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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Meeting Planning Companies


Equinox LogoMeeting planning companies offer distinct advantages over independent planners or internal planners, yet many corporations are wary of third-party planning companies. While a few of their concerns may be legitimate based on previous experience with national brands, there are numerous small companies that provide a broader range of services than are available from an individual planner.

Unfortunately, there is a common misconception that full-service companies are more expensive than independents or internal planners. While in some cases it’s true, it really depends on the company’s structure and business model. Some models require a large staff of specialized individuals and the infrastructure to support them. Staff salaries and infrastructure are expensive and their pricing reflects it. Other companies provide experienced project leadership and engage specialists based on workload and the specific needs of their projects. Their business model allows them to provide a great deal of expertise at a very competitive rate.

So, how does that model differ from how an independent or internal planner works?

While it’s true that most independents have a group of individuals that they collaborate with regularly, availability can be an issue, especially during the busy season. In addition, those collaborators may be spread out across the country and are usually working on multiple projects at any given time; challenging their ability to communicate effectively.

Meeting planning companies are a group of individuals who work together on many projects each year. They have standard processes, a common vocabulary and an understanding of how each member works. Communication is often as easy as walking to the next office or cubical. If project demands require someone to be out of the office, there is still a communication “shorthand” that comes from working together on a daily basis.

Finally, the planners at third-party companies share a common vision, purpose and goals. There is no competition for billable hours or personal recognition; each employee puts the success of the project, and by extension the company, before their individual needs. Their goal is company success and profitability to pay their salary and advance their careers.

There are many talented individuals in the industry; including internal planners, independent planners and planners who work at meeting planning companies. Determining which kind is best for your needs has to be determined by the number and type of events you hold. If you have needs that require a broad range of services and expertise, I encourage you to consider a meeting planning company. You’ll be surprised at how affordable they really are.

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Professional Meeting Planner Certifications

cmp-logoProfessional Meeting Planners have a variety of industry certifications available, depending on their area of experience and expertise.  CMP, CMM, CTSM, CSEP and CGMP are the most common, although there are others, depending on each association’s unique niche.  Given the recent controversy over changes to both the CMP and CMM programs, a quick review of event planning certifications may be helpful.

What Are They?

Most certification programs are created to designate those professionals who have achieved a high level of competency and experience in an industry.  The sponsoring organization creates criteria for application and knowledge standards required for gaining the designation.  Typically, the criteria include professional experience, years of service and continuing education credits.  After a period of study, applicants’ knowledge is measured, usually through a rigorous test.  Once awarded, many certifications require continuing education to maintain the designation over an extended period of time.

Why Do they Matter?

Professional Meeting Planners that have gained industry certification are typically the most experienced and knowledgeable individuals in the industry.  The certification proves that they possess a high level of expertise and stay current on industry changes and best practices.  As a result, when companies hire a CMP or CSEP, they are selecting a trained professional who will provide the highest level of service and the greatest return on investment.

What Are the Most Common Designations?

Certified Meeting Professional

The CMP program is administered by the Convention Industry Council, a collaboration of 33 meeting, convention, and exhibition industry associations.  To earn the CMP designation, the meeting professional must have a minimum of five years professional experience (recently changed from ten years), demonstrate their knowledge in the field and pass a rigorous exam. Those who hold the CMP designation are considered the leading experts in the meetings, conventions and exhibitions industry.

Through the CMP program, individuals who are employed in meeting management pursue continuing education, increase their industry involvement, and gain industry-wide recognition.

CMM – Certificate in Meeting Management

Jointly administered by MPI (Meeting Professionals International) and GBTA (Global Business Travel Association) the updated CMM Designation Program delivers one global standard of excellence for business management and leadership skills in the events industry.

The CMM program is an intensive curriculum that offers insight and guidance from university professors associated with renowned business schools. The program covers critical skills for meeting managers, including risk mitigation, business analytics and compliance and strategic negotiation.  The CMM study program concludes with a final project in which applicants address a real-life challenge they face in their current professional role.  Applicants must have five years of professional experience (recently changed from ten years) and prove significant financial oversight.

CTSM – Certified Trade Show Marketer

CTSM (Certified Trade Show Marketer) is the only university-affiliated professional certification program in the exhibit marketing industry.  First and foremost the CTSM program trains candidates in trade show and event marketing.  Candidates are required to complete a curriculum of 28 sessions which equals 42 hours of classroom study.

All candidates must be currently working in the field of trade show or event marketing. They demonstrate their application of knowledge gained through the program by means of a Candidate Portfolio.  Candidates also complete a three-hour comprehensive exam which tests them on the basic knowledge skills required of trade show marketers.

