These days, the three bandits that rob us of our productivity are stress, time constraints and procrastination. For meeting and event professionals in the association industry, stress is an expected outcome of the role. Planners juggle myriad details and handle a multitude of problematic issues throughout the duration of a planned meeting or event.
Unfortunately, a steady diet of stress can play a role in a wealth of health issues including heart disease, high-blood pressure, cancer and immune-system disorders. Dana Ellis, president and association meeting planner at Ellis International, says there are many things that are stressful in the planning process for meetings and events, and the stress level can go up and down during the planning process. “The biggest stress-inducing components of the meeting planner’s job include getting approvals, ‘buy-in,’ and content from clients in a timely fashion — especially when it’s ruled by committees and need multiple people to agree or approve,” Ellis says. “Also, budget constraints — everyone wants to do more with less — add to the stress level, and it gets really stressful within the final two weeks before the event, because everyone who missed the registration deadline or the content delivery deadline starts suddenly replying, and now you have to do a lot of the work quickly with a short window to do it.”
Of course, in the past two years, the association meeting industry also has had the added stress of handling COVID-19-related policies, planning for virtual options, costs associated with attendees who may test positive on-site and need to quarantine at the meeting hotel, and so on. “Also, we are still trying to rebook meetings from the last two years that we have a credit for at a property for cancellation during COVID, but are having trouble rebooking because now all the properties are in high demand as everyone else is trying to rebook too,” Ellis says. “And the labor shortage and supply-chain issues are real. Hotels, A/V companies and transportation companies, to name a few, are all struggling to provide the same level of service as they had pre-pandemic. And orders of gift items, if coming from outside of the U.S., are a struggle in terms of ordering far enough in advance to ensure arrival on time.”
Kim Becker, CMP, DES, SEPC, MBA, president of Emerald Meeting and Event Planning, works with many associations to plan their events. When evaluating the stress-inducing aspects of association meeting planning, Becker says in 2020 and 2021, the key stress areas were primarily: Are we going to have the meeting? And if we have the event, are we having in-person, hybrid or virtual? “All the components that came from the answers to those questions — canceling contracts, finding virtual platform or A/V providers, communication to members/attendees, what the COVID protocol will be, etc., added to the stress,” Becker says. “Plus, all the regular stress that planning a meeting puts on the person who is trying to make sure that tens or hundreds, or thousands, of people have a great experience with little to no difficulties and all the details that entails. There are so many details that go into planning a meeting, and so many people relying on you to get it right, that it can be overwhelming if you let it, and if you are not super detailed and organized.”
For Nicole Coon, CMP, vice president of membership and events for Housing First Minnesota, one of the biggest stress-inducing components of a meeting planner’s job is managing expectations and understanding what a meeting or event participant needs or wants before they even do. “Some other components that heighten the stress would be working under certain deadlines, the sheer amount of logistics and details that can go into planning a meeting or event,” she says. “Knowing that as much advance planning and preparation are done, there can still be things that don’t go as planned. For me, the three days prior to an event can be the most stressful — all the final details coming together, working with vendors, items for production and show flow, etc. Another stressful time is the meeting/event itself making sure things are going smoothly and being proactive on any issues before they escalate.”
Stress plays a key role in how well an association meeting planner can do their job if the stress level is not managed correctly. As Ellis points out, meeting planners have always had a stressful job, so that is not new. They just have some added stress points now. “There are more things that feel outside of our control now, and the impact to an event may be that the client doesn’t see any budget savings they were hoping for, and may actually see an increase to the budget as hotels, food and meeting supplies are all in high demand and limited supply,” Ellis says. “This means they are all more expensive now than they were pre-pandemic. Also, the gift item may not arrive or gets stuck in the port, and so is not available for the meeting. Or we can’t tour that facility they wanted to tour because they still are not allowing outsiders in due to ongoing COVID concerns.”
Becker agrees, saying the more stressed a meeting planner is, the more they may tend to miss things. “Sometimes, these are little things and sometimes they can be devastatingly big things,” Becker says. “The planner needs to be the voice of reason and have a level head in order to make quick decisions. If you are stressed, that is generally not the case.”
In addition, there are certain facets of association meeting planning that may add to a meeting planner’s stress level that may not happen within the corporate sector. Ellis’ meeting planner company provides services to both association and corporate clients. She says the largest and most stressful difference for association events is they tend to run events with committees making the decisions, most of whom don’t have experience running events and don’t always understand the role of a meeting planner, nor do they always listen to the recommendations or professional advice from their meeting planner.
