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Hospitality Industry Veterans Share Their Sabbatical Stories

I reached out to people I know in the meetings industry, and particularly in associations, to learn who offered sabbaticals and who had taken them. It was disheartening to hear how few offered them—even in academia or law, where sabbaticals are more common—and how few take advantage of the opportunity.

In recapping any conversations, if I have misquoted or misrepresented them here or in the blog, I apologize. In some cases, specific quotes were not used. Rather, the gathering of information helped me form the basis for the blog and this recap.

Association and Corporate Professionals

  • Jean Boyle, retired from corporate communications
  • Mona Buckley, MPA, CAE, incoming CEO of ARMA International, and formerly with the Oregon State Bar Association
  • Beth Cooper-Zobott, Director, Conference Services, for a corporation
  • Mollie Pillman, MS, MBA, CAE, Chief Membership Officer, Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography
  • John Sadwith, self-described “the goofy recovering attorney” and executive director emeritus of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association
  • Shelley Sanner, M.S., CAE, Senior Vice President, Industry Relations, McKinley Advisors


Three professors, all honored for lifetime achievement as educators by the PCMA Foundation:

Industry attorneys and some who now or did work for legal societies said that in some cases, attorneys were offered sabbaticals on a case-by-case basis. These were offered or available mainly to help people avoid burnout. It made perfect sense. Why wait until burnout strikes?

Alas, what I also learned was that in fields other than academia, what are termed “sabbaticals” are more like longer or extra vacations. They were not purpose-driven as those in academia are.

I think the opportunity for those in our industry—meaning those who work in meetings, travel, tourism, sales, marketing and service—to improve themselves and our industry would be greater if sabbaticals are designed using some of the guidelines common in academia.

From my communications, it appeared the greatest value of sabbaticals was to further one’s education, broaden one’s thinking, experience another workplace culture, and bring the experiences back to one’s employer with a commitment to stay and add to the body of knowledge. Sabbaticals can ultimately benefit those with whom the sabbatical-taker works and interacts.

Consider these examples and reflect on what you might want, and what you could offer to your employer as both a way to expand your knowledge and expand what is done in your organization.

Sabbatical Examples

How I envied the sabbaticals of both Deborah Breiter Terry and Amanda Wood Cecil! Both were paid for their time on sabbatical.

Deborah Breiter Terry wrote this to me about her sabbatical, for which she said the guidelines were specific and directed, as they were for Amanda Cecil:

I used the time to edit a book of event case studies with Amanda Cecil, earn my CEM, and create a series of videos for one of my online classes. I took two semesters off at three-quarters pay. I could have taken one semester at full pay.” 

You can find the guidelines here for The Rosen College of Hospitality Management University of Central Florida.

Amanda Cecil and I talked about her purpose-driven sabbatical, very similar in process and nature to that of Breiter-Terry’s. Though Cecil’s sabbatical was in 2018, her excitement remained high from the experiences.

Cecil used her sabbatical to step away from teaching and put her history in hospitality to work.

She chose to work both on the campus’s 50th anniversary celebration and then to chair, working with VisitIndy, the 2018 MPI World Education Congress (WEC) that was to be held in Indianapolis. You can view a recap video of the 50th anniversary activities.

For both aspects of her sabbatical, she moved out of her regular campus office and into other offices: one in the school’s events office for the anniversary activities, and another at VisitIndy’s offices to work on the WEC.

Cecil, committed to a lifetime in academia, found her sabbatical to be a time of renewal.

She had much to say about the experiences. For her, contacts made working on the WEC allowed her to gain many more resources for her students for internships, grants and jobs. She said what is reflected in all I read and what is reflected in the words of the recruiters: Sabbaticals offer time to be thoughtful, become refreshed, re-energize and to bring back so much more to one’s work and the organization for whom one works.

Read more about the sabbatical guidelines for IUPUI.

Interestingly, in email correspondence with two recruiters—one for hotels and DMOs and one for associations and hospitality-related companies—both said that “C-level” candidates are asking about the offering of sabbaticals when looking for new positions.

Association Sabbatical Guidelines

The Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography uses sabbaticals as an employee retention program. It was started by a previous CEO between 10 and 15 years ago.

After completion of each five years of eligible service (5, 10, 15, 20, etc.) an employee is entitled to receive the following benefits:

  • $2,000 bonus.
  • 10 days of paid sabbatical leave (must be taken consecutively).
  • 225,000 American Express Membership Rewards points (intended to be used towards travel).

These benefits must be used within two years of being earned and the extra time cannot be taken around its annual conference.

Another association executive wrote:

“I've known a couple of association CEOs over the years who [took] sabbaticals. It was .. negotiated…for a person who typically had an extreme amount of vacation time built up, and the sabbatical was used to remove the unused vacation liability from the books.”

[Related: Do You Feel “Aged-Out” of the Meetings Industry?]

