On Sept. 1, 2001, Christy Lamagna, CMP, CMM and CTSM, launched her new independent meeting planning business, Strategic Meetings & Events. Ten days later, everybody's world changed. Today, she is well versed in surviving worldwide crises, including the last economic downturn, and her business is still solid.
"Having done this a few times doesn't make it any less uncomfortable," says Lamagna. "If it's your first time, whatever you're feeling is perfectly normal."
She is now making plans to occupy the next weeks, finding solutions for her partners, creating content to share with those who might need some help, and generally reaching out from her Bernardsville, N.J., home to anyone who needs an ear or a virtual friend for cocktail hour.
But many fellow independent planners are at a loss for what to do now. Alison Taylor, executive director of Taylored Events in Woodstock, Ga., was putting the finishing touches on a big incentive program in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, that was scheduled for the end of April and represents a major part of her income for the year. "We're looking at options for rescheduling," says Taylor. "If they cancel all together, I'll have to find another job, and it won't be in meeting planning. I'm trying not to panic."
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Brett Sterenson of Washington, D.C.'s Hotel Lobbyists, a site-selection firm, who works on about 250 events a year, says his job has totally changed: "I used to book business and now I cancel business for a living." As of Wednesday, March 18, he had cancelled 30 bookings, for a total loss of $522,000 in hotel revenue, and $44,800 in lost commissions for him. March and April are usually two of his busiest months.
"I think this is probably the last full week of working as hard as I've been," he says, "but now it's revenue-subtracting instead of revenue-adding."
During this first week of social distancing, and adjusting to the new "norm," it can be hard to look beyond our own homes and circumstances. Here are some ways to help yourself and set up your business for the future.
Reach out to others
As entrepreneur Greg Habstritt put it in a webcast titled "Independent Business Owners: You Are Not Alone" this week, "People need leadership and hope and a brightness for the future."
Getting in touch, says Habstritt, can be as simple as sending out emails that say, "Hi, how are you? What can I do for you right now?"
Lamagna suggests asking yourself how you want to look back on this time. "Do you want the story to say, 'I was all alone'?" she says. "Or that you found new ways to connect?" She notes that we are all in this together, and we still need regular interaction even if we can't reach out and touch each other: "Have a virtual lunch, have a virtual coffee break. You don't have to be isolated." And by extending a virtual hand, you help draw someone else out of their isolation.
As Brad Weaber, a strategic-business consultant in Washington, D.C., put it in the webcast, "You don't necessarily have to do anything hard. Showing compassion and reaching out is going to help you, too.
Take time to hone your skills
"Which skill did you wish you had last week? This is the moment to work on it," said Eric Rozenberg, CMP, CMM, an events industry entrepreneur and author of Meeting at C-Level, who held a webcast for independent business owners this week.
• Evaluate where your business is now, and determine if there is a service you can add in the future or one you can refine.
• Assess your businesses processes. What can be improved upon? How can you minimize stress and improve efficiency?
• If you’re not a Certified Meeting Professional, consider working toward that designation.
• Learn all you can about taking events virtual. Coming soon from Lamagna (you can find her here on LinkedIn) will be a series of free videos about the ins and outs of virtual meetings.
"I'm working with my production team, because people are asking to go online with events," she says. "Planners tend not to work on the production side, but we need to know how many cameras we need, how many microphones, how to edit the broadcast. We need to learn these things. We're going to make some educational videos about how to do that. If I can help you thrive, that helps the industry thrive."
Help clients cope
Putting your own worries aside and asking your partners how you can help them will go far to foster goodwill and strengthen relationships. Do you have areas of expertise that would be helpful to others?
"I have had people I don't know ask if I would look at their contracts,” says Lamagna, “so I'm actually helping people who don't know where to go next. We are talking about whether it is actually strategic to cancel, or what to do instead of canceling."
For those like Alison Taylor, whose incentive programs might be canceled, Lamagna suggests devising a virtual rewards program. "Put together a stay-in-place survival package for people now stuck at home, so every month they get a perk." Clients are likely to welcome creative solutions as tough decisions are being made.
"Make sure your clients now what has and hasn't been cancelled or postponed, and help them with contingency planning," says Karen Farrington, CMP, president and CEO of Suncoast Meetings & Events in Land O Lakes, Fla., who is using her knowledge from working with hotels in her state during hurricanes. "I'm acting as a consultant to my clients to help them navigate the future for their events (virtual or otherwise)."
Make notes for next time
While we all hope never to face such a crisis again, we can attempt to be more prepared for a sudden loss of business in the future. "Make sure that you plan for the possibility of something like this happening and have a certain amount of reserves," says Farrington. Set up a rainy-day fund to help you through such times.
Consider the wording of the force majeure clauses in your contracts. Should changes be made going forward?.
Evaluate how you handled changes such as cancellations or postponements. What might you do different if there is a next time?
Take heart, and reach out
An optimistic attitude makes everything easier. "Stay the course, remain positive, look forward," says Sharon Burstein, president and CEO of Sharon Burstein International in Loudonville, N.Y., who has been a planner for 35 years and produces events for women called YOUniquely You.
"This is not an isolated event that is limited to one industry. When this is lifted, everyone will be looking to attend events, perhaps on a different timeline.” She adds, “Don't get discouraged. If you have questions, I'm always an open book [email her here]. Call on more seasoned people who can help you through it."
Christy Lamagna is also invites those seeking advice and support to contact her directly.