While many third-party planning companies promote themselves as being “full service,” it’s rare for any company to be equally strong in all facets of event planning, which often call for widely different skill sets.
Compare negotiating hotel contracts to designing and executing teambuilding events, for example. Indeed, “the caution is trying to be too much of everything to everybody,” says Laurel Coote, CMP, CMM, founder of Torrance, California-based Pick My Brain Consulting, a strategic meeting and event planning company. Coote, who previously owned The Laureli Group for 10 years, advises independents to “identify the two, three or four things that you or your organization do really well. You might be able to plan catering and do teambuilding, but perhaps you really love managing content and speakers for corporate training events. So find what you love and do that especially well.”
“Identify the two, three or four things that you or your organization do really well. You might be able to plan catering and do teambuilding, but perhaps you really love managing content and speakers for corporate training events. So find what you love and do that especially well.” — Laurel Coote
It’s the diverse niches in the planning field that allow the market to support a growing multitude of independent planners. Specializations, which range from types of organizations to types of meetings to aspects of the planning process, allow third parties to stand out and be more than just another full-service planning company.
Moreover, independents can sometimes rely on each other’s strengths in an atmosphere of collaboration as opposed to competition. “We have a number of partners locally, and on a national and global scale, that we will reach out to and partner with,” says Cathy Palmateer, CMP, president of San Francisco-based Meeting Resource Group. “I think that those friendly competitors that are out there and those partners we find an opportunity to work with understand that each of these programs has a number of different elements to it, and there may be aspects of that program that some are more skilled and better served to deliver on than others.
“For example, am I going to take on décor in a ballroom? No, I’m going to rely on one of my décor companies in San Francisco to take care of that. To use an old phrase, it takes a village.”
In that ideal situation, independents not only can collaborate, but also refer clients to colleagues who have the availability to take on certain projects. That allows the referrer to avoid simply saying “no” to a client’s business, and in a sense still meet their needs. But that sort of option only comes with being well-connected within the third-party community.
“If I meet an independent planner I really try to get to know them,” says Jennifer Squeglia, CMP, owner of Warwick, Rhode Island-based RLC Events. “That way, if somebody comes to me for help with an event and I’m not available, I feel comfortable saying, ‘I’m not available; however, this person is.’ For instance, I just had a client who is doing an event next March, and I told them upfront I will do all the preplanning, but I can’t be onsite. So I worked with another independent planner whom I trust and respect, and she’s going to cover it onsite for me. That’s why it’s important to keep my relationships current.”
In a different case, a referral is based not on availability, but rather skill set. “Sometimes you get requests for things that are outside the scope of what you feel you can do well,” Coote says. For example, my company is not a teambuilding company, but we do it. Some teambuilding requests are not a problem, and we’ll formulate it, but other times it makes sense to say to the client, ‘You need to go to a specialist teambuilding company because they have it all. It would be far too labor intensive for us to do it and would cost you more.’ ”
That kind of honesty ultimately promotes long-term relationships with clients. They will realize the third party puts client results above personal revenue, and thus feel more secure about trusting the third party with future projects that are a better fit.
Of course, independents need not continue passing on projects that are outside their scope; in some cases, they can develop specializations in response to client needs. “When the HCP (healthcare provider) spend reporting became very big, we developed special departments focused just on that,” notes Jean Johnson, CMP, chairman, president and CEO of Caledonia, Wisconsin-based Meetings & Incentives Worldwide Inc., a family-owned company that has grown to 160 employees and 20 clients over the last two decades. “A big part of our success is that we’ve always been very flexible, so as our clients have grown and changed, we’ve always grown and changed with them.”
Service flexibility is key to keeping a flow of work, especially during gaps between regular projects from long-term clients. “I have two types of clients,” Squeglia explains. “Larger corporations, where I’m a part of their existing meeting management team, will supply me work during the peak times when they need help. And then there are clients that don’t have existing meeting planning teams who bring me in to handle specific meetings and projects. I have a very flexible model; I did work for one company that just needed somebody to manage the registration database and rooming list and that’s fine; I’m happy to do that, too.” Naturally, small-scale projects, when executed well, can lead to larger projects and regular planning work from that client.
