As the meeting planning profession has evolved over the last 50 years, ongoing education and professional certifications such as the venerable CMP credential have always been important.
Today, however, in a much-changed post-recession meeting industry, they are more important than ever — not just for career advancement, but also for career survival.
Timothy Arnold, CMP, CMM, regional vice president at The Colony, Texas-based HPN Global, an independent meeting planning organization that has many U.S. and international associations as clients, observes that education and certification are more important than ever to planners. “I’m personally not looking for a job, because I love the organization I work for and the association clients I have, but I have seen a lot of job postings lately for meeting planners,” he says. “And I’d say 90 percent of them say they require, or least prefer, at least a CMP certification. It used to just be nice to have your CMP. But now, because the meeting industry is so competitive, I think a CMP credential and ongoing education are requirements for an ongoing career. And one reason for that is that associations want someone they know has the experience and education to step into the job and start being effective right away, as opposed to on-the-job learning. And that’s especially true for major job titles in major associations.”
Nevertheless, Arnold says, education and certification remain topics that many meeting planners don’t spend much time thinking about or pursuing. “But there are also a lot of planners who do understand how important it is and pursue it,” he says.”
And in the future, he says, the career gap between those who do and don’t will continue to widen.
Greg Melia, CAE, chief member and volunteer relations officer at ASAE, cites two primary reasons why education and certification are so important in 2014.
“The first is the external environment,” Melia says. “Associations are looking more and more to planners to negotiate the very best deals for all of the different aspects that go into a meeting today. And that is more complicated than it used to be. It’s not just a question of dates and space. It’s also a question of whether that space will actually be effective for modern adult learning, or whether it’s accommodating for people with disabilities, or whether it’s attractive, aesthetically, in terms of what a cutting-edge meeting is all about these days.”
The second reason, he says, is that following in the wake of their corporate peers, association planners are now expected to be more strategic in their thinking, rather than just tactical. “No longer are meeting planners simply taking direction from others and being asked to book hotel rooms,” Melia says. “Meeting planners are the boots on the ground when it comes to making sure that attendees will have a truly exceptional experience and that the time they will spend at the meeting is well organized and delivers real value for attendees.”
“Meeting planners are the boots on the ground when it comes to making sure that attendees will have a truly exceptional experience and that the time they will spend at the meeting is well organized and delivers real value for attendees.” — Greg Melia
Deborah Sexton, president and CEO of PCMA, and a longtime leader and innovator in educational resources for meeting and convention planners, agrees that education is critical to career development today. “That’s because for meeting planners, things are changing very, very rapidly in our industry,” she says, adding that the recession of 2008–2010 permanently changed the meeting industry. The role of meeting planner, Sexton says, is much more demanding and challenging today than it has ever been in the past. By definition, then, planners must have broader skills and be more efficient than ever before. And that requires ongoing education for career survival. “The downturn in the economy might have played a specific role in speeding those things up,” Sexton says, “but even before the recession, you could see these changes coming.”
As a veteran and highly credentialed planner, Arnold concurs that the role has become considerably more complex and challenging since the recession and that the ongoing meeting industry downsizing and planner attrition represents a permanent change — typically noted with the now infamous “do more with less” mantra.
“But another aspect of it today is that associations realize that meeting planners have a large impact on the financial commitments being made by the association,” Arnold says. “For example, planners now have to understand and sign complicated contracts that involve large amounts of potential penalties for things like attrition or cancellation. Those kinds of issues are incredibly important now because of their financial implications if things don’t go as planned, and the association does not deliver on its commitments. The legal liabilities of planning a meeting today are more important than ever. And as a planner, you have to be educated as to how to handle those kinds of responsibilities. You can’t just assume you know everything you need to know.”
