Have you ever worked with a meeting or event industry supplier who meshes so well with your vision it’s simply startling? You know the ones — they are organized, effective and deliver on their promises each and every time. They are the person you turn to time and time again because of their exceptional products and services.
Planning an event often requires a person to be a project manager, choreographer and planner — all rolled into one. Even the most organized meeting planners shudder when thinking of managing the details alone, so many turn to a core group of suppliers and consultants — people they know they can trust and who will do an effective job in helping make their portion of the event a success. They have known and worked with these individuals over the years — saving valuable time and avoiding embarrassing and costly mistakes.
Laura Langhout, corporate meeting planner at Self Esteem Brands, LLC, says that from working in hotels and now being a corporate planner, there are a few ways she’s learned to establish strong partnerships with suppliers.
“I’ve always believed that having open communication is the strongest way to establish a partnership,” Langhout says. “If you’re clearly communicating what you’re looking for with a supplier, it should be easy to have an open conversation about those needs.” Indeed, when both meeting planners and suppliers have developed a strong rapport with another person in the industry, they see each other as partners and confidantes, as a “well-oiled machine” — eager to get the job done.
Also Langhout says being able to provide suppliers with honest feedback on proposals, planning and service allows you to see how they handle all kinds of situations, and this can quickly accelerate the relationship.
“I believe in treating others the way you want to be treated,” Langhout says. “Being nice goes a long way. Just how being good with communication, feedback and being a genuinely nice person can build a strong partnership — the opposite effect will more than likely hinder, if not ruin, a supplier relationship.”
For Shannon Mickelberg, event and meeting planner/producer at Mickelberg Event Group in New Hope, Minnesota, finding a supplier that a planner trusts, has a track record and someone that a planner can easily collaborate with is key to establishing a successful partnership.
“Once I work with a supplier and have a great experience, they become a trusted partner, and I will work with them as much as possible.”
— Shannon Mickelberg
“I view my supplier partners as an extension of my company, and ultimately, my client’s company,” Mickelberg says. “I need to feel that they will provide honest, ethical and high-level service. Once I work with a supplier and have a great experience, they become a trusted partner, and I will work with them as much as possible.”
Finding suppliers who understand the 24/7, last-minute world of event planning is really important. As Mickelberg explains, so often, planners are all put in the position of last-minute revisions, additions or complete changes in direction, so it’s important to have partners who can adapt and thrive in that environment.
“I always try to bring my partners in early and give them as much information as possible to help them understand the project,” Mickelberg says. “Clear communication throughout the process is key. If I am sensing a change from the client, I try to communicate that early so everyone can be prepared.”
According to Bob Schuster, HTS, national director of conferences and events at CMP Meeting Services, in today’s age, communication between both partners in a supplier relationship is a key component — along with transparency to keep partnerships strong.
“If we are about establishing and maintaining a win-win relationship, the basic foundation is solidifying trust,” Schuster says. “Also, communication and transparency on both sides of the partnership is important. But professionalism is of the utmost importance.
Collaboration toward a mutual journey of a successful relationship is based on being clear and concise with each other, with all sides smiling as a result.”
Tom McCulloch, chief marketing officer at metroConnections, says the first step toward a promising partnership with suppliers is doing research on a supplier before entering the relationship. Look for companies that can successfully meet all a planner’s needs in one stop, rather than piecing together services from a variety of partners.
“The more research done on a supplier before entering a partnership, the lower the risk a meeting planner will take in working with them,” McCulloch says. “Once a meeting planner establishes a comfortable, communicative relationship at the onset of the partnership, they’ll likely prevent any issues down the road. A corporate planner also wants to make sure the supplier is compatible with the organization, taking into account similar work styles, accessibility, company culture, transparency, stability and ensuring they fit into the budget.”
Similar work style — Oftentimes, a planner’s success will be dependent on the job a supplier does. Therefore, a planner will need to make sure supplier partners become extensions of their staff, smoothly fitting into the planner’s company’s current work style.
Accessibility — If the planner is someone who likes to be part of the process, even when outsourcing elements, find a company that will keep them updated throughout the course. Someone who is easy to contact will alleviate any nervousness the planner may feel about the partnership.
Transparency — Find a partner who’s up-front about fees, their billing model and other processes key to the relationship.
“Creating a win-win supplier and vendor relationship starts with transparency and honesty,” says Johanna Belsuzarri Dahlman, founder and CEO at Local Latin in Denver, Colorado, a meeting and event planning company. “Being up-front with vendors, letting them know what is possible and what is not possible according to expectations of time lines, turnaround, caliber of service, payments and payment method, are all topics to discuss openly.”
Budget-friendly — Find a partner that meets the budget and respects any constraints a corporate meeting planner may have.
“Many times, venues, like vendors do not fit certain clients with their nuances and peculiar requests or demands or forms of payments,” Dahlman says. “As the meeting professional, you become the mediator of how service is delivered and how the client will be satisfied.”
In order for planners and suppliers to enable true collaboration, they need to align on a set of shared objectives that, by design, drive mutually beneficial outcomes. These may vary depending on the nature of the relationship between the planner and supplier.
“When establishing relationships, I love to take the time and meet in person,” Dahlman says. “When I was working for Apple and expanding operations in Mexico and other countries, meeting in person went a long way. Once people meet you and see you are ethical, responsible and trustworthy, it encourages them to do business with you, especially if they have been burned before or are overextending themselves due to my client’s or company’s demands.”
