Advice From a Meetings Industry Headhunter

An inside look at the current job market with executive recruiter Dawn Penfold, founder and president of

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See Dawn Penfold answer listeners' career questions on the recent webcast, "How to Come Back After a Crisis," available for free on-demand here.

In her 30 years as an executive recruiter for the meetings industry, Dawn Penfold, founder and president of, has never experienced anything like what has happened to the industry this spring. "It's massive," says the former meeting planner, who saw hiring grind to a halt in March, along with an enormous wave of layoffs and furloughs. 

This is a real wake-up call for the Millennial generation, in particular, she notes, since the job market has been strong for their entire careers. "They could name their prices; there were more jobs than candidates. In three weeks that was turned around completely."

For job seekers, "the future is going to look different," Penfold says. "I consider everything that's this big like a hinge that takes us in a new direction." 

Following is her advice for what to do now to best prepare for a meetings industry job in the future.

What does the job market look like now? 

Dawn Penfold
Dawn Penfold

All but one of the 20 job searches I was working on stopped searching completely. And all the temp work — I had placed 50 to 60 independent contractors — stopped. And that's just my little company. So I can imagine what it looks like out there in the big world. 

A lot of the meeting planners still have their jobs because they're still negotiating. They're still showing their value. But once that's done, there's not going to be anything for them to do. 

A lot of people have been asked to cut back their hours. Can you work for 60 percent of the time? It's so hard to turn yourself off. My generation, if we were asked to take a 40 percent pay cut, we would still put in a 40-, 50-hour week, because that's kind of our demographic. I think the younger generation of workers would do that too.

The benefit there is obviously they have a job, they're making more money than they would make on unemployment, and they're still in the face of their employers. Planners can try to negotiate that with their employers: Can I work fewer hours for less money? Do anything to keep your job.

How long do you think hiring will be on hold?
I'm pulling this number out of the air, but I think it's going to be at least six months before a lot of hiring starts taking place again. And that all depends upon what else happens. This is all economy-based as well as health-based. If people are still afraid of getting together, they're not going to schedule conferences. 

What do you suggest people do in the meantime?

They need to learn the skill sets of virtual meetings and start selling themselves. Say, "Let me help you set up your virtual conferences." Also, almost every employer I'm seeing now wants somebody who knows how to use Cvent. Find out what hiring officials are looking for.

"The hiring process is going to be slower. Companies are going to have more choice."
—Dawn Penfold

You're going to have to have a competitive advantage. You're going to have to set yourself apart from everybody else. People are going to have to get comfortable with video interviewing, Zoom interviews. I've done so much coaching in the last three weeks on Zoom interviews, about subtle things like the angle, and adjusting the screen to show however much or however little of yourself you want to. 

How will hiring change?

The hiring process is going to be slower. Companies are going to have more choice. The candidate will have to have an automated résumé that will go through an applicant-tracking system that most hiring officials use now. Hiring managers set up parameters for the job with keywords. These applicant-tracking systems, in turn, will look for the keywords and key phrases on résumés and sort them into an A, B or C pile. Like my applicant-tracking system at, they rank candidates not by when they applied, but how well their résumé matches the job. The most qualified candidates should be at the top.

Will one résumé fit all?

You can't give a generic résumé. It has to be designed around each job you apply for. You're going to have to look at the job description and design your résumé for that. Because hiring officials are going to be overwhelmed, I think they're going to start using automated bots, automated interviews, so a candidate will go through an interview with a bot before they actually talk to a live person. I'm seeing more and more of that.

What advice can you give on résumé writing?

I recommend, through our company, Lois Gilbert, the Résumé Wordsmith ( She's a former meeting planner and she'll do Linked­In profiles — she'll do everything. But anybody can just do Google searches on how to write a résumé. A lot of companies are requiring digital résumés now, which are kept online, and you send somebody a link. You can change it easily. 

Is your social media presence important to hiring managers?

Yes, very. If your résumé gets through an applicant-tracking system, the first thing the hiring official will do is try to find you on LinkedIn, just to see who's recommended you, what quotes are there, and get a general overview of the person. Your LinkedIn profile picture should be very professional, but yet cool. I've had candidates lose jobs because of their pictures; it wasn't the corporate image they were looking for. Hiring managers also see if they can get into your Facebook page. I've had candidates lose jobs over Facebook profiles. 

What qualities will companies be looking for?

The ability to show that you can work from home. I think that hiring officials are going to be looking for more serious virtual offices. And I think finally our industry will start saying that a virtual office is acceptable. Our industry has been like dragging a dog through mud in accepting this. 

Should planners be considering different careers?

This is a good time to reflect and to decide what you really want to do. For people who are close to retirement, I ask, "Do you want to continue doing this?" If yes, then you've got to hold on. But you've got to make sure you've got the skill sets. It's no different with the people who are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. But this is also a good time to think about whether you want to venture out and do something else.

Who is most affected?

Millennials are shell-shocked. I've been telling them, let's get your résumé together. Let's start working on your interviewing skills. Think about networking. Ask where you can improve your career. What can you do to make it more stable in the future?

"One question that will come up from hiring officials is, 'What have you been doing with your time, and are you out of contact now with your work?' You'll need to talk about what you've done during this hiatus."
—Dawn Penfold

For the people who are in the middle of their careers, the only thing I can say is it will come back. File for unemployment right away. Can you get health benefits paid for a certain amount of time? Look into Cobra, look into vacation time and paid time off. 

Is there anything that you can do freelance for your company just for a while to keep your skills fresh and to keep you in their minds? Because you don't want them to forget about you. Keep in touch. 

Having a knowledge base on restructuring contracts would be a really important asset to sell to companies. Write down everything you've learned in the process of cancelling and postponing events, and what you saved your organization in cancellation fees.

Depending upon how long this is going to go on, I think one question that will come up from hiring officials is, "What have you been doing with your time, and are you out of contact now with your work?" You'll need to talk about what you've done during this hiatus. For example, "I stayed active with online support from my associations at MPI and PCMA. I wrote articles. I read. I learned this skill." Show that you stayed on top of things. 

There will be a lot of people looking for jobs at the same time when this is all through. The one piece of advice I can give to any candidate is show that you're really interested in the job. Do your research on the company, do your research on the people that you're going to be talking to, and show that you are qualified. Have enthusiasm. Be that cheerleader.