The core elements of meeting planning remain largely the same. But forces impacting them change regularly, requiring planners to make ongoing adjustments to work parameters and processes. Geopolitical, cultural and economic trends and realities evolve and fluctuate. Technology changes so rapidly it’s almost impossible to keep up with,
while requirements for safety and security have increased dramatically in the wake of world violence.
So, what is top of mind for planners today? We asked a diverse group of professionals
from east to west what is front and center for them, and their answers cover a wide range of topics.
Kristi Casey Sanders, CMP, CMM, DES, HMCC, is director of thought leadership for MPI. She’s always looking at what is of importance to meeting planners at the moment, as well as what is likely to be of importance down the road.
Flat budgets and rising costs came immediately to mind. “Budgets are pretty flat but costs continue to escalate, especially projected hotel costs,” she says. “That continues to cause anxiety for meeting professionals.”
Another kind of emerging issue: the difference between independent and staff planners and how they’re viewed. “Independent planners are tired of being seen as second-class citizens. They’re a significant part of the meetings industry, and that’s why MPI offers specialized education and community support for them,” Sanders notes.
Safety and security, the status of women in the industry, technology and attendee experience are also issues that Sanders says are priorities for planners today.
Lindsi Wyner, CMP, senior specialist of meetings and events with American Airlines, believes two of the top three issues facing planners today are event security and hotel/venue flexibility. On the venue issue, she says, “It may be entirely due to the current market, but I am finding it harder and harder to get what I need from some venues that previously were much easier to work with. Venues currently seem to be lacking in flexibility, including availability, rate and space.”
“It’s not enough just to organize an event. You need to know who you’re designing for, what they need and help prepare them to co-create the experience with you.” — Kristi Casey Sanders, CMP, CMM, DES, HMCC
On the subject of whether issues have changed over time, Wyner says, “I don’t think that these would have been the same issues I would have noted five years ago.”
There was a lot of agreement about the most pressing issues among the planners we heard from, and a few subjects that weren’t on everyone’s mind but maybe should be.
For Shannon Yeater, CMP, conference services and events manager with a Tennessee law firm, providing information and selections for diverse audiences is top of mind. “Diversity and inclusivity have become hot topics in the world and in the meetings industry,” she says. “It is of upmost importance to plan an agenda, food offerings, leisure activities and other accommodations for an attendee base that is more diverse than we’ve ever seen. This includes more than the obvious of race, gender and sexuality. It goes further to take into account disabilities, dietary restrictions, language barriers and more. A topic of conversation while planning any event is how to be the most inclusive we can be for
Yeater also sees safety and security as one of the top things on planners’ minds, in all of its forms. “Safety and security doesn’t only mean being secure within your meeting space, conference halls and hotel rooms,” she says. “It also extends to our data and attendee information. When planning or attending large conferences, retreats and meetings, there’s a lot of personal and company information that gets shared with vendors. It’s important that we know these vendors and suppliers will keep company and attendee information private and safe.”
Yeater says a new addition to her company’s large meeting is a phone app for attendees, and its security was as important as its function. “While searching for this product, safety of attendee and company information was our No. 1 concern and discussion. Part of the criteria in our selection process was how confident we were in the safety measures taken by the supplier to protect all of this information.”
Susan Piel, CMP, owner of Spiel Planning in San Francisco, offers this take on security. “As an independent planner with clients in different industries, the biggest issues on my mind these days are related to safety and security for my client and their attendees at each event I manage. I want to ensure that we plan for the correct security for each type of event, and that can vary. I need to make sure the hotel/venue has a good plan in place, and then also supplement on my side for each client to make sure it’s appropriate for the attendees at that event. This mostly relates to physical security; however, data security and privacy are also a concern. I try to limit my access to attendee data for especially sensitive information, such as credit cards. If I don’t need a copy of the data to get my job done, that’s fine
Sanders points out that planners may have more responsibilities in this arena than ever before. “Safety and security is on everyone’s mind,” she says, “although not all event organizers understand their duty of care responsibility to keep attendees safe. If the courts side with hotels and declare that venues cannot be held liable if there’s a shooting or attack of that kind, planners and their organizations have an even bigger fiscal and legal liability than before.”
