CITY OF BROAD SHOULDERS: McCormick Place is the largest convention center in North America with 2.6 million square feet of exhibit space. (Courtesy MPEA)

Former Events DC COO reunites with former boss

On the heels of announcing it had been tapped to manage the massive McCormick Place convention center complex in Chicago, Oak View Group announced today that it has named Samuel R. Thomas, Jr. general manager of the facility, the largest convention center in North America.

The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority Board voted unanimously to award the management and food and beverage contract to OVG divisions, OVG360 and OVG Hospitality. The business had long been with ASM Global and its food service and catering division, Savor.

Thomas will relocate to Chicago from Washington, D.C., where he was executive vice president and COO of Events DC, where he worked with the organizations former CEO Greg O’Dell, who currently serves as president of venue management for OVG360.

In addition to overseeing all operations and services for the McCormick Place Convention Center, Thomas, who has more than 30 years in the hospitality industry, will also oversee the 10,000 seat Wintrust Arena and the 4,249-seat Arie Crown Theater. He starts in his new role in the first week of September.

VenuesNow spoke with Thomas this week on the eve of the announcement of his hire.

Editor’s note: OVG is the parent company of VenuesNow.

Samuel Thomas (Courtesy OVG)

VN: Are you going to be a Cubs fan or a White Sox fan?

Samuel Thomas: Great to have hardest question of the day a very important one.

I don’t I don’t think you can straddle the fence on that one.

Let me get a feel for my client.

I’d like to ask about your vision going forward and the main strengths that you to bring to this new position?

Customer service. That is the root of our industry. That’s everything that in my 30 plus years, I have rooted myself in, as well as my team. It’s simple blocking and tackling. I preach that all the time with my team. Blocking and tackling is doing the right thing by our customers. Because at the end of the day, we are only who we are as a venue, as an organization, because of our customers. So for me, customer satisfaction, customer service will always be at the forefront. That type of mindset, that type of philosophy, I’m going to carry with me to McCormick Place. I’m looking forward to partnering with the team there. They have a stellar national, even global reputation, recognition well-deserved. With all the venues combined on the campus there, it’s a very unique organization. I don’t see myself coming aboard to make sudden changes. I just plan to layer myself into that organization and hopefully bring a level of enthusiasm, positivity and most importantly, a team work environment.

You mentioned your customer service philosophy, was that something that was ingrained early with you?

From the very beginning, I had very humble beginnings as I came through this industry. I started with Marriott Corporation, where I was an employee who rolled tables into rooms, set them up and later on I became a waiter. That taught me so much about customer service. Having worked in food and beverage, meeting set up, sales, I have a very diverse background in this industry, and all of those areas of service, collectively, have really taught and ingrained into me an understanding from all different perspectives. Let me give you an example. Back in 2010, we had a great reputation in DC, but the reputation as a service-oriented organization was not as prolific as you would want to see. What I realized and found out was that we as an organization, we as a collection of people, we’re not in sync with one another. That’s the approach that I hope to bring with me, a collective work approach. It’s one other buying into it. Is everybody buying into each other, understanding the goals, the visions, and so forth? Here, we had some struggles and what we recognize is that we weren’t really as tied into one culture. So, we sat back and took a look at the principles because I’m a very principle-based leader, meaning that, like a football team, if you don’t understand the playbook, and if everyone is not reading from the same playbook, then you’re all over the place.  We came up with a program called Strive for five, and it was based on a customer satisfaction score of one to five, five being the best. We aligned those with five principles: professionalism, accountability, teamwork, communication and respect. Those were our five.

It seems that that’s particularly important when you’ve got such an expansive campus as the one in Chicago.

 You’re right, with the Wintrust Arena, and the other venues there.

How do you feel about taking the GM position there with a company like OVG behind you and the booking clout that it has and the wealth of resources, while at the same time being kind of a disruptor in the industry?

I love it. I look at myself as an innovator-disrupter. I’m a little older. So you know, innovator. At the end of the day, it’s all the same. I’ve rounded second base now and heading to third in the career, so this, to me, is just basically rejuvenating my energy. Not that I lost anything here, but anytime you enter into a new endeavor, there’s a level of excitement, enthusiasm, that really gets your juices flowing, and then getting to partner with my guy, Greg O’Dell, who I spent 15 years with here in Washington, that’s like the cherry on the top. We’ve had great success here, along with a major team and to partner with him again, and the folks with OVG, it’s going to be fun.  I look at what OVG is doing around the country. They are really putting their foot in the ground in our industry and with McCormick Place, they have really shaken up the industry. I don’t think a lot of folks thought this would happen and happen this quickly.

Is there an interest in retaining people from the current operation?

There are great people who currently work at McCormick. They have a large staff. They would not have the reputation that they have if it were not for the people. My plan is to come in and learn and understand the current players, who are there and get to know them, get to see exactly what’s working, get to see exactly what’s not working. Listen, listen, that’s one of the most important elements of leadership is to listen, listen and learn. And what I plan to do is go in, listen and learn, get understanding nd then collectively, because I’m a team-oriented person, make decisions that are in the best interests of the organization. My hope is that folks will want to partner with me as much as I want to partner with them. We’re going to do it with a smile, with energy. We’re going to do it with enthusiasm and it’s going to be a great, great, great collaboration.