It’s no wonder today’s meeting planners are considered “miracle workers” to many. From juggling myriad details, timelines and evolving tasks, along with addressing problems that arise through all stages of an event, today’s meeting planners are responsible for managing all facets of a gathering. To help with the endless details, most of today’s planners turn to innovative project management strategies and tools to keep events running smoothly.
When looking at all the project management tools out there, such as Asana, Basecamp, Trello, Slack, ClickUp and Smart Sheet, considering your team size and your software you already use every day is key. Kat Minks, luxury event designer and owner of Kat Minks Design, says a meeting planner does a lot of work via phone, making sure the mobile version is integrated with the phone’s software and doesn’t crash can be a key component to a planner actually putting the software to use. “Remember that if you spend time setting it up, make it a habit and not a waste of your most valuable resource,” Minks says. “Because time is an asset, this project tool helps you also see how much time you are spending on a project that you may not have even realized before. I know so many planners that have raised their prices after they saw on screen exactly how much they were giving to their clients.”
When deciding which project management tools to use, it is important to ask a few key questions, such as, how soon do you need to start using this software tool? And will you be able to quickly teach your team how to use the project management tool? Of course, price is also a key deciding factor. If a meeting planner is working solo, there are many free options. When a planner has more than three team members, finding a free option can be complicated. “There are some workarounds that Smart Sheet offers on Google Sheets where you can make individual projects viewable to contractors, which I know may be perfect for a lot of meeting planners,” Minks says.
Nicole Coon, CMP, vice president of membership & events at Housing First Minnesota, agrees that meeting planners should consider how do they best work and who else will be using the tool or collaborating. “Some people are highly visible workers and need those tasks front and center, others get a feeling of accomplishment checking items off their list,” Coon says. “Others need to find things quickly or need reminders with that ever-pressing due date screaming at them. Find a platform that will work best for their style.” If other collaborators are involved, know not everyone may use the tool in the same way — or have the same appreciation for it — so be flexible and see if a compromise can be made or a different tool selected for a win-win.
If there are multiple collaborators, it’s great as a way for the project manager to keep the workflow progressing. “A newer strategy we’re trying out is to have regular bi-weekly, touch-base meetings. As the event planner, I have one with our design team, one with marketing/communication team, another with admin, so we can get nitty gritty in an efficient way and always be looking ahead,” Coon says. “With what seems like an endless list of meetings and minimal white space or working time, we’ve moved meetings down to 30 minutes to keep the focus.”
Gloria Nelson, CSEP, VEMM, special events concierge at Members, Inc., is currently using Trello, and by far, it is her team’s favorite. As she explains, they have the ease and benefit of creating headers for each program on their own separate board and seamlessly copying, moving by dragging to another column and then segueing it from the planning production phase to another board for on-site, day-to-day and minute-by-minute in descending order of how the day needs to be rolled out. Users can assign stakeholders, flag due dates on tasks, use color coding according to needs, and make uploads of any type of content, including documents, spreadsheets, headshots, logos, ground transportation manifests and anything else so it’s at your fingertips.
“The biggest advantage to Trello over the other two we used in the past is the drag-and-drop feature and a holistic board picture, versus a spreadsheet or linear format of the other two we previously used,” Nelson says. “The devil’s in the details, and we assume too often we will ‘remember’ and then forget in the flurry of on-site activities.”
As an example, during a key time, perhaps in awards presentations, you may want to suspend bar service and or bussing of tables. “It is important to drop it into the tasks so it gets shared with the venue and can seamlessly be moved in Trello to the timeline … [and] communicated to the catering captain, who is in charge of communicating to the staff working the event,” Nelson says. “You can and should place the most tedious items on the tool(s) to ensure everyone is addressed and complete. It’s also a single place for communicating, so you have a history of communication taking place for the overall event.”
Jennifer Collins, CMP, DES, president & CEO of JDC Events, points out that it is important to remember that there is no one tool that would meet all project management needs, so planners need to identify the strategy for the events they produce, the budget and the functionality required. “For instance, do you need a tool that is task-based only, such as Basecamp, or do you require other needs like budgeting, communications with clients and integration with other software?” Collins asks. “Depending on the planner’s needs, that will drive the right type of project management tool.”
Collins has found that establishing set meeting times, huddles or check-ins are critical. This would be for both her internal planning team and meeting with clients or other key stakeholders. And given that the flow of information is always changing, these interval check-ins allow for Collins’ team to quickly uncover and remedy any project gaps. “We also have established template-planning materials, which reduces the time needed to work through details and their execution,” Collins says. “This includes a master work plan/timeline that serves as the engine for all details, including budget, staffing, vendors, changes and other related activities.”
With the wealth of details to organize, communicate and monitor, it’s no wonder that mistakes occur in the project management arena within meetings and events. Coon says a few common mistakes are role responsibility, adaptability and expectation management. “What I’ve noticed is that sometimes the planning of the meeting and event would be great if it was structured a little different in who is doing what — having the right people doing the appropriate task is crucial,” Coon says.