Fortunately, she adds, MPI has resources. “We convened a risk management conclave to discuss best practices. The result is The Essential Guide to Safety and Security: Best Practices for Meeting and Event Planning 2018, with nearly 400 recommendations for event organizers.” Copies are available at www.mpiweb.org/tools/meeting-and-event-safety-and-security.
Accommodating attendee food requests and working with venues to meet them is definitely a challenge these days.
Nicole R. Benner, CMP, client events manager with a Philadelphia law firm, says, “We are seeing requests and expectations for vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options at all meal events, including event breaks. I’m located in Philadelphia, and we have an amazing vegan/vegetarian food scene. It’s distressing that hotels and event venues still think a plate of pasta primavera is acceptable as a vegetarian/vegan entrée. At this point, these requests should not be surprising, and venues should be prepared to address them with tasty and creative menus.”
Some of the challenges relate to attendees themselves. “I find that attendees frequently do not request vegan and vegetarian meals in advance,” Benner says. “I’ve taken to just including five percent of my attendees in this category. All of the vegetarian meals are consumed regardless of special requests.”
Piel says that while F&B issues are not her biggest concerns, it’s often frustrating to try to capture everyone’s preferences and accommodate them. “I understand if an attendee has a specific allergy or religious diet, but when it starts getting into very minute preferences, it can be really hard to manage. And hotels can get annoyed by so many requests. Moreover, I have a hard time when I have specific meals for people, and they don’t even identify themselves at the event.”
That can translate into not only wasted food but wasted money, Piel notes. “The hotel makes these dishes, or sometimes, as in the case of Kosher, I pay a big premium for them to be brought in, but the attendee never even claims them.”
In the wake of recent events related to how women are treated in offices and industries across the nation, it’s no surprise that some planners are thinking about the status of women in the meeting and events industry.
Wyner doesn’t see this changing for good or bad. “I think that we’re currently staying stagnant, and I don’t see any change in the industry for how women are viewed or receiving equal pay. I think our industry has a long way to go to view women in a more professional light and work toward equal pay,” she says.
Trina Sharp, CMP, CMM, CED, with Point B Solutions in Portland, Oregon, does see some change. “I’ve worked with C-level men and women in the corporate industry for more than 20 years. I have also worked with other event planners and suppliers in MPI and locally through my company. For the most part, I have been treated as an equal partner by my colleagues in the event industry and co-workers in my current position. However, there are a lot of event planners who work as an ‘assistant’ in that field with less responsibility and should not be confused with a planner with more experience and more responsibility,”
“In the last few years, I have seen a change — a change for the positive. The event planner position has become more respected, and people are now acknowledging that it isn’t just party planning or ordering food. The event planner should have the ability to run and direct a meeting with C-level stakeholders, control and meet a budget that is scrutinized, have a knack for negotiating the bottom line and be able to meet the goals of both internal and external clients,” she says. “When you are representing your company and doing the items I’ve listed above, you really stand out in your company and become an asset. That’s when you will be treated as an equal partner.”
Yet even when planners take it upon themselves to build skills and be consummate professionals, there can be issues, which has not gone unnoticed by MPI.
“I think our industry is still waiting to have its #MeToo moment,” Sanders says. “We know that there’s uneven gender representation and pay equity. What we don’t know is when abuses of power will be brought to light and bring down prominent players in our industry. We do know a lot of women have stories.”
To make it easier for planners to report offenses or receive guidance, MPI has set up a hotline hosted by a third party, EthicsPoint. Planners can learn more at www.secure.ethicspoint.com/domain/media/en/gui/56572/index.html.
Although most planners didn’t express concerns about political and economic forces in the world affecting their work, Wyner believes there’s reason they should be thinking about them. “This should be a bigger concern to meeting planners. With the trade agreements and agriculture issues now in play, our costs could increase greatly, and there is truly a concern that our budgets will take a big hit as a result.”
To be sure, technology is advancing at a faster rate than ever before, and its use impacts all areas of life — including meeting and event planning. It’s no surprise that Wyner lists “oversaturation of new technology and keeping up with it” as one of the top three issues that challenge her on a regular basis.
But does every event require the latest technology?
Elizabeth Glau, CMP, who works with event tech company Sciensio in Portland, Oregon, notes that “the speed of change keeps getting faster and faster,” but also points out that the newest technology may or may not be necessary at all conferences.