CSEP – Certified Special Events Professional

The Certified Special Events Professional (CSEP)® designation recognizes event professionals who have successfully demonstrated the knowledge, skills and ability essential to plan and execute all components of a special event.

The International Special Events Society (ISES) endorses and administers the CSEP program for those who meet established standards.  To qualify, candidates for the CSEP exam must have a minimum of three (3) years of full-time professional employment in the special events industry.  The CSEP is a four and one-half (4.5) hour computer-based examination.  The exam consists of two (2) parts: a 100 multiple-choice question portion and a written portion, both based on the CSEP Content Outline.

CGMP – Certified Government Meeting Professional

The Certified Government Meeting Professional designation (CGMP) is designed for planners and suppliers whose work is governed by the rules and regulations of the federal government.  Individuals who have earned their CGMP have obtained the highest designation available that is specifically for government meeting professionals.

The CGMP course teaches recognized industry practices cited in the Convention Industry Council (CIC) Manual.  In addition, the course materials include government-specific instruction, including ethics, Federal budget and appropriations, acquisition and contracting, Federal travel regulations, RFPs, risk management and protocol.

If you are looking for a Professional Meeting Planner to help you with your next event, consider a certified planner.  The letters ensure that they have the knowledge and experience you need to maximize the return on your investment.

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Stop The Insanity!

Speaker“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”– Albert Einstein

It’s a badly overused quote, but it’s very appropriate to the meetings industry today.  Why?  Because the majority of planners are using the same format we used when I entered the industry over 26 years ago.

You know the format …

  • Day One – Welcome reception
  • Day Two – General session (opening video and two hours of speakers), workshops and an evening theme party
  • Day Three – Workshops, afternoon golf and an awards event
  • Four – Closing session (with a keynote speaker and “Happy Faces” module)

Of course, we’ve “innovated” over the years.  We’ve swapped the theme party and awards nights, replaced golf with CSR projects, shortened presentations (but added more speakers), used live talent instead of an opening video, gone for walks; the list goes on and on.  We’ve also tried using technology to hold teleconferences, virtual meetings, webcasts, hybrid meetings and even virtual trade shows, but quickly learned that none of them are as effective as face-to-face meetings.  So we end up defaulting to the same old format.

Why do we do it?  For several reasons:

  • It’s easy, familiar and predictable
  • There’s very little risk
  • Most decisions can be made by mid-level managers
  • They can be planned by internal staff regardless of experience level
  • Budgeting can be based on the previous year

The problem with this time-tested format is that it’s no longer effective.  The internet and advances in technology have changed the business world and, more importantly, have changed our audiences.  Today’s audiences communicate, interact and learn differently.  They grew up with technology and instant access to information and data.  Their personal interactions and communication skills are based on social media.  They think in bullet points and don’t have the attention span for a 20 minute presentation.  They learn interactively and at their own personal pace.  In short, they learn what they want, when they want and quickly lose interest if the information isn’t relevant to them.

As an industry and as individual planners, we need to change our default meeting model and design meetings that connect with today’s audience.

  • Meetings have to become more interactive and attendee-focused
  • We must find ways to identify what the audience wants to know and deliver it in short bursts of information
  • Content needs to be available on-line, allowing attendees to learn at their own pace
  • Meetings must be more interactive, allowing attendees to participate in the discussion and to learn from each other
  • We have to be willing to answer the tough questions and be accountable for our policies, products and actions

Most importantly, we need to be authentic.  Today’s audiences have no patience for incomplete information, spin, hyperbole, or corporate double-talk.  They want the whole truth, both the good and the bad, so they can make decisions based on the whole picture.  In short, we need to approach each meeting as a custom, attendee-centric event that focuses on the needs of the audience rather than planning expediency.

The greatest challenge for planners is to convince the C-Suite that the old model isn’t effective and your meeting has to change.  Today’s C-Suite leaders are extremely risk adverse and budget conscious so any type of change will be questioned.  To get approval, planners will have to establish their strategic credentials and make a business case for the change of format.  Those that are successful will be rewarded with the opportunity to engage their creative and strategic brain to design a truly effective meeting.

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Maximize Your Meeting Budget: A Checklist

checklistWhen it’s time to plan your company’s annual sales meeting or other educational meeting, large or small, it’s important to get the most bang for your buck.  Yet, many managers are cautious about their meeting and event budgets since the meeting scandals over the past couple of years hit the national news.  And rightly so. Every penny spent on your meeting or event should be used to accomplish a specific, measurable goal.

