Name: Kathryn West
Birthplace: Johns Creek, Georgia
Education: Certified Destination Management Executive
• Kathryn’s Catering: 1975-1978
• Herff Jones/Jim Wampler & Associates: 1976-1990
• Cold Calls Catering: 1989-2013
• Gentiva Home Health & Hospice: 2005-2013
• Bravura: 2013 to present
Growing up outside of Atlanta, Kathryn West saw how her father entertained frequently for work, hosting lavish dinners and parties for clients while unknowingly preparing Kathryn for a career in hospitality. By the time she got to college, cooking and arranging the details of celebrations for a crowd became second nature — so she started a catering company.
“People who had been to my family’s parties started asking me if I would cater their events,” said West. “I had always loved to cook, so I started my own catering business while I was in school to earn some extra money.”
After college, West joined her brother and father in the family business for 12 years, selling items like caps, gowns and other graduation essentials. When she married and had children, she noticed that local businesses in the Johns Creek, Georgia, area were hosting meetings but were having trouble finding a catering company. She created Cold Calls Catering, stepping once again into her own catering business.
When her kids were in middle school, she also went to work as an administrative assistant to the vice president of the country’s largest home health and hospice care company, Gentiva Health Services. Yet again, West’s natural knack for hospitality made her stand out.
“I saw how meetings were being booked, and I knew there was a better, more efficient way to do business, but I needed to take my ideas to the top,” said West. “As luck would have it, the board met every month, but the CEO hated catered lunches, and I convinced my friend to let me cook for him. Soon after that, I was called to the boardroom, and from there we developed a friendship.”
West eventually proposed her plan on how to take the company’s scattered meeting planning process — which involved planners, hotels, caterers and others who weren’t company employees — and move it in-house, creating a new role for herself in the process. As director of meetings and events, she planned more than 400 annual events nationwide for the company’s 86,000 employees.
She also used brand loyalty rewards to pay it forward, for example, in the instance where a nurse’s home was destroyed in a fire, or if they needed to stay closer to a hospital where a loved one was receiving care, they were able to put the nurses up in a hotel using points. She didn’t save the goodies only for those in need, though.
“It’s important to reward someone in a way that they feel valued, and one of my favorite things was being able to upgrade someone who had shown a lot of commitment or who was the most productive,” said West. “Sometimes we were able to send people to a resort for a vacation.”
When the company was acquired in 2013 and many of the departments were restructured, West and the majority of the C-Suite staff were laid off. Not to be discouraged, West formed her own company, Bravura. Now, she organizes smaller meetings for C-suite clients at luxury resorts.
One of the things West takes the most pride in is keeping track of the details that matter most to meeting attendees. Her attention to detail has made her successful, and she traces that instinct back to her childhood, where hosting perfect parties was something that happened often.
“It’s a lot of fun to plan meetings for small groups at high-end resorts — I have always enjoyed doing that,” said West. “Over the years I’ve met so many people who have become lifelong friends.”
Tips from Kathryn West
• CVBs are your best contacts — use them!
• Negotiate respectfully. Your hotel sales manager needs to look good to his or her boss, and you need to look good to your boss or client. Play fair. If you negotiate with this in mind, you will both be winners.
• Show you care. Keep a database on both clients and vendors that includes birthdays, spouse and children’s names (even pets) and favorite beverages, snacks and movies. Make those personal connections, because friends prefer to do business with friends.