Asking planners what their biggest challenges are is like asking a firefighter what’s the most difficult part of responding to and extinguishing a multiple-alarm office building fire.
According to Mary Beth Jenson, CMP, CMM, strategic meetings manager, Travel and Transport Inc., “There are many, many challenges facing meeting planners today. These challenges can differ based on meeting type, attendee types and meeting location. So, to list the biggest challenge is a challenge within itself.”
The seemingly innumerable challenges include tighter budgets, rising costs, a seller’s market for hotels, lack of time, technology and multigenerational and multiethnic attendees. Even the smallest and simplest meetings can present big challenges. In addition, stakeholders, attendees and vendors are demanding more than ever from planners as their resources shrink.
According to a survey by Teneo Hospitality Group, tight meeting budgets, lack of time, rising F&B costs and stakeholders’ desire for more enriching experiences are among planners’ top challenges in 2019.
“Sometimes it’s challenging to set expectations when someone who isn’t in the industry makes decisions without going through the proper process.”
Gregorio Palomino, CMP, CDMP, CEP, CWP, CSEP, CTA
Another survey, the American Express 2019 Global Meetings and Events Forecast, reports that planners think that shrinking budgets will remain a top concern. Meanwhile, planners expect meetings to attract more attendees and be longer, according to the survey. Here are some of the biggest challenges planners face:
Planners have always faced a time crunch, but it’s getting tighter due to heightened client demands and expectations, increasingly complex meetings, lower budgets and lack of planner resources.
Lack of time itself creates several other challenges. It’s more difficult to build in spare time for unexpected challenges. Planners are unable to discover and learn new technology tools that can increase efficiency and cut costs. There is also less time for long-term strategic planning. In addition, the procrastination of stakeholders and clients contributes mightily to planners’ time crunch.
According to Jenson, “The single most difficult challenge is getting meeting owners, hosts and VIPs to understand the importance of ‘time is of the essence.’ Meeting owners usually don’t understand the importance of early decision making around meeting management. They have to understand that hotel proposals are not good indefinitely and the original offer may be off the table if another group comes into the picture.”
It’s also time-consuming to simultaneously juggle the needs of several stakeholders and clients. According to Teri Abram, president of Dallas, Texas-based EventLink International Inc., “As a third-party corporate event planner, managing time is very important. Clients often have needs and time deadlines that coincide or conflict with each other. It is imperative that all deadlines are met, and this can create stress to get it all done.”
Abram offers the following advice on time-managing competing client deadlines:
“Create and consistently update timelines and deadlines of all tasks to be accomplished before, during and after the event,” Abram says. “Try to build in extra time into timelines for inevitable unexpected surprises and delays. There will always be pop-up client needs, which planners should be able to react to if they are staying on top of the overall planning timeline.”
Educating stakeholders about the need for timeliness can help prevent challenges. Says Jenson, “The advice I would offer is — educate your meeting owners at the start of the process. Help them understand what information you need and why you need it. The more the meeting owner knows about your challenges, the greater your chances of delivering what they expect — great event with minimal risk and maximum cost savings for the company.”
Many planners see shrinking or flat budgets as their No. 1 challenge. The problem: Meeting-related costs are rising but budgets aren’t keeping pace, making the challenge of delivering more with less even tougher. Stakeholders expect big “wows,” memorable experiences, high attendance, engagement and value, all on lower budgets.
According to Katherine Stokoe, manager of meetings and events for Paragon Events Inc., “Cost awareness and budget management are the most difficult to manage from my perspective. The constant tug of war between big dreams and a very tight budget is something that happens to everyone. Expectations for unique and innovative experiences are higher than ever and there is a constant desire to always want the best and biggest on a limited budget.”
Stokoe suggests the following strategy for taming the low-budget, high-expectations beast: “Setting budget goals up front allows you the information to be prepared to make the best use of funds provided,” Stokoe says. “As a best practice, always ensure that you start your budget early and update it regularly. If something pops up that needs to be added or discussed, you always want to ensure that you have the most updated budget numbers.” Stokoe also suggests, if possible, adding 10% to the budget for emergencies and working with vendors who offer partner discounts.
