The U.S. and the meetings industry have given a lot to Burt Cabanas, founder and chairman of Benchmark, and since handing over the CEO reins to son Alex in 2013, he’s upped his lifelong efforts of giving back to the organizations and people who helped shape his success.
His is a story worthy of Horatio Alger, who coined the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” having immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba as a boy, starting in the hospitality industry by cleaning pools in South Florida, and rising to pioneer the conference center concept through his company, Benchmark, and as one of the founders of the International Association of Conference Centres, now more commonly referred to as IACC.
But pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is always wrapped in a bit of myth, as no one really does it all by his or herself.
Giving back to those who have given so much to you is the true mark of character.
“I’ve done it most of my life, but ratcheting it up to the level where I am today started in 2002,” Cabanas, a former U.S. Marine, said of his many charitable giving efforts.
“In 2002 the process began with the Marine Corps, with the developing and financing of a memorial for the 17 Medal of Honor recipients in the state of Texas. Four Marines, including myself, built the memorial, a 501(c)(3), and every year for 10 years we have celebrated the Marine Corps birthday on November 10th at the memorial.”
The Memorial today is aligned with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which raises funds for children of Marines. A golf tournament is held in the fall to raise funds for children of Texas Marines.
Cabanas and his wife also contribute to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Research Center in Houston and the Woodlands, where Benchmark is headquartered.
Helping in the recovery of Houston from Hurricane Harvey took many forms, including supporting Houston Texans football star JJ Watt in his fundraising efforts. Employees of the company have aided in building homes for veterans and activities such as painting schools in their hometowns.
Other Benchmark charity efforts include contributions to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, literacy programs and USO food operations at airports.
Honoring Florida International University's Rocco Angelo
His latest effort, the Rocco Angelo Legacy in Leadership Endowment scholarship initiative, kicked off in May 2017 and honors the Florida International University (FIU) Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management’s Rocco Angelo.
For the past 50 years, Angelo served the alumni and students of the university in key positions in the organizations of all four deans of the Hospitality and Tourism School, helping shape and guide the students in their career during and after their studies.
“Rocco was the associate dean for the university from the start, and the most recognized individual of all of the alumni—the godfather of the hospitality school,” said Cabanas, an FIU alumnus whose hospitality industry career really took off when he was hired by Miami’s Doral Resort shortly before he earned his degree from FIU. “The intent is to wake up all those FIU alumni who have not donated.”
The goal is to reach $1 million, of which Cabanas, vice chair of the foundation, personally contributed $100,000; it’s presently less than $200,000 from hitting that mark.
“There’s been many other money-raising activities in the past, but in the case of Rocco and what he’s been able to do since 1972, he’s had a really big impact on them and he deserves to have the million dollars raised for his legacy," he said.
For Cabanas, contributing to charity and helping others on their way up is the fulfilling price that comes with success.
“Giving back is important because giving back isn’t just giving back—giving back sets up the road for other people to be successful,” Cabanas said. “I had a lot of organizations, through scholarships and grants, help me.
"You can’t get to the point in your life where you’re so selfish that you believe that you can’t contribute to help something else," he added.
To donate to the Rocco Angelo Legacy in Leadership fund, visit http://hospitality.fiu.edu/rocco.