Two Retirees Talk Lessons Learned

Convention center managers Bob Johnson and Mack Stone love a business built on relationships

  • by Linda Deckard
  • Published: May 17, 2017

Bob Johnson,  New Orleans Ernest Morial Convention Center and Mack Stone, Columbia (S.C.) Metropolitan Convention Center

Two longtime GM’s currently running convention centers have announced their pending retirements, future plans and lessons learned this month. Two things remain the same in both their opinions: This is a relationship business and construction/expansion is a constant at convention centers.

Bob Johnson will retire after 10 years as general manager and president of the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center Sept. 25. The date marks the convergence of his 70th birthday and his 10th anniversary at the convention center, “two milestones in the same week.”

His go-forth plan is to try out retirement, see how it fits and then either go back to work or enjoy a new lifestyle. Tuesday, Sept. 26, he and his wife will start a 30-day road trip, which should be a good   test.

Mack Stone’s last day as VP and GM of the Columbia (S.C.) Metropolitan Convention Center is June 30. At 67, he’s still interested in keeping a finger in the business and expects this last chapter to be similar to the first few – answering the call from colleagues in the industry.

He likes to tell the story of attending his first IAVM District 5 meeting when he was about 30. Les Timms, his first boss and mentor in the business, encouraged him to get involved in IAVM. The first person he met was industry veteran Steve Camp, who was in Myrtle Beach, S.C., at the time. “I told him to give me a call if he ever decided to leave Myrtle Beach. I’d love to move there,” Stone said. Eight months later, he called with just that news.

For Johnson, his career has centered around returning home to New Orleans. A native of North Carolina with a wife from Virginia, he started in the business at Benton Convention Center, Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1971 as an event coordinator.

In 1982, he moved to New Orleans to open UNO Lakefront Arena, before moving over to the Louisiana Superdome in 1985. In 1995, Johnson moved to Philadelphia where he worked for SMG corporate, overseeing arenas and stadiums, but the lure of the Big Easy won out and in 2007 he returned to manage the New Orleans Convention Center.

Neither man has been replaced yet, both expecting a national search combined with a close look at internal candidates. And both spoke of expansion plans they will miss being part of.

Johnson said you simply have to have “cathedral thinking.” Historically, cathedrals took 200 years to finish. One man could not claim the fame. He has overseen the redevelopment of parts of Convention Center Boulevard, with construction of Urban Linear Park expected to start mid to late summer.

The biggie is the new headquarters hotel and mixed-use development, which has had a few starts and stops and is about to start again. It will be a billion-dollar baby, most of it private money.

Other than major expansion projects during his tenure, which included completion of a $50 million renovation of the Great Hall that includes a 60,000-sq.-ft., column-free ballroom, he is most proud of the shift in the culture of the convention center and the city in general. Post several traumas, beginning with 9/11 and continuing with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the recession of 2008 and the Gulf oil spill of 2010, the citizenry of New Orleans was recoiling.

“We had to keep chipping at the armor. As a destination city, we depend on the resiliency of its people that has made New Orleans a city celebrated as a world icon,” Johnson said. Looking in the rearview mirror, he sees that customer service and world-class performance levels are back.

Lessons learned in his diverse career? “Be flexible and don’t bow to political dogma, whether university, city or state. You have a business to run.”

The biggest change? Technology. But when you get through that, it’s still a relationship-driven business; it’s still about entertaining and taking care of people, Johnson said.

Stone cited expansion talk in Columbia that is heating up again just as he is retiring. He is a veteran of construction projects and likes the challenges.

His career began when he badgered Les Timms of the Greenville (S.C.) Memorial Auditorium, to hire him and train him so he could move home to Greenwood, S.C., to manage the under-construction Lander University arena, which was opening in the fall of 1977. “I aggravated him to death. I wanted in this industry,” Stone recalled. Neither building exists today.

The young manager mimicked what was done in Greenville, right down to putting Greenwood letterhead on Greenville contracts, all with Timms’ encouragement. “It was a small operation. There were only four of us,” Stone said.

From there, Stone and his wife, Amy, went to the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Convention Center after that call from Camp. Five and a half years later, he got another call, from Clyde Hawkins at the Tivoli Theater, Chattanooga, Tenn., who thought of Stone for a new venue under construction. Six years later, it was a call from Phoenix Civic Plaza, but Mack and Amy hungered for family and home and three years later returned to South Carolina.

After a sojourn in the trade show business, “Steve Camp calls me again and asks if I’d consider a job at a new convention center under construction in Columbia,” Stone said.

It’s about relationships. Running a convention center requires strong relationships with subcontractors, staff and clientele, Stone said. He agrees the main force for change is technology.

His advice? Be nice to people. You never know when you will meet that person again but, if you’re in this business, you will meet them again.

Columbia Metro Convention Center is busy, hosting 360 events and working three shifts most of the fall and winter. But in the summertime, when there is a lull, Stone likes to send a convention center crew on the road to visit other buildings. Usually, there is suspicion on the other side — why-are-you-here thinking.

But once the Columbia contingent shares their stash of contracts and systems and processes and asks for comparisons, they get involved and share information.

They invariably bring back ideas, which is great, but Stone has an ulterior motive. “It’s really a selfish thing we started, because they usually come back realizing it’s not as bad as they thought it was in Columbia,” Stone said. “Everyone has issues.”

It’s a small industry and communication is as important as relationships.

  • by Linda Deckard
  • Published: May 17, 2017