Budget challenges are most acute for small independent, third-party corporate planners with limited budgets. Even small meetings demand more technology, services, experiences, engagement and entertainment, all of which are more difficult to provide on small-meeting budgets.
As meeting budgets shrink, costs rise. According to Abram, “If you are a good event planner, your typical nature is to want to help and please others. This is especially the case with clients. We work very hard to make sure our corporate clients are delighted and that their goals are met at or under budget. This can be difficult with the rising cost of venues and activities.”
Abram fights rising costs with non-stop efforts to curtail expenses, starting with the site visit. “During the site search and budgeting phase, we often challenge the preferred hotels to go the extra mile and find unique ways to lower costs,” Abram says.
In addition, Abram finds creative ways to achieve desired outcomes for clients within their budgets. “For example, if a client wants to offer an upscale sponsored coffee lounge but their budget cannot afford to bring in an outside vendor or furniture, we will work with the venue to create the same look and feel by repurposing existing furniture and creating menus to mimic a coffee lounge.”
Rates for sleeping rooms and meeting spaces are at or near record high rates, creating a big challenge for planners to uncover value in hotel rates and concessions. Planners lack leverage over hotel pricing because of high demand for meeting space. So, hotels can practically pick the kind of business they want to accept.
According to Genny Castleberry, CMP, director of sourcing for Brightspot Incentives and Events, “Hotel availability and rates are at a premium and we no longer have the luxury to have properties offer courtesy holds for programs. Even if hotels offer a courtesy hold on the space you may want, there is no guarantee they will keep the hold. Nothing is truly guaranteed until all contracts are signed and deposits received.”
Jenson agrees. “It’s a challenge to negotiate and execute a good hotel contract which protects the corporation’s best interests,” she says. “Agreeing to terms and conditions is sometimes a long process and planners are in a crunch for time. When time is limited, planners may lack due diligence and important terms may be omitted.”
One term Jenson makes sure to include is a construction clause, because not doing so can result in nerve-wracking challenges. Jenson offers the following example. “Having a construction clause for an incentive program I was planning proved to be invaluable when, two weeks before the start date, I was informed the swimming pool and golf course would be out of service over the program dates due to construction,” Jenson says.
Due to the construction clause, Jenson was able to cancel the booking without liquidation damages and move to another property. “The only loss was the additional collateral costs in changing the venue name on incentive-related materials,” Jenson says. “This was a small price compared to having 100 guests attend their incentive trip in Florida with no access to a pool or golf.”
Throughout the planning process, planners face more demanding and sometimes unrealistic expectations from clients, stakeholders, attendees and even vendors. Expectations are higher than ever in every area of planning, including creativity and knowledge of properties. Says Abram, “With so much information available to corporate clients and attendees, expectations for exceptional and creative events are high. As planners, we must be able to speak to and potentially recommend any new or renovated hotels or activities that are offered in the preferred city.”
Expectations for planner knowledge are also high in non-planning areas related to meetings. “We also must stay abreast of all current hotel issues, and even new laws and legislation in the cities in which our clients are having events,” Abram says.
As an example, she cites the recent passage of newly restrictive pro-life, anti-abortion legislation throughout the South.
“It provoked deep feelings on both sides and created a concern for one client that planned to hold an event in a city of one of these states,” Abram says. “We had already been following the local city’s messaging, and we quickly went into action to gather as much information as possible to make the client more knowledgeable to respond to these concerns among attendees.”
Meeting expectations is especially challenging when they come from more than one stakeholder who have different visions of a meeting. It’s also taxing when clients try to execute their visions by jumping the gun on key decisions without enough information. For example, some stakeholders shrug off a site visit and insist on making their booking decisions based on online information.
According to Gregorio Palomino, CMP, CDMP, CEP, CWP, CSEP, CTA, CRE8IVE Executive Officer (CEO) at CRE8AD8 LLC, “A property or destination can look great online but many times, in person, it’s not the same. We highly encourage clients to go with us on site visits to ensure the decisions we make and the locales are for sure of interest. We have seen some less-than-positive looks from a CEO who arrives and is disappointed.”
Palomino offers an example. “We had one software company based in Texas publish to the entire company the location, date and hotel of the annual incentive before he ever approved bidding on the property or even made sure it was available,” Palomino says. “Sometimes it’s challenging to set expectations when someone who isn’t in the industry makes decisions without going through the proper process.”
