Meeting Planning Companies: Experience Counts

 Why 1Meeting planning companies come in many shapes and sizes; from mega-size companies to one-person shops.  The huge companies can provide everything from meeting planning to rebate programs while the small shops offer great pricing but can often only offer the basics of travel and logistical planning.  If you need help with your meeting, how do you know which one to pick?  There seems to be a planning company for every need and each one says they are the best at what they offer.

How can you be sure they can deliver on their promises?

For my money, I’m going with the company that has the most experienced staff.  Anyone can purchase commodities like rooms, food and AV; but can they get the best value for your money?  An experienced senior planner can.  They know the going rates, what hotels are willing to give away and how to negotiate an advantageous contract.

Experienced planners also have a better understanding of communication strategies, adult learning, risk mitigation and the latest trends in hospitality.  Using their extensive industry relationships, they know what suppliers are hungry and will offer deals and who will not.  They know the newest properties and hottest destinations.

But the value of experience doesn’t end there.  The greatest value of experience is during on-site operations.  Meetings are complex events with many moving parts; from transportation to workshops to F&B.  When everything happens according to plan, anyone can operate a meeting.  But that’s not real life.  Most meeting plans require fine-tuning and adjustments as the plan encounters unexpected changes and attendee dynamics.  Sometimes the challenges are simple and easy to handle.  Other times, they can be very complex and difficult to manage; like severe weather, infrastructure failure or wide-spread illness. That’s when you need a planner with the training, experience and resources to address the issue and make sure your attendees are safe and secure.

When you are looking to hold an effective meeting that provides the greatest value to your attendees and your company, look for meeting planning companies with the most experienced staff.  They will save you time and money while insuring that regardless of what happens, your attendees will have the best experience possible.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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Meeting Planners … The Best Advice I Ever Received

AA043999As a Meeting Planner, I’m not a nutrition expert, a fitness expert, a psychologist, or even a trainer.  What I am is a road warrior.  What all of us who have been in this business more than, ahem, a few years know is that in order to take care of your client, you need to take care of yourself.

When I first started out in this business, I was strictly on the production side.  We had a new gentleman on the crew on one particular show who stood out for his work ethic, knowledge, and kindness.  One morning, after a night of heavy food and drink with the crew, as I walked a little bleary-eyed to the ballroom, I noticed him sitting alone in the hotel restaurant.  He was reading his newspaper and devouring a huge breakfast.  I stopped by to comment that he hadn’t joined the rest of us the evening before.  He gave me the most sage piece of advice I’ve ever received, and it was so simple.  He said (and I’m paraphrasing a bit), “I’m paid well for the work I do and the client deserves the best that I can give.  I take the time in the morning to get up a little earlier than the rest of you to collect my thoughts, catch up on world news, and leisurely enjoy a good breakfast … it might be the only decent meal I get today.”

 I took that advice to heart, since I really didn’t enjoy partying into the night anyway.  And, I found out that no one respected me any less getting a good night’s sleep.  In fact, I also earned a reputation over the years as the person who could be counted on no matter what task was given to me.  So, to all of you Meeting Planners who are new and just starting out in this business, or those of you who need a short reminder … may I offer a few very simple tips:

  • Nothing beats a good night’s sleep, we need to be alert to deal with all the details and changes we face each day
  • Heavy meals after 9pm do not lead to a restful evening
  • One or two glasses of wine after a long day is relaxing, more is impairment the next morning
  • Eat a good breakfast with protein, it will help you get through the long day
  • Tastings are needed and fun, but remember the word taste … you’re not required to eat everything
  • Delegate to responsible team members, you do not have to do everything yourself

And most important of all … Your client deserves the best you have to give them!

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Step out of the Trade Show Stall

Tips and Tricks for Business Planning Outside the BoxPlanning an internal trade show? Leave those pipe and drape booths and straight rows behind.

Think outside the box –

  • Use stretch fabric on frames or trusswork, it can be pulled into interesting shapes that add depth and interest, especially if lit with interesting light patterns or a soft glow in your company colors
  • Try setting up pedestals or kiosks with small surfaces – you’ll invite people to approach from all sides and take up less space while adding far more interest than a 6-foot table and tabletop display piece
  • Set up a game where employees can compete to earn points with their knowledge of your company and products – throw in a few nonsensical facts for fun
  • Try Speed-Knowledge – if your company is multi-functional, chances are there are departments that know very little about the work other departments do. Set up a series of tables with a representative or two from a specific department. Employees in small groups (up to 5) have a chance to talk to and gain knowledge … ring a bell every 3-5 minutes and progress to the next knowledge center

Small adjustments add large gains if you’re willing to try something new and step outside that stall.

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Create Effective Surveys

Creating Effective Survey's
In the continuing effort of businesses to increase their bottom line, I’ve noticed a sharp increase of surveys hitting my email box in the past several months. It has been interesting to see the tone and direction these surveys have taken.

It’s very obvious that some have much thought and work put into them by professionals. Others appear to have been put together with very little thought or focus to the reason or need for a survey. The result of someone saying, “Let’s do a survey,” but without anyone asking, “What do we want to learn from the survey?”

A survey is very objective, so you must be clear about exactly what you are trying to learn. For instance, asking “Did you like the steak at the awards banquet?” will garner a yes or no answer. If the answer is “no,” you have no further information to find out why. A better question would be, “Was the steak, a) undercooked, b) overcooked, c) prepared perfectly d) tender, e) tough” and allow people to choose as many answers as they like.

Similarly, asking “Did you find the workshops helpful,” with a yes/no answer doesn’t give you the information you need. The follow-up question of “Why?” must be asked so you can plan differently in the future.

Don’t soften your survey questions. Ask “Did you receive the information you needed?” rather than “Did you receive adequate information?” Someone may have received adequate information, but it wasn’t what they needed and/or wanted.

Whenever possible, give people the added opportunity for open-ended responses. Many times I have answered a survey question with yes or no, but wanted to add my own comments to clarify my response.

Creating surveys isn’t rocket science; but it does take some thought.

If you are taking a survey for your client or your own company, be sure to have a clear and concise reason for asking each question. Make sure the questions will give important feedback (both good and bad) and allow you to take actionable steps. You can only improve if you give people the options to tell you where improvement is needed.

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