For just a few minutes, Cindy Lemek, CAE, thought she was going to die. Or at least be seriously injured. As an association manager with Technical Enterprises, an association management firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Lemek was on an outing with the board of directors of an association for which she was the executive director. This association was a little more active than most, and at this particular destination, Auckland, a major city in New Zealand, they spent the day riding motor scooters around Waiheke Island. Lemek had never ridden a motor scooter before, and sharing the roadway with fast-moving automobiles did little to relieve her anxiety.
“None of my other clients make me risk my life to get the job done,” Lemek remembers shouting to one board member when it was all over.
Now that the event is a distant memory, Lemek says it is a good memory, as stressful as it was at the time. The experience helped her bond with the board and as a result become more effective at her job.
Not all meeting planners have to partake in life-threatening activities when coordinating an event, but stress is indeed a factor that everyone, no matter what their job, must cope with on a day-to-day basis.
“I know a lot of meeting planners who go back to their room and order room service to decompress, but I have to get out of the building. Even if it’s just to get a cup of coffee, but I have to get out of the hotel, out of the building for some fresh air.”
— Cindy Lemek, CAE
In the past couple of years, the job of event planner/meeting planner has made Forbes’ Top Ten list of most stressful jobs in the country, right after police officers, firefighters and airline pilots.
In the meeting planning business, that stress level is often multiplied by the sheer number of people attending the event. And if a planner doesn’t learn how to manage that stress, the quality of his or her life is indeed at risk. What’s more, research by the American Institute of Stress, among others, affirms that job-related stress is responsible for increased rates of heart attack, hypertension and other disorders.
Stress in the workplace is such a global topic of importance that the World Health Organization has devoted significant resources to its study for more than a generation. Among the many findings by the WHO, the most stressful type of work includes excessive demands and pressures while having little control over a situation. Other factors include lack of support from coworkers and supervisors, insufficient resources for completing the task and so on. Meeting planners know it all too well.
“By the simple nature of the work, meeting planners have a stressful job,” says Michael Anderson, founder of The Executive Joy Institute in Encinitas, California, which specializes in improving productivity and efficiency while reducing stress and creating a balanced life. “Being able to manage stress is one of the differentiators that make meeting planners successful.”
Let’s take a look at what seasoned and successful meeting professionals do to keep their stress under control and as a result, become more successful in their work and enjoy their personal lives more fully.
Britt Jackman, CMP, senior director of event services for SmithBucklin in Washington, DC, began her adult life as a middle school teacher. Managing a classroom of hormonal, energetic 6th, 7th and 8th graders was so stressful that she started looking for other career options and stumbled into event planning more than 20 years ago.
Over the years, she has coordinated everything from small, hands-on board meetings with a dozen or so people up to citywide events with more than 20,000 people where streets were closed and traffic rerouted for several days. Yet, she finds this type of work much less stressful than being a middle school teacher.
“We’re all cut out for different work,” says Jackman. “You should thrive where you work, and if not, you’re in for a stress-filled life.”
Stress occurs for many reasons — lack of sleep, overwhelming responsibilities, poor health and the list goes on. But planners may contribute to their own level of stress when they try to control something that is out of their control.
“If you think about it, the only thing in life we can control is ourselves,” says Anderson. “That doesn’t mean we can’t have influence over other things, but we influence them by our thoughts, feelings and actions — not by exerting control.”
Some of the suggestions Anderson offers, which have worked in his life as he has traveled around the world speaking and managing a variety of projects, focus on how we manage our day-to-day lives.
“First of all, don’t check your email on your phone while still in bed in the morning,” he says, noting that he charges his phone in another room overnight to avoid the temptation to grab the phone at all hours. “Let your body and mind wake up more naturally. Those emails and the related stress should wait at least 15 minutes.”
The same process should take place when you go to bed at night. Put the phone away and turn the TV off at least 15 minutes before you turn out your light. Do some deep-breathing exercises and let your body and mind unwind in order to get a good night’s sleep.
That quiet time, preferably managed several times each day, is vital to reducing stress, according to Anderson.
“Even for just a few minutes, go outside, walk around the block and breathe fresh air,” he says, emphasizing that your cellphone should stay inside on your desk at this time. Your body will respond and relax.
Mealtime is another opportunity to put work and cellphones aside and let stress dissipate for a few minutes. Too often we work at our desks while we eat, checking emails, reading news, typing out reports.
Instead, Anderson says we should strive to do nothing while we eat.
“Breathe deeply. Chew your food thoroughly. Experience the taste and energy of the food. Your body will digest food better, and as a result, you will be healthier and better able to cope with real stress.”
