Career PathsJanuary 16, 2024

How to Become an Association Meeting Planner By
January 16, 2024

Career Paths

How to Become an Association Meeting Planner

When you think of the professional meeting planners who work within the association industry, knowledge, experience in their field, determination and fortitude in an industry that is challenging and evolving — all these factors come to mind. Association meeting planners encompass a growing segment of the events industry and have earned accolades aplenty from both inside and outside of the meeting planning world. But what exactly is an association meeting planner, and what steps do you take to become one?

For starters, association meeting planners work differently from corporate meeting planners. While both groups help manage meetings, conferences and events, corporate planners tend to book meetings last minute, while association planners are planning for meetings years in advance. They also focus on incentives that reach into the future, not short-term incentives that may end next week or month.

Like most professional planners, association meeting planners are likely to be certified (CMP) or have some formal education behind their names. Typically, smaller associations often contract out their conference to a professional meeting planner, who essentially becomes quite integrated into the association. While not formally staff, they operate as such when working for the association.

If you have recently entered the meetings industry and are looking to work as an association meeting planner, joining an industry association like the American Planning Association (APA), Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), Meeting Professionals International (MPI) or The Wedding Internationals Professionals Association (WPA), to name a few, might help you take your career to the next level.

Career Paths

For years, Kyle Jordan, CAE, CEM-AP, CMP, DES, has possessed a career built in member-driven associations and bringing an out-of-the-box approach to meetings management. Today, Jordan is the director of meeting at INFORMS, an international association for operations research and analytics professionals in Washington, D.C. Prior to that he worked as the vice president of membership at meetings at the National Confectioners Association and was the managing director of learning and conferences at the Financial Planning Association. His long-standing career as an association planner affords Jordan a unique understanding of what it takes to have a career in this segment of the industry.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all path to becoming an association meeting planner. It’s more of a choose-your-own-adventure kind of journey,” Jordan said. “You can dive right into the profession itself or work in adjacent or allied areas of the industry. “You could start by working for a hotel, where you’ll get a taste of what it’s like to plan events in a specific venue, or work for a general services contractor, where you’ll learn the ropes of managing logistics for all sorts of different types of events.” The great thing about being a meetings professional is that you become a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, he said. You’ve got to know a bit about everything — from the culinary world to the technical wizardry of AV setups, and even some legal know-how.

“There are various ways to break into the association meeting planning, and while I can’t speak for everyone, I’ve come across some several stories from colleagues, like mine,” Jordan said. “We began our careers as association planners for groups that we were already a member of or had affiliations with. It’s a bit like turning a hobby or a passion into a profession, and it’s worked out quite well for myself and several of my colleagues.”

Jordan began as a volunteer registration coordinator for an association in the industry that he was working in at the time. He found genuine joy in helping manage conferences and events, and Jordan took the knowledge and skills he gained as a volunteer and landed his first professional role in meetings for a state government agency.

Following the 2009 financial crisis, which hit government employees hard, Jordan decided to explore opportunities in associations. Fortunately, a few years later, he secured a position with an Association Management Company (AMC) that managed an association he was already a member of. That’s when his career in meetings really took off.

“I have a strong connection to association work because it’s where I started my career as a meetings professional, and I’ve experienced firsthand the tremendous value of association membership,” Jordan said. “Associations have this incredible knack for bringing together individuals who share a common cause, purpose, or industry, and when you’re a part of that type of community, you can have an amazing impact.”

Education — In the Classroom | On the Field

Jordan earned his bachelor’s degree from Valparaiso University, and he holds two master’s degrees — one from Washington State University and another from Western Carolina University. Interestingly, none of his formal education was directly related to hospitality or tourism. However, he has discovered that the knowledge and skills he acquired from his studies are incredibly valuable in his daily work.

“I believe that you don’t necessarily need a hospitality degree to thrive in this profession; it’s all about one’s innate curiosity and the dedication to providing exceptional service,” Jordan said.

During her 13+ years of event management experience, Marcia White has reliably coordinated vendors, speakers and sponsors for both in-person and virtual venues. Today, White is a senior manager of strategic events, meetings & incentives  at MCI USA and said that attending events and helping in some capacity will get people the experience they need to get a job in the event industry.

“I started out in the education department and gained experience working on site at education events and then responsibilities just grew from there,” White said. “Experience and learning on the job is a good way to get the feel of what a meeting planner does and gain that experience.”

White kind of fell into event planning. Growing up, she always loved to plan family gatherings.  When she went to college, she didn’t know there were any specific type of degrees to major in to make event planning her career, so she studied communications with a public relations emphasis and a minor in marketing.

