Meeting Planners’ Biggest ChallengesApril 1, 2018

As Meeting Complexity Rises, So Does the Pressure to Think Outside the Box By
April 1, 2018

Meeting Planners’ Biggest Challenges

As Meeting Complexity Rises, So Does the Pressure to Think Outside the Box

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Imagine these scenarios: Signing up to leave one’s home and family to protect the country at any personal cost. Rushing into a burning building when others rush out. Accepting the responsibility of hundreds of passengers, while operating a multi-ton aircraft amid ever-increasing security concerns. Protecting and serving citizens, often making split-second life and death decisions.

Do you see a pattern here? Stress. High stress. And lots of it.

These are job descriptions for enlisted military personnel, firefighters, airline pilots and police officers and represent America’s first, second, third and fourth highest stress professions, according to a 2017 CareerCast report — compiled after analyzing 200 careers and ranking them by 11 stress factors (including such criteria as deadlines, public scrutiny, physical demands and competition).

Any guess as to the number five spot? Of little surprise to anyone even mildly versed in the meetings arena, this less-than-coveted ranking is that of event coordinator.

Welcome to the world of today’s meeting planner. Here’s a peek into the inside scoop from the perspective of professionals, who share their challenges and their tips. So, pour a cup of coffee, keep reading and keep in mind — you’re not alone.

High Expectations

“Now more than ever, event planners are expected to ‘wow’ audiences in order to leave a lasting impression,” says Rachel Klar, CMP. As events marketing and sponsorship manager for Intuit Canada — one of the world’s leading providers of financial solutions for individuals and small businesses — she explains that given the pace of technological change, keeping up with the latest event technologies and emerging trends can be a constant challenge and a source of disruption in the industry. Additionally, the incorporation of these developments creates such tasks as engaging multigenerational attendees, competing for audience’s time and attention and achieving higher expectations with lower budgets.

How does a planner engage multigenerational attendees, especially at the same event? According to Klar, it requires insight into each audience in terms of their psychographics and demographics. She cites specifics: “For events hosted by Intuit, our audience mix ranges from baby boomers to millennials. Given this diversity, our content includes desktop product fundamentals, cloud migration basics and advanced cloud strategies.” Klar adds that understanding their audience mix allows Intuit to tailor content based on attendees’ wants and needs. “We deliberately collect user information during registration for this purpose, which allows the right content to be delivered to the right audience.”

Another challenge for today’s meeting planner is competition for an audience’s time and attention in the age of live and on-demand webinars, virtual events and other platforms affecting the ability to bring together audiences for face-to-face meetings and events. “The decision to allocate two or three days to attend an in-person event is an opportunity cost decision,” says the event specialist. “At Intuit, we understand that the value proposition for attending an event must be significantly greater than the in-office time attendees sacrifice. One way we address this issue is to offer continuing professional development credits for both our online webinars and in-person events.” According to Klar, however, helping clients maintain their professional accreditations is only one example of the company’s commitment to deliver value to its consumers.

Intuit’s software development team strives to increase the speed and accuracy of their products to improve the customer experience. “One component of our event strategy is to provide training on these new features and services. Attendees recognize that going to Intuit events can help them become more efficient over the long term and enable their future growth.” Based on its post-conference surveys, this company that specializes in business and financial management concludes that attendees view their events as worthwhile time investments.

“The challenge of delivering ‘more with less’ is a pervasive challenge within the event planning industry,” says Klar. As business leaders continue to seek higher attendance levels and engagement rates, this often translates to the addition of experiential activities to increase engagement and impressions beyond the walls of a given event. She adds, “Event planners constantly ask themselves, ‘How can I use my budget more effectively?’ ” Her answer is three-fold: “Strengthen relationships with top-tier suppliers, reduce costs by signing contracts that span multiple events and focus on budget management.” Klar cites one professional discipline she routinely practices. “I review budgets on a weekly basis.”

Stress Management

Intuit’s event planner also shares her personal approach to her anxiety-laced position. “Every career has moments of high stress and high pressure, whether it’s self-induced or derived from expectations set forth by management or colleagues.” She elaborates that event planning is an extremely rewarding career in seeing your hard work come to life and enjoyed by others, but of course, it does come with its strains. “Having the guidance and support of a mentor has helped me learn how to manage those professional pressures — especially during the first phase of my career. I now try to approach professional development as a lifelong endeavor and find support in my network of peers, industry experts and friends. Activities such as rock climbing, kickboxing and other fitness classes also provide me with outlets for tension — enabling me to compartmentalize my work and enjoy my life to its fullest.”

Ongoing Challenges

Laura Hernandez, CMP, director, meetings and events with Kaiser Permanente, reiterates the relevance and reality of today’s budget demands in relation to the meeting planner. “The biggest challenge we are facing is that our budgets have actually not grown much since the 2008 crash. During that time, hotels were giving out everything but the kitchen sink, and our clients became accustomed to receiving wonderful pricing at fabulous locations.” Expounding, she says that now that the hotel industry’s financial tide has turned and the meetings industry is generating more events, the result is greater competition.

