Last season, when competitors on The Apprentice were asked to organize a golf tournament, it brought attention to the planning industry and the intricacies involved in staging a successful event. In a subsequent interview with Trade Show Executive, Ivanka Trump—a judge for that episode—said she chose event organizing for the season finale because “it shows what people are made of.”
She continued: “Watching an event manager in action enables you to observe all facets of a person—not only from a managerial and organizational perspective, but also their creative and networking side.”
That may not come as news to meeting planners, but it may have driven home to viewers the importance of choosing the right planner—or the right company—to handle meetings, conventions and special events. “There are still a lot of people who don’t know what meeting planners do,” says Ree Taylor, CMP, manager of customer relations at Thales Raytheon Systems in Fullerton, Calif. “People sometimes think I plan weddings.”
Choosing the right planner doesn’t have to be conducted like an episode of The Apprentice, but it is important to understand the pros and cons of the different types of planners in the industry. And while some may think the competition between in-house planners, independent planners and third-party companies is akin to American Idol, the more common model is one of cooperation.
For some companies, having an in-house planner makes perfect sense. For others, it doesn’t. Still others may bolster the talents of in-house planners with outside expertise for an over-the-top annual convention or product launch. The pros and cons of each type of business should be examined both by novice planners wondering where to start their careers and companies trying to maximize the value of their meetings dollars in tough economic times.
“Any time there’s a possible recession, meetings may be the first to go,” says Kelly Webb, regional manager for HelmsBriscoe in Park City, Utah. “There are effects short-term…but there will always be meetings,” she says. That makes it even more imperative to choose the right approach.
Planners from each of these segments of the industry shared their views with Smart Meetings as food for thought as we move into an uncertain economy.
In-house planners typically have well-defined job descriptions and an intimate knowledge of the employer’s business and culture. They can assume—or divest—duties as needed. They typically understand the needs and priorities of employees, customers and company goals and are willing to work toward those goals.
“An employee has a vested interest in the company with some sense of ownership and a vendor may not,” Taylor says.
For a company like QLogic, based in Aliso Viejo, Calif., which participates in about 100 meetings, events and trade shows each year, another benefit is the ability to switch an in-house person between projects as needed, according to Denise Moyer, global events manager. Moyer says it’s also useful to bring in outside resources as needed. “That works well if there are peaks and valleys in your business,” she says.
Though charged with high-level responsibilities, in-house planners still struggle to be considered a part of the management team that sets strategic goals. Yet they’re expected to meet those goals during internal meetings. “Many in-house planners are still fighting to get a seat at the table in high-level meetings,” says Gary Schirmacher, CMP, senior vice president, Western region at the Denver office of third-party planning company Experient.
Taylor is one planner who succeeded in addressing that challenge. When she was hired, she quietly implemented planning skills and tools that produced smooth-flowing meetings. When management noticed the difference, she presented a plan that illustrated how she could make the meetings even better if she was involved in those strategic sessions. Now she sits in on those meetings.
Regardless of the need, some companies are wary of hiring in-house because of the cost. “In-house planners cost a company anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000 per year in operating costs, space, benefits and salary,” says Sherry Parks, CEO of Corporate Planners Unlimited in Dana Point, Calif. Because the company is focused on the bottom line, those planners may end up overworked and unable to handle everything thrown their way. “People forget to account for the time required (to plan complex events),” she says.
Another downside for companies with small planning departments is the risk of someone quitting at a critical time. Will someone else end up having to finish projects already under way? Can the company do that effectively? More importantly, will the person who has to pick up the ball be forced to neglect other duties? Can you find a replacement in a timely manner? Schirmacher says those are legitimate questions to ask. “Any time you lose someone, you lose money,” he says.
According to the 2007 Future Watch survey by Meeting Professionals International, about 15 percent of events in 2007 were outsourced to either independent planners or planning companies. Collectively known as third-party planners, they typically know how to execute a meeting, regardless of the business the client is in. And they can do it without other distractions that might affect an in-house planner.
About three-quarters of these third-party planners charge flat fees, with the remainder working on a commission basis.