Practically every planner has felt a temporary surge of panic due to last-minute challenges, including sudden changes in hotel needs. According to Palomino, “We see lodging, expectations and changes as a challenge most days.”
He offers this example: “We find and source a destination, which in turn helps us with costs for larger events and city buyouts or coordination of multiple properties, only to have one client move room blocks from a hotel that we had at 80% down to 50%, and for another property that was meant for attendee overflow from 20% up to 50%,” Palomino says.
Palomino cites another example: “We see clients who, in fear of spending too much or trying to beat attrition, aim low for room counts, but then on the week of the program, somehow they’re over on the contract and we’re scrambling to find space for them,” Palomino says.
Handling F&B challenges can also be daunting because increasingly diverse attendees have a greater variety of food preferences and requirements, including vegan, vegetarian, keto, pescatarian, paleo and religious diets. As a result, menu planning is more complicated and expensive than ever, especially when menus change at the last minute.
According to Palomino, “We see food change orders when we’re three days out from the program. At this point, it’s almost impossible to alter an entire menu for hundreds of people for two to three meals a day plus breaks, but we do it. Change orders like this are rare, but it keeps us on our toes.”
Planners carry almost non-stop stress due to myriad job tasks, their own high expectations and those of stakeholders. According to Jenson, “In my experience, changes are the causes of stress for meeting planners. The changes could be as major as date changes, location changes or, at the worst, on-site changes. After all, a planner plans and when those plans must change on the fly, stress follows.”
De-stressing is also a challenge. According to Castleberry, “Not being able to fully disconnect outside of your work week or while on vacation is a huge stress factor in this industry. Technology is present in every aspect of our daily routine and setting boundaries is a daily struggle for meeting planners.”
However, more planners are confronting the stress challenge. “Our industry is putting a big focus on wellness and how to overcome the daily challenges we face,” Castleberry says. “Planner conferences are including topics such as well-being and wellness in their agendas to address this growing need.”
According to a 2018 survey, “A View from Meeting Planners: Winning Strategies in Destination Marketing” by Development Counsellors International, safety and security topped the list of concerns for meeting planners.
Jenson agrees with the survey’s results. “If ranking overall challenges, I would have to say ensuring the safety of attendees while attending your meeting is high on the list,” Jenson says. “Considering today’s environment, one can ever predict when a crisis or critical situation will occur.”
Not having a crisis management plan can greatly exacerbate a sudden security issue. “It is imperative to have a plan in place,” Jenson says. “Planning for a crisis should start at the time a new meeting request has been made. Checking with your risk management or travel department for high-risk cities is a good start.
Technology is having a big impact on how meetings and events are planned and produced. However, many planners lack the funds to add or improve technology to reap the efficiency and benefits.
Meetings technology is advancing so fast that keeping up with it is essentially a job itself. As the number of tech-savvy attendees increase, planners feel more pressure to engage them with event apps and other technologies.
In addition, the nation’s fast-changing demographics is challenging the ability of planners to engage attendees who are increasingly multigenerational, female, minority and gender diverse. It’s a big challenge to simultaneously engage millennials, baby boomers and Gen Xers without some groups feeling disconnected. For example, according to the Global Meetings Survey, many millennials are dissatisfied with event ambience.
Most challenges often have one thing in common: They can be prevented or ameliorated by planners who know meeting stakeholders well and constantly communicate with them.
According to Jenson, “Most planners know their executive teams and are in tune with their past behaviors. So, if you know you’re a senior manager who is famous for changing up the order of speakers, prepare everyone to be ready.”
Also, Jenson suggests, run through the program with all stakeholders who have the power to make changes.
“Do this well in advance of the event start date,” Jenson says. “Make a point to get on their calendar and brief them about every detail, right down to the wine selection for dinner. After all, you don’t want to order chardonnay and find out the night of the event the president’s guest only drinks cabernet.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is the unexpected, which happens despite the best planning. Challenges big and small will become even more numerous and complex as stakeholder expectations rise, attendees demand a greater variety of experiences and budgets tighten further. That means planners must sharpen their time-management abilities, crisis-management skills, creativity and ability to do even more with even less. C&IT