No two meetings are alike, yet the planning process for any event includes a number of uniform tasks and responsibilities that should not be neglected.
To assist in navigating this busy and complex process, Successful Meetings presents the following guide, excerpted from The Meeting and Event Planning Playbook by Debi Scholar and Susan Losurdo. The aim is to provide a resource that can be referred to again and again to make sure no detail goes unnoticed.
Define Meeting Objectives
Planning success begins with identifying an event's anticipated outcome. The following describes a sampling of meeting types, the purpose of each and related profit measurements.
Goal: To educate
Measurement: The impact of the meeting's takeaways, including an increase in productivity, sales or services
Goal: To celebrate
Measurement: The results of the meeting's perceived value; measurements might include an increase in accomplishments such as sales following the event
Goal: To evaluate.
Measurement: The depth of attendee feedback or level of participation
Meetings held just for the sake of meeting accomplish nothing. In order to be effective, define the goal of your event from the get-go. Gain as much information as possible to reduce having to rework the planning as it plays out. In order to better define your objective, answer the following questions.
- What is the general purpose of the event?
- What is the expected outcome?
- What will guests gain from attending your event?
- How will the outcome be measured?
- Do you have baseline information for comparing to post-meeting results?
Build an Event Budget
Event budgeting is no easy task. While some planners share budgets with suppliers up front, we suggest keeping definite numbers confidential. You can provide a range, but why give away the bank? Rather, ask hotels and suppliers for their rates depending on your needs, then negotiate prices based on what's provided.
Keep track of your itemized forecasted budget, itemized actual expenses and differences between the two. Raise questions and concerns to budget holders immediately, should costs exceed the decided-upon amount.
As you outline the meeting budget, be sure to address the following questions.
- What is the budget?
- Have costs been considered for the venue, sleeping rooms, agenda content, transportation (air and ground), audiovisual, F&B services, entertainment, décor, gifts, alcohol, shipping, print materials, security, on-site support staff, tax and gratuities?
- Who is responsible for covering costs? Are attendees expected to contribute?
- Can the forecasted budget be measured against historical event data?
- What meetings-management tech can be used to create and store budget information?
- Which form of payment will be used?
- Are deposits required for the venues and/or service providers?
- Have hotel room taxes been taken into account?
- Will attendees be submitting travel-and-entertainment expense reports?
Understand the Attendee
Understanding your target audience will help you provide the right level of services and further identify an appropriate venue, among other aspects.
Be sure to capture all registration data. In an ideal world, this information should be gathered and imported into a seamless meetings-management technology platform.
Your audience is the nucleus of your meeting. In order to better understand your ideal attendee, their wants and needs, and how to cater to them, be sure to consider the following questions.
- Who are the attendees (suppliers, managers, buyers, associates, external clients, etc.)?
- What takeaway is the attendee hoping to gain from the meeting?
- What resources will be made available to the audience?
- How many attendees are expected at the event?
- Are attendees internal or external to the host organization?
- Where do attendees originate from? Does a majority come from the same region?
- Are hotel accommodations required?
- Will virtual-meeting options be available for remote attendees?
Authorize an Agenda
A daily agenda will become the foundation for many critical planning decisions. A carefully designed and timed program will help you determine if and in what amount the following are needed.
- Number of meeting rooms and required space (general session and breakout rooms)
- Room setup (e.g., theater, classroom, boardroom, banquet, crescent rounds, etc.)
- Coffee-break schedule
- Registration desk
- Separate rooms for F&B events
- On-site office for the planning team equipped with telephones, fax, copier, computers and office supplies
- Off-site activities
- Graphic design and print-distribution services (invitations, agendas, brochures, etc.)
- Content development assistance/facilitation/speakers/training requirements
Many activities such as team building and off-site dining are easily managed; others pose higher risks. Such activities are not usually covered under the organization's liability insurance and might require individual releases, waivers of liability or separate certifications. Be sure to ask your compliance department or insurance specialists to help obtain the proper approvals so that your organization does not incur significant liability.
As it pertains to your event's timetable, be sure to consider the following.
- What is the proposed daily agenda (registration, general session, breakouts, meals, breaks, social activities, evening events, other)?
- How long will the meeting last?
- Will the attendees all arrive on the same day or different days?
- What type of activities and entertainment will be included?
Recognize Potential Risks
Many events are visible to leaders and require high-touch services arranged by numerous planners. Woven throughout are a number of potential risks planners must address and mitigate in advance. These generally fall into the following categories.
The risk of not meeting strategic objectives of the organization, which might arise from negative public opinion.
The risk that the organization's structure, and processes, procedures and controls are not designed or functioning as designed to support the meeting management objectives.
The risk of not meeting strategic objectives of the organization arising from the company's failure to comply with external laws and regulations.
The risk of not meeting the objectives of the organization arising from the inability to implement efficient and effective information systems.
The risk of not meeting the strategic objectives of the organization arising from the inability to adapt to changing external factors and service the customers.
The risk of not meeting the financial objectives of the organization arising from the inability to manage financial obligations and risks.
In addition to mitigating organizational risks, all meetings should have backup plans in case of a crisis. This might include natural hazards (e.g., weather-related, blackouts) or human-caused events, accidental and intentional, (e.g., suicides, transportation accident, terrorist attacks).
When it comes to carrying out risk management and mitigation, the following are imperative.