Corporate Sabbaticals

I spoke with Beth Cooper-Zobott, who is still working, and with Jean Boyle, now retired. Their responses follow.

  • Beth A. Cooper-Zobott, Director, Conference Services, for a corporation of approximately 2,500 U.S.-based employees with a market cap of $30 billion.

Eisenstodt: Why does your company offer sabbaticals?

Cooper-Zobott: [From our handbook] A sabbatical is an extended period off granted to long-term employees in recognition of their years of service. This time off is intended to revitalize and enrich employees.

Eisenstodt: For whom are they offered?

Cooper-Zobott: [From our handbook] Employees regularly scheduled to work 40 hours per week who have reached 15 years of service can have additional unused sick days traded for sabbatical purposes. Employees scheduled to work fewer than 40 hours per week are not eligible for the sabbatical benefit.

Eisenstodt: What are the parameters for use? 

Cooper-Zobott: There are absolutely no parameters. A person could sit home and do nothing the whole time.  In the one instance I know of, my boss, when his son was about 12, toured Europe with his son.  His son was totally in charge of choosing the destinations.  My boss made all the arrangements for air and hotel, and once they got to Europe, his son was in charge of getting them to each place, choosing which attractions they would visit, which restaurants they’d go to, etc. It was a test of his son’s navigation skills, his ability to handle disruptions and changes, weather problems, a test of his ingenuity, etc. 

Eisenstodt: Are the sabbaticals paid or unpaid, or if a combination, what is offered?

Cooper-Zobott: [From our handbook] Eligible employees will be entitled to take a paid sabbatical of up to 25 days once every five years after 15 years of service with the company, if they meet the eligibility requirements to take a paid sabbatical. To take a sabbatical, eligible employees must use their accumulated Trading Days (see below) plus additional unused sick days or vacation days (up to the 25-day maximum for the paid sabbatical), provided their remaining unused paid sick days balance does not drop below 160 hours (20 days).

Before an employee can take a sabbatical, the employee must first obtain the appropriate approval based on their position in the organization. More information can be found on the company website or by contacting your Human Resources representative.

An explanation for “Trading Days”: A number of employees accumulate sick days because they are never ill, or never take a sick day. It was pointed out to our executive team that some people take every single one of their sick days, while others take none.  The ones who take none asked whether they couldn’t convert the days they never took into vacation days.  The executive team agreed.  So, once an employees’ number of saved sick days reaches a certain number in their “sick day bank,” any additional sick days that they earn can be converted to “Trading Days” or vacation days.

Eisenstodt: Have you taken a sabbatical? If you have, how best can I write about why, what, experience, and what it brought back to the company and your work?

Cooper-Zobott: I’ve never taken a sabbatical, but I am currently considering it once I accumulate enough “Trading Days”/sick hours.

[More to read: 20-20 Hindsight Becomes 2020 Vision]

Eisenstodt: Are sabbaticals feasible for those who work in hospitality? If so, how and why? Or if not, how and why?

Cooper-Zobott: Of course they are. No one is irreplaceable. If an employee has demonstrated competence, responsibility, loyalty and engagement, why would them being gone impact their performance? An employer would most likely find the right employee to be even more competent, loyal and engaged after having been allowed this time off to refresh, reenergize and be re-motivated.

Eisenstodt: In what ways would sabbaticals benefit those in hospitality who plan meetings? Who “sell” or provide services for meetings? 

Cooper-Zobott: I think a sabbatical could benefit those in hospitality by providing a fresh perspective, or the opportunity for growth and learning. For example, I would consider attending culinary classes at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, or at the Culinary Institute of America, in order to sharpen my palate and discover new options for my groups. Or, I might spend a sabbatical attending a variety of conferences in order to get fresh perspectives on how other industries or companies host meetings and events.

Traveling and opening oneself to new experiences is broadening; it gets one out of one’s shell, and forces one to adapt to new situations while gathering intelligence that can better one’s attitude, one’s personal “tool kit” and, therefore, one’s relationships both personal and professional.

Eisenstodt: In what ways would the employers of hospitality/meetings industry professionals benefit from providing sabbaticals for employees?

Cooper-Zobott: My employer would benefit as I [would] benefit: cutting-edge knowledge, fresh perspective, a re-thinking and the questioning of “how we’ve always done things.”

Eisenstodt: Final thoughts? And other than sabbaticals, from what form of “stepping back” might our industry and those who work in it benefit? 

Cooper-Zobott: I hate the “lean in” term. To me, it feels like it means do even more, to your employer’s benefit, along with all your personal obligations, and be grateful. UGH. Stepping back, leaning out and taking time for oneself results in a mentally happier and more engaged employee.

Next, I asked Jean Boyle, who is currently retired and gardens, grows oysters and travels.

Eisenstodt: Please provide a summary, up to 200 words, of your career.

