Sage Advice to Young Meeting Planners

Meeting PlannerAs an experienced (OK, older) meeting planner, I see myself in so many of the new young planners coming into the business.  Excited, overwhelmed, eager, and trying to find my niche in this crazy business.

I see people who cover their inexperience with brashness and commands and others too meek to question what anyone tells them, thereby getting run over by others to the point where they don’t know what to do.  And, of course, everything in between.

I must admit, I had no training and no experience when I was thrown (rather unceremoniously) into this business.  I became one of the brash, commanding people because I felt I had the backing of the internationally-known company where I worked.  Little did I realize the more experienced people quietly helped correct my mistakes, ignored some of my more unrealistic requests and helped me learn to correctly do the job.

As I work with people who are relatively new in the business I often hear, “I hate to ask a stupid question, but …”  I always tell them and will say it again now; there is no such thing as a stupid question.

If you are new to meeting planning:

  • Ask the questions to learn … we’ve all been in your position; but, please take notes.  I do not mind at all answering questions, training and educating.  Asking the same question a couple of times is fine, I don’t expect you to understand everything the first time.  However, after the third or fourth time the same question is asked I begin to wonder why you aren’t paying attention and, quite frankly, what your work will be like; which then makes me become the micro-manager you don’t like.
  • Being pushy, aggressive, brash, whatever you want to call it, will get you nowhere other than the reputation of being hard to work with.   This does not mean you cannot be confident, but strive to work in a partnership.
  • Be open to new ideas.  What you learned even 6 months ago may not hold true today in this ever-changing and always evolving business
  • Listen and learn.  Those war stories usually have a lesson in them if you listen closely.

Most of all, enjoy yourself.  We have so many opportunities and options.  So many chances to learn about ourselves and the world.  Don’t miss the great experiences out there that will turn you into a confident, experienced, and sought-after planner.

Strategic Meeting Planning: Format Follows Function

Equinox LogoStrategic meeting planning requires a willingness to forget about last year’s meeting.  Too often companies begin the planning process by pulling out the agenda from the previous year and changing the date and venue.  From there, the agenda gets updated with the new theme, presentations and workshop topics, resulting in a meeting that looks very similar to the previous year.  As a result, the meeting becomes familiar, predictable … and ineffective.

These formulaic meetings are a tremendous waste of resources and a major disservice to both the company and the audience.

Today’s business moves at an amazing rate of speed.  The economy is volatile and technology is changing the way everyone does business, resulting in changes in customer demand, markets and the competitive landscape.  To be successful, companies must be nimble and adapt to changing conditions faster than ever before.  Five-year plans have been replaced by six-month strategies and quarterly initiatives.  In this environment, what worked well last year is probably not going to work this year.

Audiences are changing as well.  They are young, connected and more technology-based.  Many of them learn differently and prefer interactivity, social connection and short bursts of information vs. long, one-way presentations.  They want ownership and demand that their voices be heard.  Given these multi-generational demographics, the boomer-style meetings of five years ago simply don’t connect with most of today’s audiences.

It’s time for our meeting archetype to change.

Strategically designed meetings start with the end in mind.  Whether you refer to goals, objectives, initiatives or outcomes, it’s imperative to define what you want to happen as a result of the meeting and the metrics you will use to measure your success.  Keep in mind that your outcomes need to be specific, achievable, realistic and measurable.  If your results can’t be measured, they aren’t specific enough to form the basis of a truly effective meeting.

Once you know where you are going, you can begin designing a path to get there.  Remember, there are many meeting formats and presentation styles that don’t require PowerPoint or a lectern.  In fact, some of the most engaging and effective formats are quite unconventional; using interactivity and creativity to make them effective and memorable.

As you add content to your meeting design, remember that regardless of format or presentation style, you are telling your audience a story with a very specific ending.  Every element of your meeting, from presentations to activities, provides an opportunity to add detail to that story.  The more detail you add, the more effective your story; especially when the detail is not delivered through one-way presentations.  The best storytelling involves the audience by using multiple characters, different voices and colorful settings to engage their imagination.