Not surprisingly, given the pace at which it continues to transform meetings for both planners and attendees, technology is the topic for which most planners need education, Sexton says, adding that it’s now difficult for planners to stay abreast of what’s required of them in order to be fully functional and efficient. “In that sense, technology has been both a blessing and a curse,” Sexton says. “And that’s an area where planners, who are already overworked and in many instances looking at downsized staffs, really need to stay up with what’s going on. And in a practical sense, that means learning to use constantly evolving technology to do more with less.”
And one clear example of technology that planners must learn about, Sexton says, is digital and hybrid events. “That’s a topic that is not going away, so meeting professionals are going to have to learn how to take advantage of these digital and hybrid technologies,” she says. If they do not, they and their organizations will be left behind as the future becomes now.
Sexton recommends, as one educational path, the Virtual Edge Institute, which offers certification as a digital event strategist. “They provide a very good basic education on how to deliver a digital event,” Sexton says.
And one key issue, she says, is to learn to use digital events during the year to drive attendance to an association’s major meetings, such as their annual convention.
Still another category of rapidly evolving technology that requires education, Sexton says, is the constantly growing list of meeting-specific apps available via mobile technology platforms to impact the attendee experience before, during and after the meeting. “I get at least one call a day now from planners asking me about the new best app of the day that’s out there,” she says. “And it’s very hard to stay abreast of what really is out there if you don’t take the time to make that a priority in how you do your job.”
PCMA has increasingly made a commitment at its major events to showcase the latest technologies and demonstrate to planners how to use them and what they can do for the process of planning and hosting events. “And what that’s all about, when you get down to it,” Sexton says, “is delivering a better experience for everyone involved when you do a meeting.”
Elizabeth Antonopoulos, CMP, CMM, events planner at the Connecticut Education Association in Hartford, Connecticut, agrees that technology is one of the most vital areas of planner education today.
Active in her local chapter of MPI, one of her favorite educational events last year was a social media seminar. “And anytime there is a seminar related to technology, I definitely go to that,” Antonopoulos says, because that’s a topic that is always evolving and is more and more complex.”
She’s also been learning lately about gamification, the hottest technology topic of the moment. “It’s interactive and it’s fun,” she says. But, she says, she could not find any educational content about gamification anywhere. “I had to do the homework and educate myself about it,” she says.
Yet another critical area of planner education revolves around the fact that the very notion of what constitutes a well-planned and executed meeting is changing as new breakthroughs in brain science and the discipline of adult learning have spawned a new focus on so-called meeting architecture, or the fundamental elements or practical requirements of a truly successful and impactful meeting that genuinely delivers a return on investment.
“A good example of that is PCMA’s recent education conference in Toronto,” Sexton says. “We had day one, which was more like your traditional opening general session and concurrent sessions. Then came a networking luncheon and then more meeting sessions and a reception. But the next day was an open space learning environment. We were in exactly the same meeting space, but it was cleared out of the old, traditional general session seating and you had open space, which meant you could go into any one of four quadrants and also into the center of the room and learn different kinds of things, in smaller environments, in shorter periods of time. That’s the real future of meetings and how you engage people.”
Antonopoulos agrees that the nature and sophistication of meetings are changing.
“People are no longer interested in sitting in a room and listening to talking heads give presentations,” she says. “Meetings now have to be much more interactive. And you have to incorporate smartphones and tablets into the meeting, since people have them and are going to be using them one way or the other. So you have to learn to incorporate things like real-time polling into your meeting during the sessions.”
At the same time, the fundamental concept of delivering education at a conference is changing. “The way people want education delivered is changing,” she says. “And it’s not just about millennials versus Generation X or baby boomers. In my opinion, it’s not about that at all. It’s about the perception of time deprivation and how people learn and what kind of educational approach individual people like. So there are a lot of different ways today in which people are experiencing education. And as a planner, you have to learn what those are and how to work with them to deliver the experience your attendees want and expect.”
