There may be no such thing as a perfect meeting. Even with the best of efforts, every event will have its flaws. But at the same time, many “goofs” or meeting mistakes can be avoided with a combination of foresight and adequate follow-up.
Here’s an overview of some of the most common mistakes encountered by meeting planners, along with tips for avoiding them.
Some goofs start well before a meeting takes place, according to Gladi Colon, CMP, assistant director of events and catering at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando and Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek. She says that waiting too long before making arrangements with meeting venues is a very common mistake.
“Some planners take for granted how long it takes to create the meeting specifications,” she says. “Don’t wait until the last minute.”
“If something looks out of place, even if your clients seem comfortable, go with your gut and question it.”
— Jennifer Sand
Instead, she suggests creating a “shell” to use for every meeting and then updating it as information becomes available. “When meeting specifications are due to the hotel or venue, it’s easier to send what you have instead of burning the midnight oil trying to make the deadline,” she says.
Colon notes that another questionable move is assuming that signs can be placed anywhere.
“Sometimes groups do not acquire their foyer space as early as they would like in order to place group-specific branding,” she says. “It’s a good idea to talk to a contact at the venue or hotel early on to get their advice on the best places for signage and when it can be installed.” Similarly, it’s also wise to ask if the hotel has any restrictions on where signage can be placed. “If you are able to make it to the venue before the event, plan a walk-through with a map and mark on the areas the optimal placements of signage,” she says.
Inadequate meal planning is another avoidable problem. “Check your venue contract to see when your menu selections are due so you can develop a plan to stay ahead of the decision deadlines,” Colon advises. “You should connect with your catering manager three to six months out from your event to review your catered events on a high level.” Initially, she says, that would mean having an in-depth conversation with your catering manager to ensure that the right spaces have been reserved for your catered meal functions, and that the anticipated number of attendees for each event is correct. Three months prior to your event, confer with the catering manager to review menu needs, especially if planning custom menus, to allow the chef ample time to create something special for the group. To avoid problems related to individual dietary needs, Colon suggests polling attendees during the registration phase to see if they have any dietary restrictions and then incorporate the results in meal planning. When working on menu development, also take care of budgetary planning.
“Every hotel and every state is different,” she says. “Some states require that a service charge or gratuity be taxable, which will affect the budget. And don’t forget to start working on room set-up diagrams well in advance, providing opportunities for creativity, modifications and fire marshal approval.”
Carolyn Davis, CMP, owner of Strategic Meeting Partners, a full-service meeting and event management services company in San Diego, says careful planning can help avoid problems with food. For example, it can be a challenge if attendees are asking for vegetarian, gluten-free, peanut-free or other special diet menus onsite.
“Avoid problems with food by requesting special dietary needs on the registration form,” she says. “Or if this didn’t happen, then request this information upon check-in onsite and request allergies only.”
She also suggests notifying the conference service manager as soon as possible and creating special diet cards that attendees can hand to the waitstaff at each meal. With buffets, dishes can be labeled with any special dietary considerations.
Nathan Karsten, director of sales and marketing at the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center, notes that failing to consider meeting needs from a supplier point of view can be problematic.
“Make sure the supplier has a full understanding of your needs,” he says. “Is this corporate training, year-end in review celebration or a new product roll-out that is exciting?” He says it’s important to paint a picture of your expectations to ensure all parties are on the same page.
Karsten also points to inattention to technical needs as a serious shortcoming. “This component has become more important than food,” Karsten says. “AV can make a presentation last in one’s memories, and slow Internet can kill a presentation.”
Many of the most common goofs seem to come from that all-too-easy practice of making assumptions.
“We have found that a common mistake meeting planners make is to assume that amenities, such as audio-visual, are included with meeting room rentals,” says Suzan Carabarin, director of conference services at Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California. “They are often surprised after contracting with us that various amenities aren’t included because they didn’t read the contract.”
Too, relying on information that might be outdated is almost a sure bet to lead to difficulties.
“We had a group that was hosting a company meeting,” Carabarin recalls. “When planning for the event they referenced data from a past event as the guideline for room reservations, food and beverage, and so forth. Unfortunately, they hugely overestimated attendance and ended up paying significantly more than was necessary.” They could have avoided the extra costs if they had taken the time to get an accurate number of attendees, Carabarin says.
One way to avoid problems is simply projecting the needs of attendees throughout their entire experience, notes Hugo Slimbrouck, director of strategic partnerships, Ovation Global DMC, MCI Group, who regularly plans meetings at Hilton Paris Opera. Ovation Global DMC is a leading network of destination management companies providing DMC services to associations, corporations and agencies at 100+ locations throughout Europe, Middle East, Africa, Asia, North America and South America. Slimbrouck is based in Brussels, Belgium.