Who knows, your CEO might become the next J.K. Rowling.

Trade Show Management: Keeping Sponsors Happy

Trade Show ManagementTrade show management requires a broad range of skills far beyond booth setup, ordering utilities and materials handling.  It requires the ability to view the event as a community of stakeholders, each with their own needs and goals.

After the attendees, the most important people on the floor are your sponsors.  Without their support and investment, trade shows would not be financially viable.  Whether you refer to them as sponsors or exhibitors, they are the companies who have paid to be at your trade show, sometimes at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

My work is primarily with large corporations on private events where specific exhibitors are invited to attend and the show is not open to the public.  The booths are set up by companies that support my client and are an integral part of their business operations.  On set-up and tear-down days we often have several hundred booth personnel in addition to the requisite union labor force.

As we have all seen over the years, accurate pre-show and on-site communication is essential, but the nature of that communication has changed.  Today’s communication allows no excess verbiage, no hunting for answers … people want fast answers and easily accessible information.

So, how do I keep my sponsors happy?

•  Communicate clearly and succinctly.  I provide a complete schedule with load-in and load-out times, show hours, and times they have access to the show floor.  If I am holding an exhibitor meeting, I make sure that the date, time and place is included in sponsor schedules.

•  Provide basic refreshments, especially outside of show hours when convention center concession stands or coffee shops may not be open.  In my experience, cambros of coffee and water are not expensive, generate a lot of good will and are greatly appreciated during set-up and tear down, especially when dock doors are open and it may be very hot or cold on the exhibit floor.

•  Consider the sponsor’s perspective. One of my shows opens at 7am, runs through mid-afternoon and must be loaded out that evening.   It’s a long day for everyone without the chance to get away for food or a chance to sit down.  I go the extra mile and provide a continental breakfast and light lunch in a supplier lounge.    Not surprisingly, this rest area is always rated high in post-event exhibitor surveys.

•  I provide my phone number, not the phone number of the show decorator or exposition service, but my number.  Sponsors often have questions that cannot be answered by the decorator, especially for private shows and events.  I find it significantly lowers their anxiety level when I provide a list of who to call for different types of questions.

•  Don’t be afraid to offer helpful suggestions.  There are a lot of booth staff who are very new to the trade show routine.  Don’t be afraid to make a helpful, non-critical suggestion such as, “You know, we’ve found that putting the table at the back of the booth welcomes people rather than being a barrier if put at the front.”  You’d be surprised at how many people don’t know the simple rules of effective exhibiting.

•  Remember to thank your exhibitors.  I always make a point to stop by each booth on the last day to say “thank you” for participating and ask for feedback to make the show better.

None of this is earth-shattering information or anything you haven’t heard before; but these are the things that sometimes get lost in the shuffle.  The best way to ensure that you have happy sponsors is to take a minute and ask yourself the simple question … “If I were an exhibitor, what would make my life easier?”

Strategic Meetings: Building Consensus

Strategic MeetingsStrategic meetings require everyone involved in developing both the format and content to work toward the same goals.  The challenge in today’s “management by consensus” corporate environment is to find agreement without falling into one of two outcome-killing traps.  The first is creating so many objectives that they compete with each other, leaving the audience confused about what you want them to do.  The second is creating objectives and messages that are so watered down that they become meaningless.

As you approach creating objectives and key messages with a group of senior managers, it’s important to remember that they are all strong personalities with very specific goals and challenges for their area of responsibility.  In many cases, their compensation is tied to achieving their goals so they will fight to protect their territory.  There are also political dynamics to consider where there is power, ambition and ego involved.

Given those constraints, these are the steps I recommend to give you the best chance of achieving consensus on meaningful, achievable outcomes and messaging:

Know Your Stakeholders

Never walk into a meeting unprepared; which in this case means a little research to learn two important things.

