A Storied Career in Association Management and Events

After logging more than four decades at association management company Smithbucklin — and serving in a number of voluntary leadership roles in the association and events industries — Michael Payne will retire at the end of this month. We asked him to reflect on his remarkable career.

Author: Michelle Russell       

man with gray mustache, hair in blue shirt

“I’ve met so many incredible and inspiring people along the way,” said Michael Payne, who is retiring from SmithBucklin at the end of the year.

In his 42 years at Smithbucklin, Michael Payne has served in a number of roles, including president and CEO of the International Association of Airport Duty Free Stores (IAADFS). As a highly visible senior executive, Payne led the company’s government relations practice from 1981 to 2021 and its event services team. He was responsible for overseeing Smithbucklin’s relationship with the United Soybean Board and has been a member of the Smithbucklin Board of Directors since 2005. He also headed up the company’s D.C office from the mid-1990s through 2022.

In addition to his long list of company achievements, Payne also made his mark outside the walls of Smithbucklin, serving in numerous leadership and advisory roles in association management and business events associations — on the Board of the Association Management Company Institute (AMCI), and as chairman in 2018; and the Board of PCMA, and as chairman in 2004. Payne also was on the PCMA Education Foundation Board, and named chairman in 2004. He was honored with the PCMA Professional Achievement Award in 2007. In addition, Payne was on the Board of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), and INCON, an international professional conference management membership organization, as well as advisory boards for major hotel brands and several convention bureaus.

After such a storied career, it’s hard to imagine Payne fully disengaging with the industry when he formally retires from Smithbucklin at the end of this year — but that’s not part of his plan. He’ll keep his hands in the business, lending his expertise in a number of ways, but with greater flexibility. He shared with Convene via email his career journey and what he’s most looking forward to in his well-earned retirement.

How did you got your start in government roles and how did you transition to work at Smithbucklin?

When I graduated from college, I was focused on a public service career. I had served as a page in the state legislature as an undergraduate and spent several summers as an intern in Washington working on Capitol Hill. I was intrigued by how government could be a positive force when administered properly. I started out working for several agencies including NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the Economic Development Administration, and I served in legislative affairs for the Secretary of Commerce. Smithbucklin hired me to help establish a more formal government relations program for some clients in our D.C. office. This role then morphed into other opportunities, such as managing a variety of associations and becoming active in the big meetings and events part of our business — which, of course, was my introduction to PCMA.

Can you spotlight a high point in your career?

There have been so many highlights for me. I’ve met so many incredible and inspiring people along the way and have had the opportunity to travel the world. But honestly (and I’m not saying this because you are doing the interview), my experience working in the world’s largest industry, travel and tourism, and my time with PCMA really stands out. To serve on the Board of Directors and the Foundation Board and go on to become Chair of both was such a tremendous honor. Those roles provided me with a decade’s worth of continuous learning and exposure to some of the best people in the business. My engagement on the board of AMCI and then serving as Chair, was also extremely rewarding. I’m grateful to Smithbucklin for supporting and encouraging all this important volunteer work.

What has been the best thing about your career and your work in the events industry and association management?

I’ve always thrived in fast-paced, people-centered, multi-cultural environments. So Smithbucklin and my associated roles and engagement with the events industry were a great fit for me.Not too many careers give you the opportunity to work with people from so many different sectors, while being exposed to such a broad cross-section of interesting policy and social issues. Over the years, I’ve been involved in health care, the manufacturing and service sectors, advocacy, agriculture, retail, events, and, of course, international travel. I loved being challenged and the constant learning that came with all these great, new experiences.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to others in the business events industry?

Not sure about trying to give anyone advice, but I do think dealing in a respectful, direct, and transparent manner with anyone is foundational for any partnership. Trying to always throw your weight around whether you are a supplier or buyer is never the best approach. Unfortunately, we do sometimes see this in our industry.

Another observation is to not let this competitive, fast-paced, and often very exciting industry drown out precious time with your family and friends.

Why was it important to you to invest time in voluntary leadership roles, including becoming chair of the PCMA Board of Directors and the Foundation?

It was important to me for a couple of reasons. First, we are in the business of managing association volunteers and I think we should experience and contribute to the industry we are in from an engagement perspective whenever we can. You can learn far more about effectively managing volunteer organizations if you experience being a volunteer yourself. It’s also simply the right thing to do. Giving back must be a part of every organization’s culture. Another reason, which is a bit more self-serving, is the opportunity to meet fantastic people and have experiences you simply otherwise would not have. Some of the closest friendships I have developed over the years were cemented during my time as a volunteer.

What are you looking forward to in retirement?

I’m ready for a more relaxed pace and, of course, more time with my wife, Maggie, and my three grown children Jack, Sarah, and Turner. We’re already planning a fun trip to celebrate my retirement together this summer. I’m fortunate to have a place down in Charleston, S.C., so I’m looking forward to many more days enjoying the beach and beautiful barrier islands. I’d like to become a better golfer, but I think that train may have left the station. I will continue to stay involved in some work projects I have committed to and am also exploring some consulting opportunities to stay engaged in the industry, while enjoying a more flexible schedule.

What are your thoughts on the future of face-to-face and hybrid events and association management?

I don’t think face-to-face events will ever go away. In-person interactions are so critical to forming deeper, more meaningful partnerships and relationships. I think technology will enhance those experiences, supplement them, if you will, but people will always look to form more personal, engaging connections. I think the association management business has a tremendous future. It still provides one of the best — if not the largest — forum for continuing adult education and learning. Think about all the credentialing, certification, standard setting, and peer-to-peer learning associations provide. The industry also leads the way in developing higher quality products, advanced medical treatments, and increased safety standards. These are just a few examples of our impact. While the U.S. currently is the leader in association management, the explosion of middle-class growth across the globe and among developing economies, will present unlimited growth opportunities for the industry as a whole.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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