Career Path

Lisa Hopkins, CPCE, CMP

The director of catering and conferences at the Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa and president of the National Association for Catering and Events (NACE) dishes on why ‘this industry is a bona-fide career.’

How did you get started in the hospitality and events industry?

I became interested in the hotel industry when I was in college through some of my friends who were getting ready to graduate and go into the hotel-management field. I was interested in doing something customer-oriented. I had a communications degree. I started off as a check-in/check-out person, a front-desk agent, basically. Those are kind of humble beginnings, but if you want to learn the industry, you have to learn it, I think, from the ground up, so that was my approach.

How did you come into your current position at the Houstonian?

I was the assistant front office manager at the original McCormick Place hotel [in Chicago]. I had become very interested in sales and convention services, and the opening that came up was a catering sales manager, so it was very similar to my area of interest. I had been in the hotel industry then for about three years, so I took that opportunity that came to me, and I really, really loved the interaction with planning events — working with the food elements, working with the room space that you have. I really liked the fact that, even though you were doing a sales job, you were interacting at a very high level with the operation, which of course I was familiar with being from a front-desk background.

What are your goals as NACE president?

Well, the first thing I want to do is make sure that NACE becomes a brand, a national name; that people, both consumers and industry professionals, associate us with the people who are setting trends, the people who are moving the industry forward, advancing the industry through education, advancing the industry through giving back. That’s really priority one. And then working very closely with the Foundation of NACE to help them gain some exposure, and finding business partners for both entities — both the Foundation and NACE.

NACE recently changed its name but not its acronym. What was the thinking behind that?

For years, we had been the National Association for Catering Executives, which interestingly enough, being a catering professional of 20 years, even I have trouble identifying exactly what a catering executive is. [Laughs.] What we really found, when we looked at our members, most of our members really identified with what I would call the intersection of catering and events. In other words, we are specialists in one area, but we have a real desire and see a huge competitive advantage to knowing all areas of catering an event. For example, most of our planners think that it’s really important to know the food-and-beverage side. Event planners, wedding coordinators, meeting planners, and then people like myself who are caterers by nature and by job title — really want to make sure that they have the intricate understanding of what it takes to plan an event and how to take all of the support elements of an event, and make them work together. So when we thought about who our most basic member is, our core member, and what their needs are, we really had a desire to know about all elements of catering and events. So that brought about the name change.

What advice would you give to a younger professional who is just now entering the catering and events industry?

I would tell any student or any young person who really wants to make a career of this industry, first of all, that this is an industry that you can build a lifelong career in. Some people think it’s something that you just kind of pass through on your way to something else, but this industry is a bona-fide career. And the second thing I would say is, get as much experience as you can. That doesn’t mean necessarily a job that’s in the industry, but get involved with groups like NACE who can provide you with mentorships, with opportunities to volunteer. And then volunteer with a nonprofit group who’s working a gala, or volunteer with wedding planners to help oversee setup, or take a job that’s maybe the most basic level. Having more experience — meaning the more things that you see and understand, and, of course, the people that you know — pays huge dividends down the line.

What do you like best about your job?

I really love seeing things come together. I love working with people and getting to that third alternative. You know, I have an idea, you have an idea — let’s talk about it, let’s dissect it, let’s build it. And you come up with something better. I love getting people excited about an event, coming up with really great ideas, and then, of course, seeing it happen is really where the magic is.

Are there any new trends or developments in catering that you are particularly excited about?

You know, I love the fact that we have become a lot more cognizant of dealing with people’s food restrictions, be it an allergy or just a restriction due to a religious belief, or dealing with a vegan or a vegetarian. We used to not be real aware of that, so we were trying to make it a one-size-fits-all situation when we were doing a menu. [People with food restrictions have] become aware that there are options out there and that they can be accommodated, and there are great menu things that we can do to take care of those people.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.