Addressing the new norm: “Our continuing challenge is to educate clients that planning must start early,” says the Kaiser Permanente meetings specialist. Citing specifics, she refers to a variety of scenarios requiring a new mindset, circa 2018. A lack of early planning may result in a preferred property being fully booked on a planner’s desired dates. Another current-day reality is that since prices have substantially increased over the past two years, budgets must increase too if the goal is to take groups to their properties of choice.

From the perspective of Cheryl Schreiner, CMM, CMP, regional vice president, HelmsBriscoe — one of the world’s premier hotel site selection companies — her top three challenges involve “the best.” She gives insight into her role’s typical trials: “Finding the best rates for our clients, finding the best space for our clients’ needs and getting the best concessions for our clients.”

Being in a sellers’ market with space and rates at a premium, of prime worth to the planner is HelmsBriscoe’s ability to uncover the best values. “Being a pulse in the meeting industry, we can find the value, the promotions, the new builds and the cancelled space. These are challenges, but they are obstacles we pride ourselves in overcoming through solutions.”

Security Solutions

With respect to hotels, one of today’s greater hurdles is hotel security in the event of an active threat. What is the hotel plan and how does the meeting planner share that information with attendees? HelmsBriscoe’s suggestion is to address the security question during the RFP process. “We ask the hotel to inform every meeting’s attendees of the predetermined protocol detailing what to do, where to go and what is the plan should a security threat occur. It is our responsibility to ask the questions and make certain the hotel has a strategy,” says Schreiner.

From a seller’s market to security to expected solutions, Schreiner gives a glimpse into her foray with stress. “It is a challenge and you must thrive in this type of environment to be successful. I’ve found that being organized and being able to anticipate ahead of the game are the best solutions in dealing with pressure.” She underscores that communication with both clients and colleagues is key, and adds the directive to surround yourself with the best people.

Meetings Forecast

The State of the “Meetings Industry” Union is defined by a variety of facts, and according to the American Express “2018 Global Meetings and Events Forecast,” its course remains steady. Here are the stats: While a meeting’s length remains relatively the same (in contrast to 2017’s interest in shorter meetings due to the tightening of budgets), the expectation for the new year is a small increase up to 1.8 percent in the number of attendees. More than one-fifth (23 percent) of 2018’s planned meetings activity will be conferences and trade shows. The focus on attendees, which emerged in 2017, remains this year’s emphasis. And though small, there is a projected 1 percent increase in 2018 meeting budgets, as the operative word regarding the checkbook is “constraint.”

Summation of the American Express forecast: “Whether it is hotel rates, air rates or the expense of a unique venue, cost per attendee will continue to rise as clients demand a meaningful, quality attendee experience. Respondents point to the increasing complexity of meeting planning and implementation, such as sourcing a non-traditional venue or incorporating a technological innovation to enhance the meeting experience. New demands to deliver on complex meeting plans require that meeting planners think outside the box and think strategically.” As such, this is the world of today’s meeting planner. I&FMM

How Hotel Mergers And Acquisitions Impact The Planner

Granted, the talk of hotel issues in the meeting planning world is typically viewed through an “it’s a seller’s market” lens, yet many changes facing planning pros stem from hotel mergers and acquisition activity — both good and bad. Therefore, as knowledge is indeed power, check out the below list. Ranging from challenging contract negotiations to the sometimes loss of group program points, here are the top 10 impacts resulting from mergers and acquisitions, according to the American Express “2018 Global Meetings and Events Forecast.”

1.    More challenging contract negotiations, 63 percent.
2.    Changes in contractual terms and conditions, 61 percent.
3.    Change in key contacts, 39 percent.
4.    Increased investment in hotel renovations, 29 percent.
5.    Easier to establish a global preferred hotel program, 24 percent.
6.    Reflagging of local properties, 21 percent.
7.    Slower RFP response rates, 21 percent.
8.    Increased investment in meetings technology, 16 percent.
9.    Lower commission rates, 14 percent.
10.  Erosion of group program points, 12 percent.

(Source: American Express Meetings & Events Global Surveys, North America, August 2017)

Attention Planners: Here’s Where Hotels Will Negotiate

When working in a seller’s market, a feather in the successful planner’s hat is the ability to bargain. So, follow the advice of Nora Roberts’ quote: “If you don’t ask, the answer is always no,” and attempt to negotiate — everything.

According to the American Express “2018 Global Meetings and Events Forecast,” the following survey of hoteliers gives odds on the top 10 areas where negotiations are most likely to succeed.

1.    Hotel room rates, 89 percent.
2.    Free or upgraded amenities, 85 percent.
3.    Free or discounted Wi-Fi, 78 percent.
4.    Food/beverage upgrades or discounts, 76 percent.
5.    Complimentary meetings space, 68 percent.
6.    Attrition clauses, 67 percent.
7.    Cancellation penalties, 67 percent.
8.    Discounted audio-visual, 57 percent.
9.    Service charges, 33 percent.
10. Resort fees, 29 percent.

(Source: American Express Meetings & Events Key Supplier Surveys, August 2017)

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