- Determining protocol in the event of an emergency
- Creating a way to account for all attendees in the event of a crisis
- Securing hotel space, ground transportation or evacuation services for attendees to either stay in the area or leave at a moment's notice
- Identifying the right path for disseminating of-the-moment information
- Journaling all information for incident reporting as applicable
Because of the multiple departments that issue invoices (catering, housekeeping, IT, etc.), errors are common. Be sure to check invoices carefully and dispute charges that you do not believe are correct. Note that many unexpected line items should have been addressed up front and specified in your contract. Be sure to carry out the following:
- Review the invoices.
- Confirm all invoices and backup documentation have been received.
- Compare original notes to any changes made during the event (e.g., compare final BEOs with any changes in the hotel's final F&B invoice).
- Review and confirm transportation costs.
- Debrief and identify improvements to be made.
- Report success using metrics that might need to be produced.
- Store documents and contracts according to relative retention policies.
- Obtain actual attendance and costs for each function from the venue.
- Reconcile and process invoices.
- Document the estimated budget versus the actual costs and calculate the differences.
Satisfy Site Selection
When approaching the process of choosing a destination, start by researching attendee demographics to get a better sense from where the majority originate. Equipped with that information, you'll be able to select a central and cost-effective locale. If most attendees are based in the Northeast, for example, it might not make sense to hold the event in Florida. The only argument here would be if the meeting goal supports the location in question.
In any event, consult with your preferred travel-management company to provide an airfare analysis and help paint a more complete picture of all destinations in question, as well as their associated travel costs.
When sourcing venues, send a minimum of three requests for proposal. The power of comparison will help you identify worthy contenders. In addition, by sending out multiple RFPs, you reduce your organization's risk of exposure by offering suppliers a fair opportunity to bid on your meeting. You also will be evaluating responses fairly, further meeting the requirements of procurement departments and aligning with guidelines.
When you contact a prospective venue, the sales department will work with you to discuss meeting dates, spaces required (meeting rooms, sleeping rooms, rooms for breakfast/lunch, etc.), the rates you can expect to pay and essential services.
As you narrow down venues, it would be in your best interest to schedule a site visit with multiple properties. Site visits allow you to review the venue, meet the staff, evaluate the destination, see the meeting space and sleeping rooms, taste the food and analyze the environment (e.g., parking, restaurants, etc.).
When you have flexibility in location selection, you create the best opportunity for making a well-rounded decision. As you navigate through the process, pay attention to the following questions.
- Which locations work with holding the meeting?
- Where are the attendees traveling from?
- Are there specific venues/hotels to which you would like to request an RFP?
- Are you able to tour the property prior to the meeting date?
Facilitate the Food & Beverage
Never underestimate the importance of attendee satisfaction surrounding food-and-beverage options. Attendees will either love or complain about the efforts. F&B will also quickly become your second- or third-largest spend category. Planners should work with the chef or convention services manager to create unique menus.
Whether you are planning a small meeting or a large event, know that food allergies, sensitivities and religious observances are vital considerations. Always ask your attendees if they require special meals, and plan to accommodate each request.
There are a number of F&B pricing methods to understand. For example, prices might be per gallon (coffee, tea, hot water), per person, per appetizer, per family-style meal or per entrée. Ask your CSM for the best method of pricing within your budget.
You'll also want to consider where each meal (breakfasts, lunches, breaks, receptions and dinners) will be served. While it is possible to have F&B in the meeting room, it's recommended to provide a change of scenery.
Note that if you opt to have food services set inside your meeting room, your session might be disrupted by hotel staff setting up. Still, serving inside the room might be necessary if the agenda allows little time for meals.
Answer the following to begin mastering the menu.
- Will catered meals and breaks be included in your meeting?
- Will you use sit-down service or buffets?
- Will you provide food for all meals during the event?
- Will you have a reception before dinner?
- Will alcohol be served?
- Will attendees be provided meal cards and/or means for purchasing their own F&B?
- Will any meals be taking place off-site?
- Is there a minimum amount of money you need to spend on food and beverage at your hotel or venue?
- Have attendees been surveyed about special F&B requests?
- Does the menu include safe and sensitive options that will help cater to each person's needs?
After initial discussion, the venue will produce banquet event orders confirming all meeting-room and catering arrangements. Be sure to review your BEO very carefully.
An effective contract protects your meeting, but creating one is not easy. All the what-ifs must be considered. Negotiating the clauses alone can be a very complex process, as there are many factors to consider. (For more, see "Must-Have Contract Clauses".)
Be prepared to negotiate rates, services, amenities, concessions, attrition/cancellation penalties, dates, space requirements, signage, audiovisual, resources on-site and every fine detail along the way.
A contract is an agreement enforceable by law. Simply put, it outlines the responsibilities and rights of the respective parties, in writing. It is a roadmap to a successful event outlining what will happen and when, and who will be responsible in the event that one of those aforementioned risks bubbles up.
Pay mind to the following questions.
- Are all involved parties aware and prepared to commit to signing a contract?
- Has someone from your legal or procurement department reviewed each contract at hand?
- Who from your organization is allowed to sign a contract?
Once contracts have been signed, the meeting will be turned over from the sales contact to a convention services manager. The CSM will be your primary contact from this point forward.
Prepare detailed specifications that define all of your meeting needs. Some organizations use this information as an addendum to the contract. Others might put some of the language directly into a master agreement or contract addendum and keep the specifications separate.
- Provide the meeting name and its objectives.
- Identify how the meeting will be posted in the hotel, if at all.
- Provide a one-page dossier of all of the contacts, including the names, titles, phone numbers, fax numbers, email and cell numbers of the following: the meeting facility, your organization, on-site staff, emergency contacts, ground-transportation managers, air-travel managers, décor, entertainment, speakers, A/V, gift and amenity suppliers, production, IT and security staff.