Having a strong project manager — usually the meeting/event planner — also is key. As Coon points out, it seems everyone is doing more with less and with different teammates, so being adaptable means adjusting to how it is now, not how it used to be. “The sooner you can make thoughtful adjustments, the more helpful it will be,” Coon says. “Expectation management assists with prioritization and reprioritization. It seems many planners in the current environment are doing so much more than planning. It helps hold everyone accountable and puts the focus where it needs to be based on goals and objectives.”
Another key mistake within the world of meeting and event project management is not tracking your time. As Minks explains, planners need to ask: Are you using your time in each facet of the project wisely? Is your client changing their mind too frequently on decisions you thought were made? “This is a key reason why you should be tracking your time and reminding your client of the ‘best uses of your time.’ If you have it tracked on what you’ve done, you don’t need to say much more when you present them with the outcome of the project and how much of your time they have used,” Minks says. “It will eliminate the back and forth or wishy-washy decisions if you are experiencing any of that.”
Another big problem related to project managing events and meetings is when vendors and clients are simply not on the same page. “We are in the business of communication, yet so much assumption happens when ideas, tasks and needs are not communicated, [which] becomes detrimental to the meeting going as planned,” Minks says.
Likewise, Nelson thinks it makes sense to use tools that truly add value to your planning process. She’s seen many meeting planners use software because it’s the latest and greatest, as opposed to truly assessing whether it’s right for their events. “Sometimes, an excel sheet still works quite well, so while the tools might become more sophisticated, it still comes down to what works best for your team’s type of events and the overall event planning process,” Nelson says.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic means meeting planners’ reliance on project management tools has increased exponentially. Keeping track of changes in venues, alterations in event details and even evolving vaccination and mask requirements is paramount. “I think not being on-site to talk through the moving parts of meetings and events has caused a lot of things to partially be forgotten or fall through cracks without a project management tool of some sort,” Minks says.
Additionally, the pandemic era thrust us all into a world where the more cost- or time-effective option for clients was to do virtual events. “Having more virtual events or adding a virtual component to an in-person event adds new layers to keep people engaged,” Minks says. “All of the sudden, it isn’t just about a boxed lunch, a social hour and maybe a game to get guests to be engaged. Now, you have to think about each person’s background, Wi-Fi requirements, their user ability with software used to produce an event and more. If you are back to planning live events, safety measures have added another layer of things to keep track of, along with check-in and screening processes, while also keeping true to the marketing message of the meeting in the first place. Having that project software or system in place is what will earn you returning clients and rave reviews.”
Nelson adds that the need for project management has become more critical during the pandemic, given teams are now mostly remote. The use of software to automate, track items, send reminders, collaborate and keep projects in one place offers many benefits. “However, a challenge is the ability for the software to function as needed and the compounding workload,” Nelson says. “For instance, managing more electronic communications has become a byproduct of the pandemic. While the collaboration and communications features allow interaction, they can also overload your response time and interrupt thinking, making it more difficult to concentrate and complete tasks.”
Peggy Wadman, vice president, event services at Prestige Global Meeting Source, says making the transition from in-person to virtual meetings has been the biggest challenge for meeting planners today. “Comprehensive milestones help planners eliminate tasks that are no longer needed based on the format of the current meeting,” Wadman says. “Meeting planners are now ‘touching’ meetings two to three times whereas previously they would manage an in-person meeting. Planning for the unknown creates stress. Simple meetings now take double the time they used to.”
Here’s one thing we know: Meeting planners’ dependence on innovative project management tools and resources is only going to continue to grow as the meetings and events industry continues to evolve. Minks says previously there was stigma to some team members that, if they had to use a project software, they are being “micromanaged.” But, in the last year especially, people have come to expect it and look for that guidance. “I got into the meetings and events industry years ago because I love the magic that happens when people gather for work or celebration. I know that’s why a lot of people get into this industry,” Minks says. “However, the era of communication has shifted in such a way that nonverbal communication and prompts that are documented become more important and meaningful to a team in the workplace. If anything, I think project software will become smarter in reading the data on your phone or computer so that you don’t have to think about it. Instead, it will remind you of what you may have forgotten and be able to track what you are doing by location and movement recorded by watches or phones, and compare it to emails, texts and calls.”
Moving further into 2022, Wadman thinks the industry still has a need for Zoom/Teams calls, along with basic meeting-planning tools. “We’ll need to utilize all technology has to offer for meeting planning, as long as using the solution is not cumbersome or requires creating more time to manage the tool than to plan the meeting.”
Coon stresses that project management tools and strategies will become even more important. Some planners are working with a reduced team, so they are doing more with less, but also need to be more organized doing the work. “Also, if the organization supports it, contract support will become more common. This means a system that can be easily accessed that tracks progress will be imperative,” Coon says. “I do think the tools will become somewhat more technological, but with that will come with a higher price tag.”
Being a person who lives more on the right side of her brain and working hard to remain in the middle, Nelson’s current use of Trello speaks to the different work and learning styles of a team. “But as with all technology, as new and other tech becomes available,” Nelson says. “we’ll see it either integrated into already-effective tools or a ‘new kids on the block’ roll out of entire new project management tools, pulling the best of the old tech and integrating the new elements.” | AC&F |