Similar to most professions, the skill set of the successful meeting planner includes effective communication, attention to detail, organization, time management and multitasking. But many of the skills in the event-planning trade go beyond basic logistical abilities and are no less important. Following is a close look at what veteran planners regard as their top skills, the first considered instrumental to elevating one’s role in a corporation and making a greater impact.
Planners will often have a vision about how events and processes can be improved, and getting stakeholders to subscribe to that vision becomes a vital people skill. “I feel the greatest skill needed to be a successful event planner is influence,” says Judy Payne, CMP, director, meetings and travel at Grapevine, Texas-based GameStop. When trying to persuade executives across the company to adopt a change in the way meetings are run, Payne has learned to “pitch to their passion” in order to get them excited about a new idea she is presenting.
Admittedly, she was not the most proficient influencer early on in her career. “Originally, I would go in with my passion, what makes me tick, and I would try to pitch that and convince people that my view is the right one,” she explains. “And then along the way, I learned to fine-tune my pitch and better understand my audience, better learn who I’m speaking with. I learn their passion, what makes them tick, and then reframe my ideas to help them see it from their perspective.”
Individual meetings with stakeholders may be necessary. “Pitch it to the person individually to get them on board before sitting down in the boardroom to discuss it. That way, you already have their buy-in,” she advises.
“I feel the greatest skill needed to be a successful event planner is influence.” — Judy Payne, CMP
Thanks to her ability to influence, Payne has been able to institute changes that have significantly improved the attendee experience at GameStop meetings. For example, she has convinced executives to move the opening general session to Monday morning from Sunday night. As attendees arrived on Sunday, the session drew quite a bit of energy from that first-day buzz. But on the negative side, attendees also found it hard to get to the general session on time.
“It’s a lot more casual now [since the session was moved]. We lost the rush and excitement, but the attendees now feel a lot more comfortable, and they don’t have the pressure. We’ve created more things for them to do on the arrival day and instead kick it off with a dinner. But reformatting the whole arrival took a little convincing,” Payne relates. “Some of the executives are more numbers driven, so I would go in with surveys from the past four years and show how many responders on the surveys would say the arrival day is too hectic. So depending on how they approach leadership, I would change my pitch.”
Influence is also an invaluable skill when it comes to implementing one of the most impactful changes to a company’s meetings business: the creation of a strategic meetings management program (SMMP). Reflecting the importance of getting company-wide buy-in to the SMMP, the GBTA has updated its SMMP Wheel (a circular chart depicting the primary elements of such a program) to feature “stakeholder engagement” at the center of the wheel. In trying to influence department heads to support and help develop the program, “you need to shift your conversation based on stakeholder needs,” says Victoria Johnson, CMM, CMP, global manager, Strategic Meetings Management Program at Northbrook, Illinois-based UL LLC. “You have to show stakeholders the ‘what’s in it for me’: Here are your goals, and here is how the SMMP will help to achieve those goals. For example, if I go to the security team, I talk about duty of care. Sure, they’re glad I’m saving money, but they care about the duty of care piece that SMM can offer. For the chief legal officer, here’s the contractual piece and how we avoid risk. The CFO cares about the savings, so you talk about the savings. Marketing cares about the ROI, so here’s how we helped to track ROI and customer journey.”
It should be added that influence is not just about speaking persuasively, but also about being the kind of person that inspires confidence. Stakeholders “must have confidence in your abilities or they would not agree with the recommendations that you’re making,” notes Sharon L. Schenk, CMP, director of conventions and event management for CCA Global Partners. “You’ve got to build that foundation of trust first.” Even if the planner is a new hire, there is likely already some level of confidence in his or her abilities.
“When they hired you, they knew you were bringing a skill set that they realized they needed,” she says. “And you obviously have references as a planner; you bring a portfolio of past programs and a list of accomplishments.”
Influence is certainly an aspect of negotiation, as one party is attempting to persuade the other to accept their terms. But negotiation also involves accommodating the other party’s needs and goals, in order to achieve an agreement that is as mutually favorable as possible. Given the ongoing seller’s market in the hotel industry, negotiating is one of the planner’s most valuable skills, perhaps more than ever.
“It’s a skill that can always be improved upon,” says Schenk. “I’ve taken courses in negotiation, and I think one of the big things is to be quiet, which is not easy. You have a conversation and say, ‘This is what I’m looking for,’ and then be quiet and give the other person an opportunity to think about it and come back. That’s just one of the basics of negotiation.”
The result may not be a reduction in pricing, but a different kind of added value. “Although I may not be able to get the pricing down on the hotel exactly where I want it, I could negotiate better amenities, like suites, or things that don’t necessarily get thrown in for free as concessions,” Payne explains.
In some scenarios where a planner is trying to influence internal executives, a presentation is called for. It’s an opportunity for a planner to shine in front of upper management and build that confidence, so honing presentation skills is advantageous. “Any planner who wants to change his or her job needs to learn presentation skills,” says Johnson.
Part of that is learning how to make the talk concise and focused. “We’re detail-oriented, and the C suite often does not want to hear the details,” she adds.
Beyond the presentations a planner may deliver at work, they might want to present at industry conferences, thus raising their profile in the field.
At UL, presentation skills are taught through a Global Leader Program and various courses offered by UL University. Johnson also recommends planners join Toastmasters International, especially if their company can pay for the membership.