Some people think independent planners don’t know their stuff. In reality, they may be more experienced. According to a Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration survey, 27 percent of independent planners hold accreditation, compared to just 12 percent of corporate planners. About half of independents belong to a professional organization, compared to just 25 percent of the corporate group.
What independents bring to the table is broad knowledge of how to work with clients in any industry. They also must demonstrate enough business savvy to convince clients their services are worthwhile. The good ones are comfortable handling any facet of the meeting. They’re just as comfortable doing site selection or F&B pricing as they are working with procurement or arranging keynote speakers. Some specialize in creating customized programs for small groups instead of cookie-cutter solutions more suited to big convention groups that stage the same kind of program each year.
“Corporate (clients) don’t want to be part of the masses,” says Kathryn Jurgensen, president of Premier Meetings in Irvine, Calif. “They want customized programs.” That takes extra time and attention to details the client might forget. For instance, even when a client has chosen a hotel, Jurgensen will do a site inspection to make sure the hotel still meets the client’s standards and hasn’t changed its rates or food and beverage minimums.
Other independents bring unique services to the table. Pierre Charmasson, director of meetings and events for Professional Event Solutions in San Diego, is a former TV journalist who sometimes prepares or delivers speeches for his clients. That’s helped him land a few clients. “One client calls me the free voice of God,” he jokes.
Independents also may have an edge during an economic downturn if companies move to eliminate in-house planners to save money. The trick is keeping those clients when things turn around again. Parks tells clients that—with a reasonable lead time—they can pay for her fees and staff and still hold a meeting for less than it would cost to do in-house. “That’s our goal,” she says.
What independents often don’t have, however, is the leverage of buying power that sometimes generates better room rates or amenities.
LARGE THIRD-PARTY PLANNERS
The 800-pound gorillas of the third-planning world, companies like Experient Inc. and HelmsBriscoe offer expanded services that may include site selection, registration, attendee and/or meetings management, event logistics and exhibition services, some of which small independents don’t handle.
Selling points for this type of planner include:
- Saving time and money for organizations
- Nationwide or worldwide networks
- Ability to leverage buying power to secure better hotel rates
- Assurance of continuity even if someone leaves the company
- Better technology to help with housing and registration
- Team collaboration to resolve client issues
- Preferred partners for such things as DMC services, transportation or golf
- Broader experience resulting in a higher level of customer service
- Thinking outside the box
Michael Uhl, regional vice president for HelmsBriscoe in Las Vegas, says the affiliation with a network enables him to find someone who knows just about any business hotel in any convention city. That can save the need for a site visit, he says.
As a site selection and contract negotiation company, HelmsBriscoe frequently works with in-house planners to save them time and money. “We estimate calling every hotel and CVB and submitting RFPs would take up 20 percent to 30 percent of a planner’s time,” he says. “That’s what we save.”
Companies like HelmsBriscoe are unique because they’re an intermediary between the client and the hotels looking for short-term business. “That’s one of the main reasons we succeed,” he says. “We bring new business to the hotels…and we save time (for the customer) to allow them to focus on other things.”
Webb, the HelmsBriscoe manager in Utah, touts the company’s buying power. “We have 9,000 clients and we’re every (hotel) chain’s largest client,” she says. For 2007, the company booked 3.3 million room nights worth $267 million in room revenue for 21,000 meetings programs. “We can use that leverage on room rates and soft-dollar issues,” Webb says.
Experient sells its housing and registration expertise, which can help clients increase efficiency without having to spend money on their own systems. The sheer volume of registration handled annually by Experient enables it to tweak the process and improve customer service on that front.
Experient’s Schirmacher says third-party planners can be especially useful to associations that count on an annual meeting to generate revenue. “We can open doors to (ways) to do things differently,” he says. If an awards banquet is no longer generating enough attendance, the company can help the association determine what might work instead, whereas the association might not think of trying something new. “Sometimes they just don’t have time to do that,” he says.
CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?
Though meeting planners can be very competitive, they’re also agreeable when it comes to working together. In many cases, some combination of in-house and third-party planner is the ideal solution for a given program.
