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Howard Feiertag: Honoring a Living, Lasting Legacy

Howard Feiertag

When Howard Feiertag says he’s never had a meeting industry job that he didn’t like, he’s saying a lot.

Feiertag, 89—an instructor in the Hospitality and Tourism Management (HTM) Department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University’s Pamplin College of Business—has worked in the industry since 1962, and is still going strong.

On Nov. 2, Feiertag was honored for his lifetime contributions to hospitality education and practice at a gala event in metro Washington, D.C., at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner.

The event marked “decades of service to our industry, particularly in meetings and sales,” noted Nancy Gard McGehee in a letter to friends of Feiertag and the program.

“Howard continues to influence and mentor students and has impacted thousands of folks in the business of HTM,” wrote McGehee, professor and HTM department head at the Pamplin College of Business.

Attendees included 200 alumni, students, faculty, hospitality industry leaders and family members—a number of whom flew in from out of town.

“I’m still trying to get over it. It was amazing,” says Feiertag, a lifetime MPI member and a charter member of the MPI Virginia Chapter. “The speech making was great.”

Guest speakers included Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association and master of ceremonies for the gala; Bob Gilbert, CEO of Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International; and Joe McInerney, former CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Sponsors included Bellagio Las Vegas, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott and MGM Grand. Proceeds from the event were used to fuel the Howard Feiertag Excellence Fund, which supports the efforts of the Hospitality and Tourism Management Department at Virginia Tech.

An insurance investigator in 1962, Feiertag was recruited to work as manager of the then-new convention bureau in Charlotte, N.C. He had been president of the local junior chamber of commerce. That recruitment by the convention bureau touched off a pattern that repeated throughout his career.

“I never applied for a job in all my history of employment,” Feiertag says. “Everyone recruited me from one company to another.”

Feiertag had volunteered for the army just before the end of World War II and served from 1945-1948 after growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and studied police administration at Michigan State University under the G.I. Bill. Then he’d worked briefly as a prison counselor at a maximum security prison in Jackson, Mich., and, as a military reservist, was called to serve in a prisoner of war camp in Korea as commanding officer in the military police for two years. After the war ended, he got his job in insurance investigations.

Despite having no experience in the meeting and hospitality field, Feiertag decided to give the job at the convention bureau a try. He took to the work quickly, and it gave him a lot of visibility, so much so that about two years later, he got a call from the Orlando Chamber of Commerce, which wanted to recruit him to help start a CVB there.

“At that time, they had maybe two hotels,” as he recalls. “It was really a job.” This was immediately before the Disneyworld project was announced (eventually opening in 1971)—so the meeting and entertainment industry mecca that is the modern Orlando area was simply a chunk of central Florida dominated by military business.

With the CVB taking off, a real estate firm that had purchased two hotels in Charlotte—the former Queen Charlotte and Barringer hotels—contacted Feiertag to see if he would be director of sales. In 1964, he took the job, relocating back to Charlotte. Then, about three years later, American Motor Inns in Roanoke, Va., a large operator of Holiday Inn hotels, reached out.

“They were complaining about me stealing business from their hotel in Charlotte,” Feiertag chuckles. “Back in those days, room rates were $6 a night. I was charging $7 a night. My hotel was 400 rooms downtown in a neighborhood where a lot of people were sleeping on the streets. We didn’t have a pool. Most of the rooms did not even have window air conditioning units. They couldn’t get over it. I stole business while charging a higher rate.”

Two weeks later, they invited Feiertag to lunch at their hotel. They asked him to be director of sales at their 22 hotels. Feiertag rose to vice president at the company, which grew to 50 properties during his tenure.

“That’s how I got into meetings management,” he says.

Feiertag’s career wasn’t without diversions. In 1970, for instance, he and a partner went into cattle farming, purchasing a farm outside of Roanoke and investing in black angus steers.

It was in that period that Feiertag and colleagues Jimmy Jones, Marion Kirschner and Rudy Wright started a club, which took on a couple of different names before they settled on Meeting Planners International in 1972. In its first year, it had about 50 charter members.

“Little by little, it grew,” says Feiertag, who served as vice president for a couple of the early years.

Feiertag was involved in many key highlights of MPI’s history. One was launching the MPI Institute in 1980, which started out offering classes to meeting planners on subjects such as contract negotiation.

“It was eight days of training,” he recalls. “It went from Sunday to Sunday.”

It was so popular that several years later they discussed launching an advanced course and branched out into starting the Certified Meeting Professional designation (CMP).

“We started it on a small scale,” he says. “I was one of the first people to receive the CMP. Maybe about 15 people took the test in 1985.”

Eventually, they handed over leadership of the program to the Convention Industry Council (now the Events Industry Council), which developed it further.

In addition to his CMP, Feiertag earned the Certified Hospitality Marketing Executive (CHME) and Certified Hotel Administrator (CHA) credentials.

In the meantime, Feiertag joined Servico as a senior vice president of marketing, where he worked from 1983 to 1989. When he moved to Memphis, Tenn., for his work, he sold the cattle farm.

In 1989, he joined Virginia Tech, where he has worked for 28 years. Feiertag teaches hospitality sales, along with meeting and convention management, working part time at the university in addition to speaking at industry events. 

Feiertag has changed his course with the times and 10 years ago suggested that Cvent develop an online course for university classrooms.

“Now I use that in my class,” he says.

Students are required to take Cvent’s online course and take a test in the end, getting a certificate from Cvent. The program is now being used at numerous other universities, Feiertag says proudly.

Despite the tech focus and growth, Feiertag does not allow electronic devices in his classroom, noting, “Surveys show you can’t do two things at one time.”

Instead of relying on a textbook, Feiertag teaches students through stories from his own experience.

“They have to listen to me and take handwritten notes,” he says. “I give a test on what is said.”

He believes this is the best way for him to teach.

“People remember stories better,” Feiertag says. “It works well for them to learn the business.”

Often, when Feiertag runs into former students who are well-established in their careers, they tell him how much they remember these stories.

“When I went to the gala they had for me in Washington and all these former students were there, they all talked to each other about the stories,” Feiertag says.

In addition to teaching, Feiertag is also a writer. With co-author John Hogan, he wrote the book Lessons from the Field—a Common Sense Approach to Effective Hotel Sales. Since 1980, he has also written “The Sales Clinic,” a monthly column for Hotel Management magazine.

Conclusion

Feiertag has racked up a long list of awards in the industry for his many contributions. Among them were making it into Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI) International’s Hall of Fame and winning the HSMAI Lifetime Achievement Award (2013); winning the MPI President’s Award; being chosen Educator of the Year by the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) in 1998; and being inducted into the Convention Industry Council’s Hall of Leaders (1999).

But for Feiertag, working in the industry is ultimately about the people he has gotten to know. As he tells his students, “It’s a people business. No matter what you do online, you are still dealing with people.”


About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt
Elaine Pofeldt

Elaine Pofeldt is a freelance journalist in the New York City area who contributes to publications from CNBC to Forbes and is the author of the upcoming book The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business.