The first is to find out who will be in the room and what their roles are in the group dynamic.  In any management team there are thought leaders and followers.  The leaders are the people who actually make the decisions.  They are typically the people who sit quietly and hear everyone’s position and then weigh-in late in the discussion.  You can tell who they are because everyone stops talking when they speak.  In most cases, once the leaders state their position, the followers quickly fall in line behind them.

The second is to find out is what’s important to each person in the room.  Every stakeholder has objectives they want to achieve at the event, and usually there is one that is most important to them.  Knowing in advance what each person’s priority is can be very helpful in the give and take of building consensus.  Like all negotiations, if you can give them a win on that priority, they are probably willing to give on other issues.

Find a Friend

The best way to get the information you need is to find an insider to help you understand the dynamics of the group.  They can give you vital insight and will often provide support or nudge the conversation in the direction you need during the discussion.

Personally, I find it pretty easy to spot a mentor.  They are the person that greets you warmly, is truly interested in what you do and introduces you to people who are important to your success.  If you can’t identify who your mentor is, ask your client contact or a department admin.  They always know who is supportive and who isn’t.

Give Them a Starting Point

It may seem presumptuous, but I find it helps to give decision-makers something to react to.  I usually provide a list of outcomes and key messages to begin the discussion based on my knowledge of their business.  My suggestions might not survive the discussion, but they provide a valuable framework and catalyst to start the conversation.

Listen Carefully

Once the discussion gets started, stop talking and listen to what is being said.  Realistically, the leaders don’t really care about your thoughts and, by listening, you will gain amazing insight into their business and event expectations.  The only time I speak is to ask for clarification or to parrot back a key point.  Patience and quiet leadership are required at this point in the process.

Find Your Moment

If you are watching and listening, there will be a moment when you can end the discussion and finalize your outcomes and key messages.  The two clues I look for are repetition and loss of interest.  When the discussion stops progressing and people begin to repeat themselves, it’s time to finalize the deliverables.  The other thing to watch for is when the leaders lose interest and start looking at their watch or checking their email on their smartphone or tablet.

By this point in the discussion, you should have a list of three or four ideas that everyone agrees with, even if they have argued over semantics.  Seize the moment and lay out the key points you’ve heard for their approval.  If you’ve paid attention and your timing is right, the group will approve your outcomes and key messages without further discussion.

Building consensus doesn’t have to be a prolonged process if you can get all the decision-makers in the room at the same time.  If you prepare properly and listen carefully, you can usually leave the room with consensus after less than an hour.

Why Your Employees Don’t Care!

dear-boss-i-quitThe employment culture has changed and many companies have been blindsided.  Today’s employees, especially the post-boomers, are less driven by compensation and job security.  Money’s important but it’s not what determines whether they stay or go.

Today’s employees seek job satisfaction – an intangible that encompasses a number of difficult-to-measure elements and is strongly influenced by their personal value systems.  They want their work to have meaning … to contribute to society and people’s quality of life.  They want freedom to work in their own way – unrestricted by corporate formality and structures.  They want to feel empowered – that they have some element of control over their work and environment.  Most importantly, they want to feel valued – that their contribution is important to the company and its customers.

It’s a communications problem

Faced with employee apathy, declining production and high turnover rates; many companies search for answers using exit interviews, surveys and various employee or management councils.  While these methodologies collect data and may lead to insight and change over the long run, they won’t make a difference if a turnover wave hits your company.

For many small to mid-size companies, the best solution lies in face-to-face communication with their employees through an employee or sales meeting.  Not the kind of meeting where they explain the company vision and bore them with financial data, but rather a less formal meeting that encourages interactivity and two-way discussion.  This format encourages the free exchange of ideas; providing honest feedback to management and allowing the employees to feel their input is important to the company.  It builds a sense of shared community and encourages emotional buy-in by the employee.  It also provides management insight into both the ideas and needs of their employees.  The payoff is the employee feels empowered; that his or her voice is being heard and their opinion matters.