“My first job out of college was working with public relations and I knew this wasn’t totally what I wanted to do,” White said. “So when I changed jobs, it had more of an education and marketing focus. This is where everything changed.”

Working in the education department opened up her eyes that planning events did exist. She started helping out in small amounts with the education events they had at the corporate office. Then her role moved onto helping with domestic and international events in some capacity.  The company then did a reorganization and since White was helping with events already, they merged all the event planners into one department and she was trained on managing events.

“Ever since that time, I knew that was the career I wanted, and ever since then, I’ve kept working in events and growing my knowledge through online resources, coworkers and the valuable experience you get from just being onsite working an event,” she said.

Since starting in the event planning industry, White has worked on corporate and association events from start to finish: sourcing venues and finalizing contracts to working the event onsite to final billing. She’s also helped at events or helped plan a small part of an event.

“It all depends on the size of the event and how much needs to be done to make an event a success. I’ve always loved planning events and the reason I’ve stuck with it for so long is because I love seeing something through from start to finish,” White explained. “I love seeing people at the conferences enjoying themselves, seeing those in person that I may not see regularly and also being able to learn something valuable and taking that back to their office. All these things impact their lives and knowing I was a part of that makes it all worthwhile.”

Rich Santana, senior meeting planner at Impact Association Management, said it’s also important for planners to be their own biggest advocate. If there are aspects that you want to learn, ask if you can help with projects and tasks in those areas so you can gain experience. Utilize any one-on-one with your manager to talk about your goals and how to accomplish them.

Santana’s journey within the association meeting and events industry began when he was working as an office temp by day and performing improv throughout Chicago. He took a three-day assignment making phone calls for an association during their membership drive and was asked to stay on and fill in for their meeting planner while she was on leave.

“Three months later, they created a permanent position for me on the team when the planner came back and I never looked back,” Santana said. “That was 20 years ago!”

Santana’s planning career started at a small association, first with managing speakers and sponsorships. He eventually moved on to two other associations, both times looking for a role that allowed him to gain experience in different areas. His second role allowed him to focus on more event logistics, and his third association role allowed Santana to work with hotel room blocks.

“I went to a small Catholic University outside of Chicago called Benedictine University, majoring in international business with a minor in political science. After college, I decided improv was right up my alley,” Santana said. “I lucked into an event position and haven’t looked back since. I was fortunate to have excellent mentors who not only showed me the ropes but helped me learn from mistakes I made.”

Tricks of the Trade

Jordan recommended that those both inside and outside of the meetings industry, who may be interested in the association side of the business, experiment with different aspects of meeting planning.

“You may be surprised at what ignites your enthusiasm. Maybe orchestrating large-scale conferences will thrill you, or perhaps the meticulous detail of a science meeting will capture your heart,” Jordan said.

Most importantly, build relationships — with clients, vendors, and fellow meetings professionals. These connections are not just professional networks; they can become your source of inspiration, your support system, and sometimes, your closest friends.

“My advice is to embrace the mission. Understand the heart and soul of the association you’re working with,” Jordan explained. “Become a champion of their cause because when you’re passionate about what you’re planning, the meetings you create can become catalysts for change.”

White added that planners should make sure to have their resume up-to-date with the skills related to meeting planning “front and center” — such as budgeting and any management tools and skills you have.

“There are various job titles that encompass event management. Starting as an event coordinator or assistant can give you the beginning experience you need to learn more about the industry,” White said. “Once your experience grows, you will be able to add to your resume and become involved in the industry more and more.”

If you are just starting in the association events planning industry, White’s advice is to first find what area or topic you are interested in. This can help narrow your focus. Then she would suggest finding groups online that you can network with and follow.

“Try to attend some industry events or tradeshows. That’s an easy way to find people in the industry. And always have your resume handy,” White said. “You never know who will want it. Be confident in your event management skills, no matter how much experience you have.  Association events can range in size from a small event to a big event and being confident in your skills and industry is the best asset to be successful in association events.”

Santana recalled the adage that it’s a small world out there. Well, the event world is even smaller. As he pointed out, it seems we’re all two or three degrees separated from each other in the meeting and events planning industry.

“My advice is to start networking as soon as possible and focus not just on contacts that can help you find a job, but other planners that are willing to answer questions or give advice,” Santana said. “There are associations for everything, find ones that matches your values and reach out to see if there is a need. Network with other planners and suppliers that can help you find and get into an open position.” | AC&F |

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