Of course, following those guidelines during a big meeting or event can be an entirely different situation. Nonetheless, successful meeting planners incorporate as many of these suggestions as they can into their daily routine.
Lemek has incorporated many of Anderson’s tips into her work schedule while on the road, which is about once or twice a month.
“For a lot of members, this is the only personal contact that they have with an association throughout the year, which increases the pressure you place on yourself to make sure everything goes well,” says Lemek, who always schedules a personal massage a day or two before she departs, just to make sure she is in top form.
Any specialist in stress management will remind you that regular physical exercise is an important tool. Lemek, an avid cyclist when not traveling, always works in time at the hotel gym, no matter how long the day ahead.
But not all exercise has to be a scheduled, strenuous workout to be beneficial. Anderson allows himself about 10 or 15 minutes in his hotel room for pushups, stretches and stomach crunches, but getting outside and walking is always a good idea.
“I know a lot of meeting planners who go back to their room and order room service to decompress, but I have to get out of the building,” says Lemek. “Even if it’s just to get a cup of coffee, but I have to get out of the hotel, out of the building for some fresh air.”
Although fresh air and exercise is always and universally valuable, the important thing is to know yourself and what works for you. Stress is an individualized experience and varies widely among different people placed in identical situations. Thus coping with stress, to an extent, also is very personalized.
Trudi Moore, a meetings and events manager for the more than 2,000 members of the Washington, DC-based American Beverage Association, allows herself three simple indulgences to cope with on-the-job stress:
Certainly, the fashion magazine fix would not work for a majority of people, but nonetheless, it emphasizes the point that managing stress is a highly personalized experience. Carrying a picture of your cat on your phone, a sachet of aromatherapy in your handbag or even ordering your favorite flowers for your room also are options that work for many individuals.
Buy yourself a new outfit or get a fresh haircut to feel good about yourself going into a big meeting. Save that new pair of shoes as a reward after the event because you certainly don’t want to be breaking in new shoes when you’re on your feet all day.
Britt Jackman, CMP, senior director at SmithBucklin in Washington, DC, has learned over the years to pack her own hair dryer, shampoo and other toiletries when she travels, rather than relying on hotel products. No need to start the day with bad hair, a stressor for many people.
Jackman also has learned to maintain her home routine as much as possible when on the road. That means not drinking too much coffee, eating healthfully and getting a good night’s sleep. These are things that help her remain calm and avoid what she calls “busy head,” that stress-induced experience of lying awake at night worrying about every tiny detail.
The company she works for, SmithBucklin, has been in the event planning business for nearly 70 years and has learned to dissect any event into a series of tasks and responsibilities at various levels. They teach new employees three steps for managing the stress of managing meetings and events.
The company has a general plan that is then adapted to each client, relying heavily on cloud-based technology and an eventual spreadsheet document that is the master plan for each event.
SmithBucklin also has developed an internal book outlining a variety of solutions and contingency plans that relate to whatever type of event and whatever kind of crisis might ensue. That big book received another chapter after the 2015 “snowmageddon” that dropped more than three feet of snow on Washington, DC, just as the company was hosting a high-caliber event that included a dozen Nobel laureates, among other notables on the guest list.
“We knew the snow was coming, so we had some time to think and prepare, and bring in reinforcements,” says Jackman.
The event was held in a couple of locations around the city, but driving would be out of the question. Walking to some locations would be possible, if the sidewalks were clear, so the company began early reaching out to every hotel or property owner along the route to ensure that they would clear walkways. They invested in snow blowers and set up coffee/hot chocolate stations along the path and had others standing by in case of a slippery accident.
They also worked with caterers and other suppliers in advance to guarantee that their delivery vehicles were equipped with snowplows, chains and the necessary tools to get through a major snow event. And to make a generous pitcher of lemonade out of Mother Nature’s snowy lemons, the SmithBucklin team organized a good-natured snowball fight among participants in the middle of Dupont Circle that ended up receiving local news coverage.
The event was successful and memorable, in large part to the team keeping calm, creating a plan and asking for help when needed. They could not control the snow, but they could influence the action of others and maintain control of their own sense of calm.
Face it. Something is likely to go wrong, despite a planner’s best efforts. Be prepared for problems by switching into a problem-solving mode, and remember to not worry about those things that can’t be controlled.
“Meeting planners are typically high performers who like to exceed expectations,” says Jackman. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, but that’s our nature.”
Overall, a planner’s job is to respond to the ever-changing demands of the event, to solve problems when they can and to recognize that they can’t solve all the problems.
“People really just want you to give it your best,” says Anderson. “After that, stop worrying about it.” AC&F