Companies in nearly every industry today ask their employees to wear many hats. Increasingly, one of those hats is that of "meeting planner." An estimated four out of every five corporate meetings are organized by a project manager rather than a dedicated meeting professional, according to Kristi Casey Sanders, director of thought leadership for Meeting Professionals International. Research from Lucy Brazier, CEO of London-based Marcham Publishing, which publishes Executive Secretary magazine, indicates that more than 70 percent of administrative assistants now have the responsibility for planning corporate meetings and events, "everything from small meetings to conferences, from family fun days to trade shows," Brazier says.
On top of that, there are countless professionals who are running part-time planning businesses on their own. For all of these professionals -- many of whom don't have formal training -- it can be tough to know where to turn for answers. Luckily, there are many supports and services designed to help them through every stage of the planning process. Here are some of the resources and best practices suggested by the experts.
1. Join the Community, Get Certified
A wide range of associations, organizations and educational institutes exists to aid meeting planners. A few of the large national and international groups include Meeting Professionals International, the Professional Convention Management Association, the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence, the International Live Events Association and the International Congress and Convention Association.
There also are many regional chapters, local organizations and other dedicated resources that may come in handy for part-time planners looking for answers and to network. MPI even launched a branch of its organization dedicated to serving and educating the "non-titled" planner, called Plan Your Meetings.
Going one step further and getting a professional certification from one of these institutions not only enhances your skill set but establishes a level of trust in clients and vendors up front, says Shay Farmer, a senior purchasing manager for Altour Meetings and Incentives in Minneapolis, who works regularly with part-time planners.
Some of the most popular designations include Certified Meeting Planner, Certified Special Events Professional, Certified Conference and Events Professional, Certified Government Meeting Professional and Digital Event Strategist.
2. Build a Network
The importance of attending networking events is a no-brainer for all business professionals, but it's especially important for part-time planners. The advantages are twofold.
First, an industry conference provides a forum for planners and suppliers to meet one another face-to-face, facilitating the kind of relationship building that leads to critical knowledge transfer and future business. "People generally do business with people they know and like," says Carl Winston, director of the School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at San Diego State University. "You just have to be that person."
In addition, "there's always a learning component to these meetings," says Donald Duszynski, a regional manager for Meeting Professionals Expectations who honed his planning skills during a 30-year career as a biology professor at the University of New Mexico, where he organized university meetings and events in his spare time, for free. Duszynski attends five or six industry meet-and-greets every year, both to network and to take advantage of these educational opportunities that help expand his skill set.
That said, for someone who isn't immersed in the meetings and events community, it can be difficult to walk into a room full of strangers and strike up a conversation. "It's intimidating," says Winston. "It's just an awkward feeling."
Winston suggests contacting the conference organizer and asking to get involved in the event by joining a committee or board. "It'll probably get together once a month," he says of the group. "After two or three months of going to that committee meeting, if you go to your first big-kid meeting with 100 people in the room, you've got three friends already. It's much more digestible."
Attending "fam" (familiarization) trips whenever possible also helps to build your network, both with suppliers and other meeting professionals, Duszynski notes.
3. Be a First Responder
As a part-time planner, you may not be working regularly with hotels, suppliers and even fellow planners. Without that frequent contact, especially the face-to-face interaction, part-timers might not be getting "the same type of service that full-time planners -- the people who are working with these suppliers on a more regular basis -- are getting," Farmer explains. "They might not get the same discounts that come with a closer relationship."
Indeed, Duszynski credits his in-depth site visits with helping him build relationships with hotel sales managers over the years. "I think that personal touch is something that transfers, maybe unspoken, to the sales managers. Maybe they think, 'Hey, this guy really cares. I'm going to give him a good deal for his group.'"
Of course, many part-time planners may be hard-pressed to make in-person visits, given time and budget constraints. Further, since they are splitting their time between planning and other commitments, they also may be periodically unavailable by phone and email. In these cases, a responsive and reliable online presence can make all the difference.
"Response time is such a huge thing on both sides -- from the planner side and from the hotel side," Farmer says. "Typically, you need responses right away in order to move forward. It's therefore important to set expectations of when you're able to respond and what to do if [a client or supplier] can't reach you. Being responsive and clear with hotels makes a difference in the relationship you're building with them, whether or not they've met you."
It also keeps part-time planners from getting lost in the shuffle. "Continue to put yourself out there so that you're recognized in the meetings community and you're not forgotten," Farmer says.
4. Document Your Group
If there's one thing all the experts agree on, it's that planners need to know their groups inside and out -- and be able to summarize it in a document that can be attached to an RFP.
"Identify who your key stakeholders are, define what their goals for meeting are and what success would look like," says Casey Sanders. "Once you've got that down, prioritize the goals so you know what the most important considerations for the meeting are going to be and how you can track whether or not you're successful. [That way,] as you're designing the event, everything is connected to fulfilling the vision of the stakeholders. The money is being spent to achieve that and the experience is designed to fulfill that. Anything that doesn't help you achieve those goals doesn't matter."