“There’s a theory called ‘Jobs to be Done’, and the application here,” she says, “is that you need to be very clear about what the job is you are hiring your technology to do. If it is just there for the sake of it, maybe you don’t need it.”
The best way for planners to know what technology is needed for any given event is to be clear on event objectives. As Sanders notes, “It’s not enough just to organize an event. You need to know who you’re designing for, what they need and help prepare them to co-create the experience with you. As a result, I conduct a lot of focus groups and meet-ups
to better understand for whom I’m creating education and experiences. It helps me accelerate innovation and diversify what we offer in ways that have increasing relevance
in the marketplace.”
Among the innovations that Glau says planners should think about, and perhaps even request in venue RFPs, are chatbots, “which can be supplemented with the information about an event.”
Latest innovations aside, ultimately technology is a powerful tool if planners know how and when to use it. “Access to data and increasingly easy access to insights, as well as the ability to integrate data from one system to another, is a positive change for our industry,” Glau says. “This makes organizers much more efficient in proving the value of their events and tying events to business outcomes.”
While our professionals readily addressed issues they’re confronting these days, they also weighed in on what young or new planners should be focused on that maybe they aren’t,
simply because they don’t yet know every in and out of the job and industry.
“I think young planners have difficulty understanding that everything, including the work done by vendors and venues, is ultimately their responsibility,” Wyner says. “It’s easy to tell someone you need something, pay them and assume that what you are asking for will be done the way you want it done. But when there’s no follow-up and the ball is dropped, the planner is the one who has to take accountability. As planners, we have a responsibility to our meeting owners to execute their vision and deliver on their needs. We can’t blame our partners, venues and vendors if we don’t participate in the conversations, set the expectations and do the proper follow-up. I think young planners often take those relationships for granted and make assumptions rather than doing the extra work to ensure the delivery of these needs is precise.”
Sharp says certification and getting involved with professional organizations should be a goal. “Planners who want this as a career choice need to think about what kind of certification they should get and how to work toward that. There are the following certifications: Certified Meeting Professional (CMP), Certification in Meeting Management (CMM), Certification in Event Design (CED) and others, including an associate degree that some colleges offer in meeting planning. Young and new planners should also get a mentor from their local MPI board of directors, who will take the time to meet with them and go through the different options and future planning. Volunteering for your local MPI chapter is also a great way to get your foot in the door. MPI chapters provide continuing education and also offer the best networking you can do to assist you in your job search.”
Benner agrees. “I’d say that ‘kids today’ aren’t thinking about the value of membership, participation and eventual leadership in a professional association. It’s hard to say what people should be focusing on, but by becoming active as a committee member and then taking on a leadership role in my local MPI chapter, I’ve learned so much — and not only by attending monthly education programs on new and timely topics in the industry but also by doing tasks that are outside of my usual job functions.”
Benner says volunteering has helped her become well-versed in creating marketing plans, using social media to promote events and boosting events through paid promotion. “I get to be creative with room set-ups and unconventional layouts to test engagement and excitement for monthly meetings in ways I can’t risk with my day job,” she points out. “Honing these new skills in a low-risk volunteer environment allows me to see potential pitfalls and mistakes before they happen in my career, so when I’m able to implement a new idea professionally, I’ve already tried it out in a volunteer capacity.”
Yeater, too, sees the value of connecting with other professionals — and not just the obvious ones. “One thing I would tell beginning planners and young professionals is to meet everyone, and connect with anyone. We all get caught up in knowing those immediately around us, including our colleagues, shareholders and the vendors we use most frequently,” she says. “However, there is a large network of people in our industry who don’t carry the planner title, don’t have a product you think you would ever use or don’t apparently have the knowledge you think you could learn from.”
Those, in fact, have turned out to be among Yeater’s most fruitful contacts. “The best and most useful relationships in my personal and professional life have grown from those relationships that were not immediately obvious,” she says. “These people can be connections you’ll use for future jobs, a referral for a product you thought you may never need for an event or someone who can mentor you when it comes time to earn your CMP, CMM, DMCP or other industry designation.
“As a new planner and new professional, I suggest you be a sponge and soak up everything you can learn from anyone obviously in the meetings industry, as well as those surprisingly woven into it. You (and your boss) will be pleasantly surprised when some of that seemingly useless or unnecessary information can make you the star of the show!” C&IT