Dahlman recommends planners let suppliers know that repeat business is on its way. “Letting them know that this is not just a ‘one and done’ scenario is also helpful to discuss in forming the relationship,” she says. “You want to nurture the relationship with your vendors and suppliers.”
In Dahlman’s business, she enjoys building the relationship and being able to count on a supplier for future events, many times at a moment’s notice. When possible, she also recommends their services and helps them succeed with other planners or colleagues. If they are affiliated with other offices within the same company in different cities or countries, then she likes to promote them and work with them when possible.
Sometimes, creating win-win relationships starts at the top with an NSO or GSO from a hotel or brand of hotels.
“I’ve worked with some clients where their addendums and demands are difficult and challenging, where contracts actually get in the way of the event planning itself and distract from the big picture,” Dahlman says. “In order to move things seamlessly, especially at a moment’s notice, these relationships have expedited meeting requests and have gotten me through velvet ropes, bureaucracy and red tape. The power of the relationship supersedes the organizations.”
The relationship carries on after a meeting planner may have left or the supplier has resigned from the organization where the planner first encountered them. Dahlman says understanding that people move, get promoted or take other lucrative jobs and positions, allows an automatic entry and warm welcome to the next organization once the work ethic and rapport have been established.
“Above all, adding a human touch, understanding when things go wrong and trying to create solutions, working together in a partnership,” she believes to be the key to success.
When a meeting planner is confident in his or her suppliers’ services, and they can count on them as a reliable business, it’s a win-win partnership that typically leads to successful events.
As McCulloch explains, there are several things than can hinder the ability to establish a strong relationship with a supplier. For instance, not sharing the overall goals and objectives can create frustration, as can denying a partner access to key decision-makers within the company.
“If communication is hoarded or blocked, a vendor supplier cannot successfully meet expectations,” McCulloch says. “The best relationships exist when a supplier partner has access to key information and gains an understanding of what a meeting planner would like accomplished, as well as how to best meet those needs.”
So what does a win-win supplier relationship look like to Schuster? Quite simply, the relationship needs to exude core values with integrity and actions that support the trust relationship.
“Services levels within that relationship must solidify the actions and continues to reinforce the partnership,” Schuster says. “Continuity with a genuine smile and both sides of the partnership should display the same respect for each other.”
There are some important tools that marketers can help dealers utilize in order to streamline their operations. One of these key strategies is benchmarking, which is essentially a methodology for defining specific levels of performance for distinct processes based on the best levels of performance historically achieved. Through the effective use of benchmarking, a corporate meeting planner can identify and use proven techniques to clarify its relationship with a supplier and set new, higher standards of performance.
For instance, does a current caterer exude exceptional communication skills as compared to a previous supplier? What makes these communication skills better for a meeting planner’s needs? This “benchmark” can be used when evaluating or hiring future suppliers for meetings or events. Benchmarking is not a static activity, but rather a tool for achieving continuous improvement.
Of course, the benefits of a solid supplier partnership are numerous and long-lasting. As McCulloch explains, once a meeting planner has a good working relationship established with an ideal partner company, they can expect the following:
Each of the strengths and weaknesses of both the planner and supplier will balance each other out. The supply partner will benefit from the planner’s expertise and vice versa.
Increased focus where it’s needed. When a corporate planner can leave facets of a program up to a trusted partner, they can direct more of their attention to the tasks on their own to-do list.
Improved quality of overall work. If a planner is stretching their team too thin to ably manage every part of a project, their work output will suffer. Bringing a skilled and reliable partner on board will mean more can be done at a higher level of quality.
A long-term trusted partner in the industry. Developed properly, this relationship provides additional resources for a meeting planner and their company to leverage. They’re a true extension of the planner’s team, adding experience and knowledge to the company.
A relationship where the supplier will go extra miles for the client due to mutual respect. And in turn, the client extends appreciation to the supplier partner.
One big mistake planners may make when trying to establish strong partnerships with suppliers is not doing adequate research on the company. “Planners may have a distinct vision in mind of what a supplier is able to provide, but without doing their due diligence and spending time researching the company, the partnership can fall short of the planner’s expectations,” McCulloch says.
Another mistake planners can make is not establishing goals to share with the supplier. If a planner doesn’t have defined goals, their supplier partners will not effectively be able to help build a roadmap for a successful program and relationship.
“Lack of communication and preparation hinders everyone’s effectiveness,” Mickelberg says. “Expecting partners to read minds never works. Creative briefs, schedules of events or any documents that will help them understand a meeting planner’s needs will help.”
Mickelberg says another common mistake made by corporate meeting planners is putting the wrong supplier on the wrong project. Remember, everyone has his or her strengths and weaknesses. And not every project plays to every supplier’s best skills. Putting the right team together is really important to ensure everyone’s success.
And remember, it is vital that both parties be honest about the project from the beginning. “If a meeting planner doesn’t know all the details yet, it’s OK to say that,” Mickelberg says.
“They don’t want a supplier to sign up for one thing but end up working on another. Like us as planners, they need to manage their bandwidth and inventory.”
For Mickelberg, her supplier partnerships are like family. “I have their back, and they have mine,” she says. “Every event or meeting has elements that are unexpected. Having partners that are in it with you to come up with a solution is so important. In return, I try to refer suppliers to other planners as a thank you for working with me.”
Mickelberg has seen many planners treat a vendor poorly or disrespectfully when things get stressful. “It is disappointing and won’t build strong relationships,” she says. “We need to be advocates for everyone we work with, whether it is a client or partner.” C&IT