While a planner can affect positive change via influence, he or she must also be able to adapt to unforeseen negative occurrences. And that itself is a skill. “Being able to adapt to (what seems to be constant) change is key,” according to Kim Hentges, CMP, senior planner, events and incentives with Richardson, Texas-based Lennox Industries Inc. She provides a few examples of unforeseen circumstances she has had to contend with in her work:
Dealing with these kinds of situations is a matter of resourcefulness, as well as keeping a cool head under pressure. Indeed, one might add stress management to the planner’s skill set.
Keeping one’s planning skills sharp is assisted by attending sessions at industry conferences, and a skill that especially benefits from regular education is risk management.
“When it comes to training and classes, I really feel like [it’s a priority to learn] the latest and greatest when it comes to safety and security and the ever-changing legal issues that we deal with,” Payne says. “We’re kind of in the midst of the planning when it comes to AV and design. I feel like those things come a lot more naturally. But it’s dealing with the safety and security of our attendees that is usually at the forefront of my training.”
Schenk concurs on the importance of staying abreast of trends in this area. “Risk management and security is top of mind for me,” she says. “You just have no idea when something’s going to happen, whether a natural disaster or person out to make a point. I’m working with our executive teams to put together procedures for disasters onsite. Until recently, we’ve depended on the venue to make sure that we were safe, especially if you’re in a hotel where doors are open and people can come and go with no scanning and no security.”
Schenk adds that discussing emergency procedures with hotels and DMCs is part of her site inspections and pre-cons. And informing attendees about those procedures without overly alarming them is a skill in itself.
A very broad skill that plays into event design, branding, promotion and other areas, creativity is a trait of many planners, but for some it must be developed. In either case, creativity benefits from a group effort. “I’m lucky that my whole team is pretty creative,” says Payne. “We challenge each other with outside-the-box thinking. Anytime we go to an event or a conference, anytime we see something that’s cool that draws our eye, we ask if it can be applied at our event and used to help create engagement or excitement with our attendees. I require my team to make five impactful changes to our event every year. They don’t have to be big changes where it takes a lot of work, but they have to be something the attendees will see so they know we’re trying to evolve the event.”
Payne recalls being inspired to use a comic book theme at one meeting, which resulted in powerful engagement. “I reached out to our store operations team and had them find any fantastic comments from customers on our store leaders, who are our attendees. Then I created these comic book walls all over the building,” she says. “Instead of ‘Bam’ and ‘Pow’ in the word bubbles, I put in the comments from our customers and listed the attendee’s name and store number. So when you went to registration or to the café, you could find a comment that was written about you from our customers for all the attendees to see. They were very customized callouts, and there were a few hundred of them all around the conference just to really showcase the passion of customer service when it comes to our stores. Everybody loved them. They were taking pictures with them and trying to see if they had one; it was almost like a scavenger hunt.”
The importance of creative ideas like this one in today’s meetings landscape should not be underestimated. “People are increasingly expecting an experience that’s memorable, even though it’s a business meeting,” Schenk observes. “They want to leave inspired.”
Some companies rely on third parties to integrate their event tech tools, from conference websites to apps to registration software. But it can be advantageous for the in-house planner to take on that role, or at least be well-versed in those tools. Payne’s internal team, for example, handles event website design. “We taught ourselves how to code first. Then we went into a design course and learned to be a little better at it,” she relates. “Even when we do outsource [design work], something may change last minute, such as the text or a theme. And instead of having to send it out [to be fixed], having to pay design fees and worry about last-minute printing deadlines, I’m able to do all the updates myself. We’ve learned the whole Adobe Creative Suite. I know Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign. I write my show guides from front to back myself, design it and do all the images. Everything we can, we’ve brought in-house, which helps reduce our costs a lot.”
Tech-savvy is also helpful when establishing an SMMP. Johnson, for example, is in the process of integrating Cvent’s event management software into UL’s CRM tool so that marketing and sales can access attendee data. And that functionality helps to “sell” the SMMP to those departments. “Right now, it is unknown across the enterprise who’s going to all of our events that are customers. An SMMP can do that via the Cvent tool,” says Johnson in describing her pitch to sales and marketing executives.
This skill is a key to success in many careers, but especially in meeting planning. Strong supplier relationships can ultimately mean a better experience for attendees. “Over time, business relationships can evolve, and the benefits are abundant,” Hentges remarks. “Due to these type of relationships, small acts of kindness can improve the look and feel of an event and enhance the customer experience by [for example] receiving comped upgraded napkins and chairs, receiving destination hats complimentary to use as teambuilding giveaways and getting the DJ extended 30 minutes for ‘one more song’ at no additional cost because the DJ is having fun with the attendees.”
Planner colleagues can pave the way to new supplier relationships and provide overall knowledge sharing. “Reach out to your professional relationships to receive supplier partner referrals, learn about a resort/hotel or destination that you may not have been familiar with and share experiences in general, as we all can learn from each other,” Hentges advises.
Networking and maintaining industry relationships is a skill, yet that skill can’t be exercised without effective time management. A planner needs to budget the time to maintain connections and even attend industry events held by organizations such as MPI, PCMA and IMEX, which may be challenging with a busy schedule.
Schenk, who has more than 25 years of relationship-building in the industry, still finds it worthwhile to attend these events because it “reinvigorates me personally and professionally to meet new people and to reconnect with friends and industry colleagues.” In doing so, planners may even learn about new skills whose acquisition would bolster their performance and success. C&IT