokers like Spartan Stores, Gordon Food Service, Sysco, and Meijer to design and display marketing presentations of their products, introduce new product lines, and for grand openings of new facilities.

In 1999, they added more employees, bringing the number of employees to 16, and added a new division, which recently opened an office in the Boardman Building in downtown Traverse City.

The Destination Planning division plans to bring lots of visitors to northern Michigan, in every season. They’ve already completed sales to major national corporations to host training events, business meetings, and after-hours excursions to the area, and will work with local businesses to accomplish those excursions.

The Executive Selection has grown as a result of strong relationships with clients and regional vendors, repeat business, a solid reputation, and the innovation of staff members. Each employee has some input, whether it’s generating an idea, scouting the meeting site, or providing the lighting and graphic arts. Sometimes the brainstorming sessions are planned, sometimes they come at the strangest times.

“It’s like a snowball; one of us says a word, and that word sets the ideas in motion,” said David St. Martin, who’s been with the company for six years. One of his jobs is to review each client’s history, help with the event concept, then make sure it fits into the parameters of the client’s budget.

The willingness of each employee to cross over from handyman to head honcho helps achieve the goal of complete client satisfaction.

St. Martin said, “One thing Cathy (Keelan) has taught us to be is service-oriented and to ask each client, ‘What do you want?’ Not ‘here’s our list, pick something.’ If a client comes to us asking for a Western theme party, we don’t say, ‘We have three cactuses, two donkeys and one covered wagon; pick one! Whether we start from a theme suggested by us or by the client, each presentation is completely customized based on the dialogue between us and the client. There’s a lot of trust there.”

Speaking of trust, Keelan’s greatest challenge has been to let go and let her staff meet clients’ needs. The Executive Selection is the only regional events company with its own in-house meeting designers, signage specialists, florists, and graphic artists. It also has its own linens, props, and equipment necessary to pull off each grand idea.

“Most companies out-source these services, but I wanted control of every aspect,” said Keelan. “It’s my name on every contract, and ultimately, my reputation. I have tough standards, and keeping each aspect in-house assures those standards can be met seven days a week.

“It’s been hard, but I can let my staff make decisions with confidence,” she continued. “I may have an entirely different concept, or I may have done something differently, but if our clients are happy, that makes me happy.”

Staff member Marsha Mixer added, “Our real job is to fill in the blanks. Being all-inclusive means we can arrange everything from transportation to meals, decor, gifts, entertainment, hotels, flowers–everything. We work as an extension of convention services people, not in place of them, and we work with local vendors who are already in the tourism or service side of industry.”

Staff member Carolyn Harbin adds, “No matter what it takes to get there, when a client walks in and says, ‘That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!’ we know we’ve done our job.”

Keelan is often in competition with event companies from New York or Los Angeles.

“Some clients can’t believe we can pull it off because we do it from this small town in northern Michigan,” she said. “But, we’re fortunate to live and work in this beautiful area, and once we get them here, they find it hard to leave. And once they give us that contract, we’re able to prove ourselves every time.”

As a way to give back to the community, each year The Executive Selection provides their services free of charge to two fund raising events. Past events have been held for the Women’s Resource Center, Zonta Club, Pathfinder School, Munson, area Catholic Schools, and others.

So, if you’ve been given the task of putting together any size event, now you know who to call.

If The Executive Selection can turn a 22-foot round conference table into a replica of “the nine most famous golf resorts in the world,” or supply foam Suomo wrestler suits for a team-building company event, chances are they can come up with ideas beyond your wildest dreams.

Loyal national clients like Blue Cross, Steelcase, Owens Corning, and others know that The Executive Selection will make their events stress-free, professional, and very memorable. BIZNEWS