This is particularly helpful for those professionals who are tasked with planning company events without much formal direction. "Often, assistants are given a very broad outline and need to learn how to make use of questioning skills to ensure the executive gets what they actually want," explains Brazier. "More often than not, the [request] is purely, 'Can you organize the summer party? Here's the budget. We want everyone to have fun.' Get a full brief for the event in the first place so everyone is clear what the ROI -- soft or hard -- is on the event."
For every group he works with, Duszynski puts together a 10- to 20-year history of its event activity -- including every hotel they've contracted with, the sales managers' names and contact information, the number of room nights generated, the food and beverage tabs, and the registration fees. "Then I take the most current six or seven years and I attach that document to the RFP I create," he says. "In addition to that, I also have the specific needs for this group, a day-to-day schedule, and five or six legal clauses that I say must become part of the contract that we're going to write."
5. Avoid Boilerplate Contracts
One of the best ways to meet the needs of your group and protect its interests is by customizing the contracts you make with your vendors. "I don't take a boilerplate contract with hotels," Duszynski says. "I will work with the sales manager and mold that boilerplate contract into something that I think protects my group in the same way that the hotel protects itself."
Duszynski adds that he often refers to the teachings of noted hospitality lawyer Jonathan Howe, president and a senior and founding partner of the firm Howe & Hutton, to help him adapt vendor contracts. "I have extracted several of his clauses and put them into my contracts," he notes.
6. Turn Your Budget Into an Event Road Map
According to Brazier, you can't get too detailed when mapping out a budget for your event. In fact, it's one area where project managers and administrative assistants can really shine, thanks to their superior organizational skills.
"To me a budget is a living, breathing document when you are managing an event," Brazier says. "You can manage the entire event through it. I have all my suppliers, their contacts, estimates, actuals and variances in cost on mine. The budget has nine categories of expenditure: rooms, transportation, food and beverage, audiovisual, printed materials, administration, recreation, speaker fees and miscellaneous. I list everything I can think of under each heading. Make sure you add taxes, service charges, credit card charges and a 10 percent contingency. It's easier to take money out than add it in."
7. Have a Negotiation Strategy
Many part-time planners have full-time jobs that don't prepare them to be savvy negotiators. So it's important to prepare a list of demands you're going to make and a list of concessions you're willing to make in return. "If you are going to ask the supplier to meet your demands, then you have to offer something of value," Duszynski says.
And when negotiating, keep in mind that "if you ask for something before a contract is signed, it's called 'negotiating'; if you ask for something after a contract is signed, it's called 'begging,'" says Brazier. "It's better to be a good negotiator than an expert beggar."
It's a well-known fact that event budgets "haven't been keeping pace with accelerated expenses," says Casey Sanders. Doing more with less has become the norm. Luckily, there are some great opportunities for planners to save money, if they know where to look. "If a planner has the flexibility to change the dates of their shows, conferences and meetings, they should pick dates that are off-season for the facility they are interested in," says Ginny Kent, marketing specialist for the Ocean Center Daytona Beach convention complex in Daytona Beach, Fla. This may be particularly helpful to part-time planners, she notes, since they may not be tied to planning a meeting at the same time every year.
"Many centers offer incentives to meet certain times of the year," Kent adds. "For the Ocean Center's off-season, September through December, we offer bonuses like a refreshment break, complimentary WiFi, complimentary move-in or move-out, or a 15 percent catering discount."
Third, research financial-assistance options. Kent says that some centers, including her own, offer help based on the strength of the group, consideration of future meetings, group history, room nights and economic impact on the local neighborhood, town or city. "Planners should ask about promotional support when they talk to a facility, especially if their event is strong in any of these areas," she says, noting that this is almost definitely an option with first-time events.
You may also be able to save a few dimes by solidifying your registration and F&B counts early, Kent adds. "At the Ocean Center Daytona Beach, if we know the numbers early and can save on the purchase of food, we can pass that savings on to the customer," she says. For example, if there's a group slated to meet before or after yours and you deliberately use the same menu, the venue can buy in bulk and pass on that savings to your group.
8. Outsource Where Possible
Your own time and energy are two of your -- and your company's -- most valuable assets; consider off-loading tasks to a third party where possible. "Investigate whether there's a business case to outsource portions of your job that consume a lot of valuable time and resources, so you can spend more time creating the kind of experience your stakeholders want to achieve," says Casey Sanders.
9. Learn Something From Each Event
Finally, when the event is over, "make sure you do an evaluation meeting to work through what worked and what didn't," says Brazier. "Add this evaluation to your file, so that when you or someone else starts again next year, it is all in one place."