While interactive communication won’t eliminate turnover or make everyone a superstar, it will increase employee loyalty and productivity.  Whether they are management, field sales or cube farmers, everyone wants to feel good about their job and the company they work for.  It’s up to you to provide the opportunity.

Strategic Meetings – What Are They?

Strategic MeetingsStrategic Meetings are receiving a lot of attention on websites and in social media.  So what are they and how are they different from what most companies are currently doing?

In the simplest terms, strategic meetings are meetings that literally change the status quo.  They are specifically designed to align with your business initiatives to produce a measurable change that directly impacts your bottom line.  Regardless of audience, strategic meetings provide knowledge and tools that motivate attendees to take action to achieve specific outcomes.

In today’s economy, most companies don’t have the resources to invest in meetings that don’t produce a measurable return on investment.  The soft goals of celebrate, educate and motivate have been replaced by very specific outcomes like increase sales by 15%, improve margins by 10% and reduce customer defections by 25%.  As a result, planners have evolved from shoppers who source and negotiate to communication strategists, curriculum designers and measurement experts.

This change in skill-sets has even changed the language we use as planners.  Broad words like goals, objectives and engagement have been replaced by measurement-specific language like actionable data, ROI and knowledge retention.

The evolution of meeting planning may be bad news for party planners, administrative assistants and corporate staff that plan meetings part-time, but the end result is good for the industry.  As senior management learns to value meetings and events as strategic tools that have a dramatic impact on their company’s behavior and financial results, strategic meeting planners are becoming valuable assets to their companies.

What a refreshing change from the status quo.

A Meeting Planner’s Response to the IRS Meeting Scandal

irs-calling-uncle-samAs a Meeting Planner, I watched media coverage of the recent IRS meeting debacle with great disappointment and frustration.  Once again, my profession and industry fell victim to media hype and misperception due to the actions of charlatans claiming to be meeting planners.

In recent years, there have been a number of similar stories involving financial irresponsibility and unprofessional conduct (e.g. AIG, GSA, Tyco).  While no professional planner will defend the poor decisions and financial excesses of these cases, it’s unfortunate that a few bad apples have had such a negative impact on the public’s perception of the meetings industry.  The majority of the planners I know are experienced professionals who work very hard to stay abreast of the latest techniques in communication, strategy, business ethics and adult learning.

Whether a meeting is paid for with private or public funds, conscientious meeting planners focus on maximizing business outcomes while managing expenditures to achieve the greatest possible return on their client’s investment.  The days of extravagance and uncontrolled spending passed decades ago and no respectable planner would design an event like the IRS meeting.  Star Trek and dance videos?  Those strategies and techniques died out in the late 80s and will never return.

Of course, there are probably a few ignorant and lazy dinosaurs that cling to these outmoded techniques, but they should be regarded as snake oil salesmen who prey on the ignorant and inexperienced.  We can only hope that they retire or lose their business to one of the many professional meeting planners that practice fiscal restraint and achieve measurable business results for their clients.

Food and Beverage Purchasing

Meeting Services (1)As a self-proclaimed “Foodie” I feel very fortunate to be able to plan meals (amongst many other logistical details) for a living!  Food and beverage often is the second-largest item in a meeting’s budget, but you don’t have to break the bank to provide a memorable F&B experience.

When starting to plan F&B functions for your meetings, events, incentive trips and product launches, it is important to start building relationships with the key vendor partners from the get-go, with your Convention Services Manager and Executive Chef.  Talk to the chef directly regarding details of your specific group and what you are looking to do.  Discuss the potential of local items , availability based upon season, their recommendations and the items that will be more economical based upon the date of your event.  Additionally, we take this a step further and ask the Chef:  “What is something creative that you have always wanted to do?”.  Aside from the obvious, this also helps engage the culinary team and allows them to do something new a different.

