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Opportunistic VMS builds event-planning powerhouse

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In 1995, Neal Rothermel and Mandy Moore decided to start a meeting planning business. In the dining room in Rothermel's Broad Ripple apartment, they threw together an office equipped with a door balanced on two file cabinets to make a desk and a used fax machine.

The couple, now married, saw a demand for a meeting planning firm that didn't just plan travel, meals and hotel bookings, but also made sure the meeting was designed with all the bells and whistles that would help the host convey a message.

"We saw a niche in the industry for a company that was organized more like an ad agency than a travel agency," Rothermel said. Their company, VMS Inc., wanted to go above and beyond the "How many room nights do you want?" mentality, he said.

That's the direction many in the industry now take, but Rothermel and Moore say their early entry into that specialty got VMS off to a big start.

Their first big client was Eli Lilly and Co., helping VMS eventually carve out a large chunk of the meeting planning market in the pharmaceutical industry.

Twelve years after VMS' humble beginning, it has grown annual revenue to $30 million and its staff to about 70. Most of its events are held out of state with about 15 percent of its business overseas. Events range from meetings in the Caribbean to reward sales teams to international product-launch seminars with thousands of attendees.

Through the years, the couple said they've seen the industry change a lot. When they started, department managers in large firms were free to pick event managers for their programs. But many companies have consolidated responsibilities to cut costs, meaning many event-planning contracts go through centralized procurement offices.

Event planning firms generally bid for the business, offering discounts for a larger volume of events. A startup often struggles to bid at that level and has a hard time getting its foot in the door. Moore said VMS was lucky that it had already grown large enough to compete when the trend kicked in.

"It's wonderful when you get [the bid], but otherwise, it's not wonderful because you can be completely blocked out," Moore said. "When we started out, you could really walk into bigger companies and build relationships from scratch."

It's a movement that's evident nationwide, according to Sotiris Avgoustis, chairman of the IUPUI tourism department.

"There are smaller companies still and some will make it, but it's much more difficult to do," Avgoustis said. He said the only "in" left for many smaller firms is in niche markets.

Moore and Rothermel said they strive to make VMS a fun place to work, hoping the positive feel of the office will carry through to clients. The company holds quarterly events to gather staff input on direction, and its efforts have won it notice, landing VMS on lists for friendly workplaces several years in a row.

In 2004, it spun off a related firm-VMS Medical Inc. There, staff members organize small, instructional seminars for pharmaceutical companies. At them, nurses often teach patients how to use new drugs and deal with certain medical situations.

For example, if a patient is prescribed a company's obesity drug, requiring a weekly at-home injection, he could sign up for a seminar planned by VMS. At it, a nurse would teach him how to inject the drug, and also how to alter his diet and exercise habits.

"They're usually small groups of five to seven patients and the class helps them get comfortable with a new product or diagnosis," Rothermel said.

And the company's on the verge of rolling out another division-VMS On Site-sometime in August.

Typically, when a planning company coordinates an event, it can hire a freelancer to make sure the details are in line. But larger companies have dedicated travel staff employees charged with attending all events as troubleshooters.

Through the years, VMS has depended mostly on free-lancers to cover such needs, but now they're hiring at least five new employees to be dedicated travel staff.

"What we're looking for is to have our own full-time staff who have health benefits and professional training, not just someone who drops out of the sky," Moore said. "We'll offer someone who meets with the client in advance of going to the program and has been in on the planning."

The goal is to not only oversee VMScoordinated events, but to eventually expand the roster to 12 to 15 employees. Those employees could be free-lanced as on-site personnel for other meeting planning companies.

The dedicated travel staff will also help develop relationships needed to broaden VMS' base of clients. With the move, VMS is once again at the front end of a national trend, according to IUPUI's Avgoustis.

"As the industry becomes bigger, meeting planning companies have to ensure the quality of their services," he said.

Being the on-site troubleshooter can be a demanding job, but it also pays well, he said, with median salaries in the mid-$50,000 range.

With the new spin-off, Moore and Rothermel said they can see the company doubling in size in the next five to 10 years as long as it can keep its current corporate culture.

"It sounds like a wishy-washy answer, but the reality is we want to grow in a way where we can provide security and opportunity for our employees," Moore said. "As the owners, there's this great responsibility to keep that going."

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