Does that surprise you?  It shouldn’t.  The focus on meeting and event ROI is the difference between hiring a logistical planner and working with a strategic meeting designer.  Both should be capable of handling the logistical details, but only a strategic meeting designer offers the business acumen and insight to help your company achieve its strategic vision and goals within a specific budget.


Ask yourself:

1. Are all the stakeholders in agreement about the strategic goals of the meeting?

You can’t quantify your goals if you can’t agree on them.  Make sure that key leaders within your company share the same vision for the meeting and you have consensus on your goals.

2. Have you written the goals down?

Heads nod around the conference table and everyone is in agreement on the goals for the meeting.  Later, when the conference plan is circulated, everyone is at loggerheads again.  Why?  Because no one wrote down the goals the leadership team agreed upon.  Write them down and distribute to all committee members!

3. Are your goals manageable?

Too many goals are unmanageable.  Ideally, have no more than three or four goals for your meeting.  More than that and you are probably trying to accomplish too much or your vision for the meeting isn’t focused enough.  You may need to go back to the drawing board to winnow down the goals.

4. Do the goals support the company’s overall strategy?

Your conference or event goals should support the company’s overall business strategy.  If they don’t, there is misalignment between your meeting and your business; a major problem that must be corrected before you proceed.

5. Have you developed key messages to relate throughout the meeting?

Once the goals are in place, developing key messages to achieve each goal should be easy.  If not, review your goals to ensure they are clear and specific.

How Are These Questions Related to Budgets?

At first glance, you may question how these five tasks relate to a conference, meeting or event budget.  After all, what does agreeing upon the vision and goals a meeting have to do with saving money on lodging, food and beverages?

  • If you agree on the vision, goals and key messages, you can design an effective format and agenda focused specifically on achieving your goals
  • The meeting format determines your choices of venue, entertainment, and activities
  • A focused agenda eliminates activities and expenditures that don’t further your goals
  • Focus and purpose leads to clear choices about who needs to attend and who doesn’t; reducing expenditures on unnecessary attendees
  • Finally, clear goals can be measured.  After the meeting, you can measure the investment you made on the meeting and the return on your investment

Equinox Creative can help you plan strategic meetings, conferences and events with an eye on the ROI.  Call us at 952-893-1293 to discuss your strategic meeting planning needs.

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Why Hire a Professional Event Planner?

Meeting PlanningSomewhere in corporate America today, an administrative assistant’s workload just got heavier thanks to someone’s bright idea. “I know, let’s save money this year and have an Admin plan our corporate meeting!”

Your admin is probably quite capable of booking meeting space, securing equipment and purchasing food and beverages. However, planning an effective meeting is more than a shopping trip to a local hotel. Booking the meeting room and handling meeting logistics is just one small step among many steps that create meetings with lasting impact.

Professional event planners understand there’s more to planning than making sure there’s enough coffee and cookies for the 3 p.m. snack break. Their goal is to ensure that your meeting aligns with your company’s strategic objectives. Every activity at the meeting or event, no matter how big or how small, should help your company achieve its business goals and provide a return on your investment (ROI).

Professional Event Planners Align Meetings with Strategic Objectives

Meeting professionals are, first and foremost, strategic business managers. A good planner understands budgets, sales and marketing goals, and business objectives. They work alongside your senior staff to set realistic goals, outline the vision, and determine the best activities and events to help your company achieve its goal. The result is a powerful experience for participants. Strategic meetings and events reset the existing paradigm and inspire positive change that aligns with your goals.

Tap Into Their Network

People who have been active in their profession for many years tend to develop extensive networks of contacts. Meeting and event planners often have long-standing relationships with vendors, consultants and freelancers who can add value without straining your budget. Professionals know how to maximize purchasing power. By working with a professional meeting and event planner, you can tap into their network and enhance your meetings through their existing relationships. It saves time and money.

Professionals can also custom-design solutions. This is especially useful when you have an unusual or unique request. It may be difficult for someone outside of the industry to know where to go to fulfill such a request, but professional meeting planners can usually create solutions with ease. It’s the ease that comes with experience.

The Right Person for the Job

You wouldn’t hire a plumber to fix an electrical outlet or a mechanic to perform surgery, so why ask your administrative assistant to plan the company’s annual sales meeting, or the company-hosted industry conference? The administrative assistant’s skill set is vastly different from a meeting and event planner. Instead of squashing a square peg into a round hole, why not put the right people in the right jobs?

A professional meeting and event planner can help you achieve your meeting objectives smoothly and efficiently. You’ll save time and money while creating a more effective event. Instead of adding yet one more task onto your admin’s plate this year, give Equinox Creative a call@ 952-893-1293.


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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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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.

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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.

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