by H. K. Wilson
In 1981, Mark Zimmerman was a young college grad on a quest for opportunity and adventure. He left his home in Michigan, where the recent recession had battered the auto industry and local economy, and sought his fortune in Atlanta, Georgia. He soon found his way to the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC), which opened in 1976 and was the first state-owned convention center established in the U.S. Zimmerman worked his way up from the lowest rungs at the GWCC to become the Georgia World Congress Center Authority’s general manager and now, a preeminent industry consultant. He reminisced with ECN about the circumstances that kicked off his legendary career.
ECN: When and how did you get into the tradeshow industry?
A guy at my church said they were hiring at the convention center and told me I should give them my resume and talk myself into a job, so that’s exactly what I did. I told them, ‘If I don’t do what you need me to do in the next three months, fire me, and I’ll walk away.’ I was like the Tasmanian devil. I couldn’t believe how fun and exciting it was to help people solve problems. I started out in concessions and worked up to manager. Once I got my foot in the door, I realized I didn’t want to do food. I wanted to be an event coordinator. So I wore them down. It took three times, but I told them again, ‘If I don’t do a good job, I’ll walk away.’ That was 35 years ago, and I still love the business and have a passion for it. It’s not even like working.
ECN: Did you have any mentors early in your career? How did they help you along the way, and how have you paid it forward?
Phil Noyes was general manager of the food service company for the Georgia Conference Center. I will forever have gratitude to him for hiring me and giving me a chance. Dan Graveline was the executive director of the Congress Center and a great mentor for me. And Kathy Andrews was the event services manager who hired me as an event coordinator when I decided to get out of food. They all took a chance on me when I didn’t have experience or education in hospitality. I had a business degree.
Giving back is what’s important, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. I’m always willing to listen to someone and help them get where they want to go. I think one of our biggest challenges now is how do we attract young, bright millennials to our business. What we find is that many positions in our industry require long hours and low pay to start, but the rewards are great if someone is willing to work hard and stick with it. There is a saying that if you enjoy what you do, you don’t work a day in your life. I’m the poster boy for that. I love people and connection. I love the business so much because it’s all about connecting people. I’m so grateful that I had this chance as a young person, and I want to help other young people discover this industry.
Mark Zimmerman is the CEO of Zimmerman Consulting Group, which he formed in 2017 after his retirement from the GWCC. He worked at the GWCC beginning in 1986 as a concessions supervisor (one year), event coordinator (three years), director of event services (three years), assistant general manager (nine years) and finally as general manager for 12 years. For more info, visit www.zimmermanconsultingllc.com or www.linkedin.com/in/mark-zimmerman-a611b92/