While PCMA offers its much-respected annual education conference as its flagship event, ASAE’s flagship educational initiative is its 11-year-old Great Ideas Conference, held each March for about 700 attendees. “What planners find at Great Ideas is in-practice demonstration of cutting edge and experimental ways to present information,” Melia says. “For example, we’ve used formats like game shows, sessions where people walk around and share wisdom as they walk, and a creativity lounge that uses things like Play-Doh to talk about organizational change.”
Other ASAE planner-specific educational resources include its Business of Meetings certificate program. “It helps position the planner for the next step in their career when it comes to strategic planning,” Melia says.
ASAE also offers topic-specific online courses in meeting management that are open to both members and non-members, with members getting a discount on fees.
Research done by ASAE Foundation also is vital to the industry, Melia says. “We have been working in collaboration with the Cornell University School of Hospitality to conduct research on the future of meetings and expositions and to look at new models for better events,” he says. A new research report, Current and Emerging Trends of Trade Shows and Assessment of Stakeholder Preferences is now available at www.asaefoundation.org.
And both CMP and CMM credentials remain extremely important to planners who want a long career with steady advancement.
“I definitely think that planners who do not have certifications and ongoing education should pursue them,” Antonopoulos says, “because there are a lot of little details in our industry that if you understand them fully will significantly help you in your contract negotiations and allow you to save your organizations tens of thousands in dollars over the course of the year. And the CMP course teaches you to do that.”
And as your career develops, she says, the CMM credential becomes more important, because it helps you assume more of a leadership role in your organization. “And it’s also related more to people who are managing a large number of meetings rather than just planning a relative few,” Antonopoulos says. “It also helps you be a better manager of people, and that’s important because there are always a lot of moving parts and a lot of people involved in planning a major meeting. And all of those people have to report to someone, and that’s another way that a CMM certification is important to have.”
She attends a few educational events a year including MPI educational events at her local chapter. “I tend to go to the serious educational events,” she says, “such as hearing a guest speaker or hearing a panel discussion, rather than the networking events.”
Arnold is active in PCMA. He has been at both its major meetings so far this year, including its annual education conference. “I have found that industry-wide, PCMA has the best educational resources of anybody out there,” he says.
He also seeks out the smartest veteran meeting planners he can find, and when he goes to their city, he asks them to meet for breakfast or lunch — or even cup of coffee. “And being able to sit there and talk with these titans of the industry, I think, is the best education you can get,” Arnold says, “ because they’ve been doing the job extremely well for 25 or 30 years, or even more. And all it costs you is breakfast or lunch.”
He also is an avid reader, and he notes that reading is almost a lost art in today’s hyper-busy world. “I read business books, management books, leadership books, customer service books,” he says. “I’m always reading some kind of book so I can learn something and expand my skills. My goal is to learn continually. And one of the ways I do that is to read a lot of books, because I spend so much time on planes.”
Ongoing education is particularly important to him, Arnold says, because he is young.
“I’m 34 years old and that’s fairly young for this industry,” he says. “But I grew up in the industry. And it’s often difficult to gain credibility if you don’t have the education and certifications. I’ve found that being a CMP and CMM gives me a lot of credibility. I’m no longer just seen as a young guy that’s coming up. I’m seen as a peer. Of course, certification does not automatically make you a better meeting planner. But it definitely shows that you’re making a lifelong commitment to becoming a better meeting planner by seeking constant learning.”
Education has always been important to him, Arnold says. “And it’s always going to be important to me. I’m always going to do everything I can to get better at my job.”
Likewise, Antonopoulos says, the credibility that comes with certification and education is more important than ever before to a planner’s career path.
“When I started here six years ago, my role was that of a traditional events coordinator, someone whose role was to make reservations and hold meeting space,” she says. “Back then, everything else kind of fell to other departments. But over the last few years, that has changed significantly. Now people come to me and ask me what I think they should do or what would work best. And part of that is that if you have a CMP and a CMM, people know that you’re someone who definitely knows what they’re talking about.” AC&F