Regular work can lead to the client perceiving the independent as part of the in-house team, a coveted kind of relationship for many third parties. “If they have a corporate events department, then my company is seen as an extension of that,” Coote explains. “And if they don’t have in-house event management, then my goal is to plant myself as their source. I aim to put myself out there as one of them, so that all the people I touch on their behalf think I work for them (in house).”
There are several aspects to integrating with a corporate client on that level. One is typically some degree of face-to-face interaction, despite the fact that the project often can be accomplished strictly through phone and email communications with the client. “Sometimes they ask you to come in to see how you work; clients have asked me to sit in their office for a few days a week for a period of time,” she notes. While in-person meetings or face-to-face work may be logistically inconvenient for the independent, it’s an opportunity to get better acquainted with the client’s culture, brand and staff demographics, which furthers the goal of integrating with the team.
Another step to that goal is observing the client’s core values. Coote had Amgen as a client for about 10 years, and “it was really important to them that their vendors aligned with their seven core values in the way their employees did. The values include compete and win, but also respect one another and work in teams. So it was a very collaborative environment, and not only would I need to be respectful of them, but so would they with me.” The result was a “level playing field” between vendor and in-house team. She describes that relationship as “the best of both worlds,” allowing her to work “within the corporate structure” while retaining the freedom that comes with being a vendor. “If I can’t align myself with their values, then they might not be the best client for me. There are times when you need to say to the client, ‘We’re not a good fit anymore, it would be better for you to work with somebody else.’ As an independent you have the option to say no. As a corporate employee it’s not so easy.”
A third aspect to integrating with an in-house team on a long-term basis is to become versed in the state of the client’s business and their goals. The independent is then in a position to strategize site selection, contracting, theming and other meeting details in the context of the client’s broader business needs. Toward that end, “I like to read their annual reports and white papers,” Squeglia notes. While this kind of activity is often strictly speaking unnecessary to the project at hand, “to me it’s time well spent because it’s going to make me a better partner to them,” she maintains.
Building connections to stakeholders within the client organization is also a route to this “education.” “I would say that with 50 percent of our accounts, we have direct contact with stakeholders (e.g., a V.P. of marketing), and then there’s a smaller percentage of clients where we’re dealing directly with staff that supports the C-suite,” says Palmateer. “Not only does (that connection) improve the effectiveness of the project at hand, but it also gives us a far broader understanding of the intent and goals of the meeting as well as the long-term objectives of the company. When you are sitting down in front of the decision-makers that do have a direct line to the stakeholders, it allows you to see the global picture, as opposed to being removed as an independent contractor working in silos with two or three different point people.”
When Squeglia is able to get that “direct line” to the C-suite, she takes the opportunity to get their perspective on ROI for the meeting at hand. “One of my questions is, what do you want these people to say after the meeting’s over? How do you want them to feel? I love hearing that directly from the CEO. That really helps me to deliver better service to them.”
A fourth aspect to immersing oneself in the client’s organization is maintaining regular contact between projects. Palmateer generally reaches out to or meets with clients on a quarterly basis, even for those clients who only work with her on their annual meeting. “I like to ensure they are getting the service they need from the hotels, and see if there’s anything we can do to complement or support their efforts. I’m a firm believer in ‘high touch’; we stay in very close contact with our clientele.”
The contact need not be about business, strictly speaking. Says Squeglia, “I always express my gratitude and never take their business for granted, even the clients I’ve had for the eight years I’ve been in business. When the meeting is over I take the time to send out handwritten notes saying ‘thank you for your business.’ And I make sure I show appreciation to everyone on the team, even the person that handles the RSVPs; that’s a big job, too.”
Toward cultivating the relationship, she also lets clients know she is always available to answer the offhand planning question. “I may have a client who asks me, ‘We’re trying to find a good private room in Boston to do a dinner, can you help us?’ Well of course I can, and I wouldn’t charge for that. So I want them to see me as a resource not just for the particular event but for anything they might need” in their planning work.
There truly is a “village” of independent meeting planners out there, especially since in-house teams were pared down during the recession, and in many cases left in that streamlined condition. And while the village allows for collaboration and strategic referrals among its well-connected members, capitalism is still at its core, and when possible independents will want to secure long-term, exclusive relationships with clients. Integrating with clients’ organizations serves that end, via occasional face-to-face interaction, observation of core values, knowledge of overall business direction and regular contact. The less “independent” from a client they are perceived to be, the longer the relationship is likely to last. C&IT