Think strategically to determine which purchasing methods work best for your group, without sacrificing quality (or quantity).  There are many purchasing methods to consider:

  • Per Person:  Generally works well for small groups under 100 people, but please note that each menus is still negotiable.  Talk with the Chef to see what he/she feels you can cut out of each meal, without the attendee suffering.  You can also talk portion sizes with the Chef and request smaller portions of each item to reduce the cost.
  • Ala Carte:  For larger groups, consider purchasing each item on an ala carte basis.   When you purchase a menu on a per person basis, the price is generally based upon every person taking every item, which in reality is not the case.
  • Carving Stations:  When purchasing ‘carving station’ items, it is not necessary to purchase for every person.  We generally cut our attendee numbers in ½ or more to determine the number of items to purchase as each carving station.
  • Action Stations:  When purchasing ‘action station’ items, it also is not necessary to purchase for every person.  We generally cut our attendee numbers down by a 1/3 to determine quantity.
  • Bulk:  For larger groups – consider purchasing bulk vs. per person packages – compare pricing to see the best way to go for your group.
  • On Consumption:  Purchase on consumption when possible (Prepackaged items, canned beverages, coffee, alcohol, etc.)
  • Mixture of Above:  We often mix per person with consumption to get the biggest bang for our client’s buck.

It’s all about creativity and knowing your groups history.  As you move forward with future years for the same group, be sure to reference last year’s notes and final bill to make changes that will benefit your client’s bottom line.   You will be sure to exceed your client’s expectations each and every year by making improvements on the previous year’s decisions.

Happy Purchasing!

Meeting Planner Courtesy

crop380w_istock_000000698660xsmall-shake-handsAs Meeting Planners, social and electronic media is part of everyday life.  But, I would like to ask if we are using it too much, especially to address less than pleasant situations.

We’ve all been on the emailed or faxed end of a communication telling us that we lost a piece of business.  Often, those say little more than we weren’t a good fit for this type of business.  And, let’s be honest, we’ve all sent these communications to vendors.  Those times that I have been on the receiving end, I always call back to ask for specifics.  It’s not personal, and as a business person, I want to continually improve.

We all know that no one wins every bid.  We all know there are several people bidding for a piece of business.  So, as hard as it is, I always try to make a personal call to the person or company bidding on business from me.  They spent the time to answer my RFQ and they deserve my time to tell them why they didn’t win.  Sometimes it’s a matter of price; other times they simply need to improve in a specific area.  I try not to leave a phone message, but there have been times that reaching someone is next to impossible because of their (and my) travel schedules.  When this happens, I always say that I wanted to talk with them personally and would be happy to have them try to reach me if they have questions.  I have had several people tell me that even though they lost the business, it was nice to receive a personal call.

It’s a small effort; but, in my opinion, worth it for the future.  After all, it’s not personal … it’s business.

Event Planners vs. Meeting Planners

t621122222Are Event Planners the same as Meeting Planners?  There is often confusion about the difference between these terms, yet many people (including myself) use them interchangeably.  For most people the difference in terminology really doesn’t matter, but for those who care I’ll try to clarify.

Events are any kind of organized occasion.  It is a broad term that encompasses everything from a birthday party to the Super Bowl.  Meetings are a sub-set of Events, as are Trade Shows.  Therefore, meetings are events but events are not necessarily meetings.

To further muddy the waters, there is another category called Special Events.  Special Events covers a broad range of activities including weddings, corporate parties and social events, recognition events, special interest events (bridal shows, public trade shows, etc.), private social events and civic events.  Special events typically take place over a short time frame, from a few hours to a day.  Special Events rarely take place over multiple days.

To summarize, the term Event covers a broad range of activities, including Meetings, Trade Shows and Special Events.  Each of these is a sub-set of Events.

Now that I’ve cleared that up, maybe I’ll just keep describing myself as a Meeting and Event Planner.