“Meeting planners should always aim to complete a guest’s experience from start to finish,” Slimbrouck says. “This means not letting things like transportation or staffing fall to the bottom of your priority list, as guests will remember their entire travel experience.” This might involve booking a car or van with extra space or making sure the staff fits within the event’s main theme or purpose.
Slimbrouck recalls an incident in moving a large group in Belgium from Bruges to Gent for an afternoon activity.
“A total of 12 coaches were planned, but about one hour before departure we learned that a subcontractor had misinterpreted departure time from their garage with departure time from our venue,” he says. “There was no way the coaches would be on time, since they needed at least an hour to get there.” So Slimbrouck drove to the bus parking in Bruges where every day about 40 coaches wait for their guests. He went from bus to bus and asked drivers if they could manage to help him get 120 passengers to their destination and still be back in town to pick up their guests.
“Eventually we found someone willing to take us,” he said. “Lesson learned!”
With security, taking anything less than a comprehensive approach may lead to serious problems, according to Dr. Robert L. Quigley, M.D. regional medical director and senior vice president of medical assistance for International SOS, a global provider of health and travel security services with headquarters in Philadelphia.
“Managing an event can only be successful when all key stakeholders are involved,” he says. “Reach out to security, HR and legal teams within your organization to map out each group’s role in the duty-of-care process.” He also advises a planning session in which protocol, responsibilities and desired actions are assigned, discussed and rehearsed.
Possible risks should be always be assessed onsite, Quigley adds.
“Every conference and professional meeting destination comes with its own distinct challenges, making a site assessment absolutely necessary,” he says. “Engage your company’s security team or security assistance partner to conduct a thorough review of potential threats in and around the location.”
He notes that a location should be selected based on a sound understanding of health and security risks associated with a particular destination, and the safeguards required in order to mitigate each one.
Once onsite, careful time management is always helpful in heading off problems. This applies not just to planning teams, but also to other key players such as presenters.
A problem that always should be avoided is having presenters go over their allotted time, says Mike Veny, a New York facilitator of corporate drumming workshops.
“Consistently remind presenters about the importance of staying right on schedule,” he says. “Have a system in place to let presenters on the platform know that their time is almost up.”
In avoiding some problems, the key may be a willingness to ask questions. Jennifer Sand, senior event manager with Event Strategy Group in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, recalls an event where a client insisted on hiring a sports celebrity to make an appearance.
“With no questions asked, we proceeded to hire him for our event,” she says. But when he made his appearance, it quickly became obvious that he did not like crowds.
“He clearly was doing this appearance for the money only and didn’t really enjoy it,” she says. “He looked stiff like a wax figure in every photo and was visibly uncomfortable the whole time.”
To make the most of the session, she and her staff took the initiative to keep the athlete moving through the venues to keep him busy and try to make him appear less unhappy. At the same time, she realized that some awkwardness might have been avoided with better preparation.
“We learned that even if the client insists on something, you are not out of bounds to do your own research and make recommendations,” Sand says. “Or at least learn what to expect.”
Another incident might also have been avoided with a bit of skepticism. At the end of a week-long event, Sand and her staff took a corporate group on a pub tour. The last stop was mostly empty except for two men, one of whom proceeded to go around the room introducing himself as the main security contractor who was “sent by the CEO” to watch the group.
“While we were assuming our clients knew the man, they had assumed we hired him,” Sand says. “An hour into the evening, we realized that no one actually knew this man, and he was pretending to be with the group so that he could get free drinks.”
The stranger was promptly removed from the venue without further ado, but Sand says the incident was revealing.
“If something looks out of place, even if your clients seem comfortable, go with your gut and question it,” she says.
Keeping some extra cash on hand can help head off some problems or at least lessen their impact, according to Sand.
“At a conference in Vegas, while we were unpacking, we discovered the box containing our name badge trays was missing,” she says. The box was tracked as being delivered, but the venue could not locate it. And since it was a Sunday, it would not be possible to obtain replacements for the event, which was scheduled to open the next morning.
“While we were brainstorming solutions, we noticed another conference that was beginning to pack up,” she says. “We walked over and offered to buy their used trays. They didn’t think we were serious until we pulled out a few hundred dollars in cash.”
Sometimes, she adds, you can throw money at a problem — so always have some handy.
Of course not all problems can be avoided nor easily solved, but many can.
“Oversights and mistakes are bound to happen, but they can be avoided or lessened with proper planning,” Carabarin says, who adds that the more you learn about the needs and expectations of attendees, the better. “A meeting is only successful if the attendees leave satisfied,” she notes.
Perhaps the biggest goof of all is falling apart when something goes wrong.
“Mistakes happen,” Karsten says. “It’s how we overcome them that stands out.” C&IT