“There are many more meetings with committees, longer discussions over minor items, and no attention given to larger issues that will impact the entire event,” Ellis says. “It just takes longer to get anything done. Also, associations often tend to have smaller budgets or at least limited budgets without the ability to add any additional funds if something else comes up. And, they don’t always value the meeting planner job and don’t understand why we should get paid to plan their event.”
Association meeting planners will always have stress, but it helps when they can educate clients on why they need decisions made by certain deadlines and what the consequences are when deadlines are not met, or last-minute changes are made. That’s why Becker says self-care is very important and one thing planners tend not to do. Focusing on one thing at a time — which is usually an oxymoron in a planner’s world — is important, particularly the closer you get to the meeting date.
“Early on in the process, making a schedule or chart of key dates so that you don’t constantly have to remember when items need to be given to other teams, or when program information needs to be to the graphic designer or printer is important. This also sets you up for success for the next year in that you don’t have to re-create the wheel,” Becker says. “There will always be challenges with planning a meeting. It’s the name of the game, so if you can set yourself up for success by pre-planning, focusing and taking care of yourself, you will be better equipped to deal with the challenges as they happen.”
To help manage the inevitable stress of planning events, it is vital to build great relationships with clients and vendors, and utilize excellent communication with everyone involved throughout the entire planning process. “It’s when you have good established relationships that you can ask your vendors for favors or have your client trust you to handle things on-site without their specific approval in advance — and not dispute it if it cost something extra to make it happen,” Ellis says. “Communication is the key. It also helps to have a planner who works well under pressure and is able to manage changes gracefully.”
Indeed, Becker adds that any good meeting planner obviously wants his or her meeting to go well. Becker’s usual statement is that she has to rely on other people to do their job well in order for her to be successful. “I can create the most detailed event order in the world, but if the venue doesn’t execute it, then I don’t look like I’ve done my part. In particular for association meetings, there is a specific need to have things go well for the membership,” Becker says. “Typically, these meetings are where the membership conducts its annual business, and for a good number of associations, the annual meeting is where they make the majority of their revenue for the year. These are two big items that weigh heavily on a planner.”
There are many online tools for registration and event websites that act like an event app so association planners can constantly update agendas, speakers and accommodate livestreams for sessions, all of which help as planners have to adapt to last-minute changes. Many planners Ellis knows still use a spreadsheet to track requests, changes and budget items. And Ellis always asks clients to put their requests in an email so she has a “paper trail” of changes, or if they discuss the changes via phone or Zoom, Ellis will send a follow-up email to confirm the changes requested so that she can get confirmation in writing, as things change fast in the days leading up to an event.
Some key ways Coon has found to reduce stress in her role is making sure to get plenty of sleep and to exercise. “I found, by doing both, I’m able to manage my stress better. Keeping boundaries between work and personal life is also key, which can be a challenge with work/life integration,” she says. “Sometimes during a hectic season, it’s hard to find the time for self-care, but it is imperative for mental health and burnout. I’ve found those few key things make me a better human, I have better stamina and clarity if I can take care of my physical needs.” She continues, “One final technique to help reduce stress is to keep it all in perspective and maintain a positive attitude. Attendees may not see the 12 things that could have taken an experience sideways that we as planners rectify on-site. They may see only one or two minor things. Or, if we do a great job, nothing other than a great experience crosses their minds. I jokingly say during an event if something doesn’t go the way as planned, ‘If that’s the worse that happens, it’s not that bad’ and I just I keep telling myself that.”
Of course, stress will continue to be an inherent part of meeting planners’ jobs. And Ellis thinks, for the foreseeable future, we will continue to see added stress due to ongoing unpredictability stemming from COVID-related issues — attendees or speakers testing positive, possible new mask mandates, possible new outbreaks, stay-at-home orders, shortages in labor and the supply chain and increased costs from fuel to food. “These impact events from traveling to an event, hotel stays, meal functions, service levels and more,” Ellis says. “Eventually, things will go back to normal, but the ‘new normal’ may look a little different. For example, hotels don’t seem to be in a hurry to return to offering daily housekeeping services, and many still offer it only on-request. I’m not sure if this service, which used to be expected, will ever come back to all hotels. Only time will tell.”
Becker points out that the meeting planning industry is much more aware of the stress of being a planner then it was prior to 2020. “And 2020 to 2021 brought out how much more stress is involved because of all the new ways of holding meetings and events,” Becker says, adding, “So, I hope the future holds that we are all much more aware of what is going on in our work life and how to mitigate it as best we can, and keep it front and center in our professional organizations and networking groups.” She continues, “For the foreseeable future, we still have COVID variants in play. Things are not back to normal, and I’m going out on a limb and saying they may never be truly ‘normal’ [again].”| AC&F |