The meeting industry is not known for controversy. With the exception of the “AIG effect” explosion during the financial crisis or the occasional outcries from Congress that a government agency such as the General Services Administration has fleeced taxpayers with an overly extravagant conference, the industry has a remarkably placid history.
But earlier this year, a major eruption occurred when Meeting Professionals International (MPI), as part of a new alliance with the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), announced changes to the coveted Certificate in Meeting Management (CMM) credential originally created in 1998. There are currently 938 holders of the designation, with 47 of them named in 2013.
The initial changes announced in December 2013:
There was further controversy concerning a decision to award a CMM credential to about 90 former holders of the GBTA-created strategic meetings management certification (SMMC), which was intended to foster consolidation of corporate business travel and meetings management, but was discontinued in 2011 only two years after it launched.
The reason for the changes to the CMM program, according to MPI, was to broaden its reach. But existing CMMs — and particularly some well-known industry veterans — claimed that the changes diminished the prestige of the designation.
Ann Rebentisch, CMP, CMM, principle of Handshake Events in Thousand Oaks, California, is leader of a LinkedIn Group of 456 CMMs. She launched an online survey in mid-February in which about 20 percent of existing CMMs participated. Based on her research, Rebentisch said in a statement, 88 percent of CMMs opposed the overall program changes. Rebentisch submitted the survey to MPI on March 5.
On March 14, MPI president and CEO Paul Van Deventer responded to this and other objections with a letter that indicated the objections and specific suggestions for revision were under review.
In April, in another letter, Van Deventer informed CMMs and all MPI members that some revisions to the original plan had been made:
MPI will re-issue new certificates to existing CMMs with the correct Certificate in Meeting Management branding, although no details have yet been announced.
As of press time, a resolution of that key issue had not been announced by GBTA.
Adding to the confusion and consternation is a basic misunderstanding among some planners and even some MPI Chapters over certification vs. certificate. MPI spokesperson Sonya Thorpe clarifies: “The CMM Program has been incorrectly branded/marketed as Certification in Meeting Management in the past; however, it has always been a certificate program since continuing education credits were not required to maintain the CMM.”
Despite Van Deventer’s April letter, the controversy over the changes lingers.
“I was disappointed by what MPI did, because I don’t feel that they engaged even the faculty from the CMM program, much less the existing CMMs out there,” says Karen M. King, CMP, CMM, principal of Meeting Strategists LLC in Falmouth, Massachusetts. King earned her CMP credential in 1996 and became a CMM in 2005. Until recently, she served as a member of the CMM faculty, teaching the strategic financial management module.
Based on her 20 years of experience as an MPI member, King says she has an idea why things went wrong with the CMM initiative. “MPI frequently makes decisions without doing their due diligence,” she says. “And this incident was a perfect example of that, in the sense that they have now come back and said that because of the feedback they got from everyone that maybe they didn’t do the work they should have done before they made the decisions. It is unfortunate that MPI does not reach out to people before they do things.”
King also says she has a clear sense of MPI’s original motives which led to the controversy. “As a large organization, MPI has to target the lowest common denominator, which is your mid-level planner,” she says. “I think that for senior-level planners, they are missing the boat. And that’s why senior-level planners are looking for an alternative now.”
Carolyn Pund, CMP, CMM, senior manager, global strategic meetings management at Cisco in San Jose, California, is another veteran, high-profile CMM who took umbrage at the changes originally announced by MPI. “CMMs represent the industry’s senior meeting professionals — a group that MPI has struggled with over the past few years to retain,” Pund says. “I didn’t quite understand their strategy — or lack of strategy — to dismantle, reassign or revise something that was well-respected as a meetings management designation. The passion and pride of those of us holding a CMM were made quite obvious when significant changes were announced with minimal input from the CMM community.”
There is a certain irony, Pund notes, in the fact that the CMM designation has long focused on “leadership and acting strategically. I think in general, and from the discussions I heard and online forums I read, the initial execution by MPI/GBTA leadership was anything but strategic — it was a disconnect.”
“I believe MPI has now made the necessary revisions to maintain the integrity of the original program intent, although to get to this place they might have alienated even further that senior planner audience.”
— Carolyn Pund, CMP, CMM
That disconnect, King says, was largely based on a commercial desire by MPI and GBTA “to get more people into the (CMM) program. In 2005, when I achieved my CMM, we were doing Harvard Business School case study work to achieve our CMM. It was then, and still should be, essentially like getting a master’s degree — not just (undergraduate) degree work. So to change it the way they have, I do think they have diminished what it used to be.”
Erin Stahowiak, CMP, CMM, project manager at McDonald’s Corporation in Chicago and manager of the company’s SMM program, found the MPI situation “somewhat discouraging and disappointing.” Stahowiak earned her CMM certification in 2011.
She agrees with many other CMMs that the prestige of the designation has been diminished. Like many of her peers, she is not completely satisfied by the revisions announced in April. And like a number of CMMs she knows, she is not convinced the process has been concluded, because in her opinion MPI still has work to do to correct its mistakes and repair the damage done.
“It’s a disservice to the meeting industry and to meeting professionals to take away from the most prestigious certification that we have,” Stahowiak says. “People who hold that credential worked hard to get it through a rigorous program. And it’s rewarding to accomplish that. And when you tell people you’re a CMM it means something.”
But, she says, the actions by MPI have downgraded it and harmed its value. She also is frustrated by what she sees as poor handling of the episode by MPI, especially when it comes to communication. “They have suggested they included people in the decision-making process, but it lacked a collaborative approach that could have made the process much more positive for all sides,” she says.
Donna M. Patrick, CMP, CMM, associate director, global meetings and conventions at UnitedHealth Group in Minnetonka, Minnesota, agrees that MPI fumbled the ball in terms of how it handled its decision-making process.