Boyle: I have had the honor of working for several different employers, in different industries. I am, by nature, a “Jill of all trades” who gets bored when I don’t have multiple responsibilities and opportunities for continuous learning.

Initially, I tried a variety of things and then settled into two long-term corporate positions as an administrative manager with responsibilities over multiple states and disciplines, including computers, meetings and conventions, office staffing, facility management and more.

This was followed by a move to the nonprofit side of the world, where I was executive director of our local Red Cross and then director of tourism development for one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

The last position overlapped with starting a stock photography company, and then my retirement joy, starting a tour company which my husband, a retired Secret Service agent, and I ran together.

Today, we are both retired but not inactive; gardener, oyster farmer, traveler, promoter of the beautiful Kitsap Peninsula and beyond. Enjoying a wonderful circle of family and friends.

Eisenstodt: You were granted sabbaticals, you said, twice during other parts of your career. Please tell us more.


First Sabbatical:

  • Position and company: Administrative manager, Tandem Computers (no longer an independent company; now part of Hewlett-Packard).
  • Length of sabbatical: Six weeks.
  • Paid or unpaid: Paid.
  • Guidelines for sabbatical, if any: Time at the company—I think it was four years.
  • How you used the time: I moved across country just as I became eligible for my sabbatical. The company gave me some other benefits, extended time for stock options and leave of absence in case I worked for the company on the other coast, in lieu of the actual sabbatical.
  • What benefits were there for your employer of your sabbatical?: A refreshed, recommitted employee!

Second Sabbatical:

  • Regional administrative manager, McDonald’s Corporation
  • Length of sabbatical: Eight weeks. Vacation time could be added, which at 10 years would be four weeks, for a total of 12 weeks. I took 10 weeks at once and saved two weeks of vacation to use later in the year.
  • Paid or unpaid: Paid.
  • Guidelines for sabbatical, if any: 10 years employment (every 10 years). Must return for six months following the sabbatical, which kept employees from using the time to job hunt. The idea was to truly take time to refresh. Some managers would cut off voicemail and require that you NOT visit the office, but this was an individual thing, and most didn’t want to visit
  • How you used the time: Travel. Individual trips with a friend, my son, my husband, my mother and then a week just relaxing.
  • What benefits were there for your employer of your sabbatical: Refreshed employee; recommitted, new perspective.

Eisenstodt: Are sabbaticals feasible for those who work in hospitality?

Boyle: Those in the companies I worked in, who were in hospitality, full or just as part of their jobs, took sabbaticals.

Eisenstodt: In what ways would sabbaticals benefit those in hospitality who plan meetings? Who “sell” or provide services for meetings?

Boyle: To me the whole purpose is to refresh/recharge; to follow a dream; to explore self or the world; balance life.

Eisenstodt: In what ways would the employers of hospitality/meetings industry professionals benefit from providing sabbaticals for employees?

Boyle: For me, and for my staff, I found that at the 10-year mark, or earlier, there is a questioning of whether it is time to change jobs, [or] a little burnout. It can be hard to come back from a sabbatical, so the requirement to stay with the company for a period of time makes sense.

A senior employee told me that he came back from sabbatical and immediately needed a vacation. He advised that I hold back at least a week for that purpose. I did, and about a month after returning I took a vacation. I remained with the company another five years and would have stayed longer but life changed; we moved, and the nonprofit world was calling me.

Eisenstodt: Any final thoughts? And other than sabbaticals, from what form of “stepping back” might our industry and those who work in it benefit?

Boyle: I was fortunate to work for two companies that extended most benefits to all employees. During my time with McDonald’s, many of my staff took sabbaticals. I found that it was good planning to cross-train the rest of the staff so that an extended absence didn’t disrupt business too much. The cross-training was beneficial for other times as well: vacations, illness, babies, etc.

Turnover is expensive and that carrot of a sabbatical is incentive to stay, and then, refreshed and recharged, an employee comes back an even better and more committed employee planning for their next sabbatical. Even though discouraged, some people do some job hunting and, in our case, found that they had a good deal.

I am a big believer in sabbaticals and all benefits, if offered, to be offered across the board, to all positions, top to bottom and across all disciplines. Things such as stock options can be scaled to the job, but still provided to everyone.

Read Joan’s related February blog next: Instead of Job Burnout, Try This

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About the author
Joan Eisenstodt | Contributing Blogger, Friday With Joan Author and Industry Expert

Joan Eisenstodt, an Ohio native founded Eisenstodt Associates, LLC, a DC-based meeting consulting and training company in 1981. Joan has immersed herself in the hospitality industry and is considered one of its most knowledgeable, inclusive, and ethical practitioners. Joan serves as a hospitality industry expert witness in disputes often involving event attrition and cancellation, most recently in 2021 and 2022 in COVID-related cases.