Thales Raytheon’s Taylor hired a DMC to stage a party in Santa Monica for international visitors. The gala included celebrity look-alikes, a tour of Sony Studios and team building on the Santa Monica Pier. “That’s beyond my expertise and resources of time and staffing,” she says. “My focus is on the serious side of meetings.”
Outsourcing a party is one thing. Outsourcing all or part of a core meeting is another. A company can’t simply hand off the dates and number of attendees and leave the rest to the outside planner. That company needs to make sure the outsource partner knows the goals and objectives of the meeting, the culture of the company, who the decision-makers are, how they like to conduct business and how the company and outsource partner will share information about the event. “We work best when we have someone in the organization who can give us direction,” Schirmacher says. “We’d make a ton more mistakes without them.”
In the end, it all boils down to clients who know what they want to achieve working with professionals who know how to achieve the goal. The client doesn’t care about the details, as long as the program comes in on time and on budget and runs smoothly.
Charmasson sums it up like this: “You spend half your time educating the client and proving return on investment to the company. If you do that, they’re apt to come back.”
Sandi Cain, a regular contributor to Smart Meetings, is a freelance journalist who has covered the meetings, hospitality and tourism industries for more than a decade.
TALES FROM THE REAL (FIRST) LIFE
Lauran Bohannon, CMP, and principal of Bohannon & Associates in Gardnerville, Nev., is a past president of the Sacramento/Sierra Nevada Chapter of MPI. She shares a personal tale (below) of what it took to convince an association that it could benefit from professional expertise.
“I was once asked by an association executive director to come in and bid on handling their spring and fall meetings. The association was debating whether to hire a full-time assistant, who would handle the meetings, or an independent professional planner. The director thought it would be ideal to be able to outsource to save money on salary and benefits for an assistant.
“After meeting with them for nearly a full day and taking careful review of the association’s needs, I submitted a reasonable bid. I even paid an industry comrade to work on the bid with me to evaluate the best, fair price. My price was equal to that of an assistant’s salary and the executive director ended up choosing to hire a full-time assistant. What he did not get was an experienced meeting professional.
“About one year later, that executive director was fired primarily because he could not achieve the association’s financial goals. A huge portion of the annual budget was based on big profits from those semi-annual meetings. I felt badly for being unable to convince him that he needed a professional planner to help turn his meetings back into profit centers for the association.”
Bohannon says the point isn’t to bad-mouth in-house assistants. “I believe having someone in-house to manage meetings is good. It is a huge benefit to an organization to use a professional planner as a consultant, guide or assistant at your meetings,“ she says.
“What I always stress to our clients is that it is my job, as a professional planner, to make them look good, not to take their job!”
THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE CREATING AN IN-HOUSE DEPARTMENT
- What added value would an in-house meetings department bring to the company?
- What things would the department and manager oversee?
- What procedures would need to be in place?
- What training might be required?
- What is the goal of having such a department?
- Will it save costs?
- Will the meetings manager be an exempt employee with decision-making power?
- Will the meetings manager be invited to executive meetings where decisions about meetings are made?
- Will it improve the productivity of administrative staff if they currently are handling some of those meetings duties?
Denise Moyer, in-house global events manager at QLogic in Aliso Viejo, Calif., previously was an independent planner who’s glad to be in the corporate world. Moyer says the ability to work with a variety of clients and choose your own projects you want to work with were pluses to being independent, but they don’t outweigh the negatives. “I don’t miss the cash flow issues and the fact that you can’t ever really leave (for a vacation).”
Independent planner Kathryn Jurgensen, president of Premier Meetings in Irvine, Calif., started out on her own, but with a strong mentor. She says she wouldn’t recommend that newcomers today simply set up shop. “You need to build industry contacts and relationships first,” she says.
Kelly Webb, regional manager for HelmsBriscoe in Park City, Utah, teaches meeting planning at the Salt Lake Community College. She recommends that entry-level planners get involved with Meeting Professionals International (which also has some student chapters) and take classes at their local colleges. “I tell students that an independent planner is a senior management career choice,” she says. “If you try to start out without the right tools, you’re going to struggle.”