“I was surprised that the matter wasn’t handled as well as it could have been,” says Patrick, who earned her CMM in 2001. “But with any change, there are things that are done right and things that aren’t. But there were things that just didn’t go right initially, and that included the communication of it. And we didn’t get the feeling that they asked the opinion of any existing CMMs. It was like they just took the changes out of a box and said here they are.”
Patrick was among the CMMs who had interaction with MPI after the initial announcement last December. She and her peers tried to focus on protecting the integrity of the respected and prestigious credential.
As a result of the ongoing debacle, she says, she is considering not renewing her MPI membership when it expires in August.
Although there is no existing research that shows critics versus supporters of MPI’s updated changes announced in April, MPI president and CEO Paul Van Deventer says that a majority of CMMs now support the resolution agreed to based on the feedback received after the first announcement in December.
Among those who do support MPI are Tony Lorenz, CMM, founder and CEO of Chicago-based BXB Online. “I’ve been a CMM since 2000,” Lorenz says. “And since that time, just as you do with any program, I’ve seen that it needed to evolve and change. And there have been changes several times to the program before the most recent changes.”
Even Lorenz, however, acknowledges that Van Deventer and MPI chief operating officer Cindy D’Aoust could have done a better job of engaging the CMM community and making its initial decisions and announcement. “To be straight about it, with regard to Paul Van Deventer and the team at MPI, there may have been in hindsight a different approach to the input from the community that might have yielded a different response to phase one of the changes,” he says. “Those original changes were not very favorably received. And that caused a lot of reaction from the CMM community.”
At the same time, however, he takes issue with the CMMs who had such a vehement reaction to the changes. “My reaction was not so much to the changes themselves, but to the process by which people reacted to the changes,” Lorenz says. “I think there’s a right and wrong way to bring feedback to an organization like MPI, and I didn’t feel it was done in the right way. It should be transparent and fact-based. And I didn’t see enough of that.”
Today, Lorenz says, he is satisfied with the revised changes announced in Van Deventer’s April letter. “I accept them as favorable to the program overall,” he says. “Nothing is perfect in any certification program and never will be. But in the end, I think, MPI listened to the community and made changes to the program that are in the best interests of the program as they see it.”
“Nothing is perfect in any certification program and never will be. But in the end, I think, MPI listened to the community and made changes to the program that are in the best interests of the program as they see it.” — Tony Lorenz, CMM
He also notes that he knows a number of other CMMs who are satisfied with the changes and supportive of MPI. In the long run, he says, the new partnership between MPI and GBTA will enhance the CMM program and broaden its reach beyond just the meeting industry. “I think the program will now be more relevant to a wider business community than it was before.”
Pund also is personally satisfied with the revised program. “I believe MPI has now made the necessary revisions to maintain the integrity of the original program intent, although to get to this place they might have alienated even further that senior planner audience,” she says.
MPI president and CEO Paul Van Deventer, who spoke exclusively with Corporate & Incentive Travel after reportedly declining other interviews earlier in the controversy, makes clear that he will not respond to the individual criticisms expressed in this article.
“I don’t want to speak to those statements, because I think we have a much broader community here. But the intent throughout this process was to enhance and to increase the value of the CMM program and to provide a program that continues to evolve and change as the industry evolves and changes.”
MPI moved forward with its new alliance with GBTA because a number of GBTA members are involved in meeting and event planning, Van Deventer says. “So we worked with them, as well as a task force group, to design a new (CMM) program,” he says.
Once the controversy over MPI’s original announcement in December became known, Van Deventer says, “The approach we took was to say we appreciate your concerns. We will listen to you. And we will ensure that where those concerns make sense and your recommendations make sense, we will integrate those to the (final) program to continue to enhance it.”
Like Lorenz, Van Deventer cites the fact that the program has undergone three cycles of revisions in its 16-year existence. “And for these most recent changes, we listened to the community, and we got some great feedback from a number of sources. We consolidated that feedback and worked with GBTA to get consensus with them on how we could make the program stronger. And those are the changes that we announced in the April letter and that are now being implemented.
“We feel really good about the changes, Van Deventer continues. “We feel that the program is still a very prestigious program, and that it is strengthened not only by the partnership with GBTA, but also by the partnerships we’ve created with prestigious universities such as the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. And those kinds of relationships add levels of consistency and credibility to the program, both inside and outside the meeting industry, that we really think enhance the program.”
Despite any lingering negativity to the contrary, Van Deventer says, the revisions announced in his April letter are acceptable to a majority of the CMM population. “In the broader community, including online CMM forums, they have been extremely receptive and very positive and fully behind the changes that have been made. And they are also supportive of the fact that MPI listened to the community.”
“We feel really good about the changes. We feel that the program is still a very prestigious program, and that it is strengthened not only by the partnership with GBTA, but also by the partnerships we’ve created.”
— Paul Van Deventer
Both MPI and GBTA, Van Deventer says, are satisfied that the process has been favorably resolved in everyone’s best interest and any isolated opinions from people still making criticisms after the April letter do not represent a dominant opinion, as demonstrated by the many positive comments MPI has received.
For their part, however, King and a number of her peers still object to the changes. “I just do not think they should be changing the CMM program at all,” she says. “I feel that they’ve dumbed down the CMM credential a number of times over the last 10 years. And I think they’re doing that purely to increase the number of people they can put through the program. It’s become more and more of a revenue generator for MPI. That’s the reality.”
She believes the recent controversy and lingering bad feelings from many veteran CMMs will do permanent damage to MPI’s reputation and credibility. “My fear is that they are going to lose their stronghold in the industry as the leading organization,” King says. “It saddens me to see that MPI is where they are. But they got themselves there.” C&IT