Meeting Planners Recount Their Best and Worst ExperiencesAugust 30, 2018

From Floundering Failures to Super Successes By
August 30, 2018

Meeting Planners Recount Their Best and Worst Experiences

From Floundering Failures to Super Successes
The sounds of a band echoing throughout the formal gardens, as well as a grand fireworks display, created a successful event at Vizcaya Museum & Gardens in Miami.

The sounds of a band echoing throughout the formal gardens, as well as a grand fireworks display, created a successful event at Vizcaya Museum & Gardens in Miami.

Success, according to legions of leaders from industry, politics and beyond, is in many ways dependent on failure. John C. Maxwell, noted author and speaker, put it this way: “Without failure, there is no achievement.”

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX among other companies, famously points to his resume of “epic failures” and says, “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

So how do the most talented in our industry create successful programs? And what do they do when success eludes them? We asked eight meeting and event professionals for their insights.

One thing is clear: Most of us don’t like the word “failure.”

“We don’t use the word failure at our company,” says Paul Nix, CMP, CTA, DMCP, president of Capers DMC, a Hosts Global member in San Antonio, Texas. “We view ‘failures’ as an opportunity. Simply put, they are learning experiences.”

Dana Weaver, CIS, with Growmark, Inc., and a SITE Foundation trustee, also sees challenges as opportunities. “Beware of a planner who says, ‘Everything always goes according to the original plan.’ In fact, alternate plans are implemented more often than not. I believe there are no problems; just lots of opportunities to discover new solutions.”

Nell Nicholas, senior director, global accounts with HelmsBriscoe, believes learning from mistakes is a lifelong proposition. “I feel blessed that I’m at a stage in my career where I can more easily learn from my mistakes than perhaps when I started in the industry. Didn’t we all think we were infallible in our 20s? For me, the life lesson is to accept that mistakes are an inherent part of the learning curve, and we are never too old to learn something new, professionally and personally.”

In the end, it’s really about how you face challenges, what you learn and how you move forward.

Rhonda Brewer, MICE industry consultant and SITE president in 2015, describes an event that went sideways when the contracted entertainment didn’t show or respond to calls. “Since we had prepaid, we didn’t have a plan B,” she says. “We went into action calling multiple providers of the same service. We ended up with a show — just not the show that was promised. Fortunately, no one knew what to expect, so in the guests’ eyes, it was still a successful evening. But in our eyes, it was much more stress and not what was promised.”

Planners will always be challenged with “curve balls,” Brewer notes. It’s how they deal with them and how they communicate to the client that turns things around. “Honesty on the situation and what you are doing to resolve it is the best plan of action. Assess the situation,” she advises. “How will it impact the client and guests? How will it impact your budget? Then quickly determine steps to resolve or come up with an alternative — and communicate, communicate.”

“Beware of a planner who says, ‘Everything always goes according to the original plan.’ In fact, alternate plans are implemented more often than not.”
— Dana Weaver, CIS

Weaver recalls a challenge early in his career at Growmark, an agriculture supply company, which traditionally had an average qualifier group size of 150. In the last three months of the earning period the year Weaver arrived, the group more than doubled to 352, leaving two months to make adjustments.

“We needed more resort rooms, more rental cars, more space for activities, more dining area, more meeting space, more awards and more gifts,” he says. “I learned that my reputation as a buyer/planner is important in these situations. I also have to have a full understanding of the industry, knowing what’s possible and what is not possible to overcome a problem. As our incentive programs are open-ended, I learned that selecting resorts with 500-plus rooms gives me flexibility to add rooms if needed. I also learned that the participants who earn the reward don’t know the original plan, so most changes go unnoticed by them.”

Colleagues also make a difference. “Attending industry education and networking events allows me to engage in conversations about opportunities to overcome unplanned situations,” he says. “The best resources are other planners who help me think through situations and discover solutions.”

Amy Maxey, manager, global conferences and events with Hyland, a software company, learned a hard lesson in 2014, when she joined the company. “Balancing customer expectations, budget and growth can be a nightmare for planners,” she says.

That year, rising production and F&B costs coupled with increased attendance were making it difficult to balance the budget. One strategy was to eliminate free-flowing coffee, bottled water and bottomless bowls of candy bars. Refreshments were limited, water stations were set up.

“To say customers noticed these changes is an understatement,” Maxey says. “The positive conference survey results we were accustomed to took a nosedive that year. Let’s face it, attendees don’t have insight into conference food and beverage pricing, which is often highly inflated compared to what is paid at the grocery for the same item. Our attendees didn’t understand the reasons, they just knew they were thirsty and hungry all week.

“In our quest to control costs, we lost sight of the negative impact on an otherwise successful event. Education and networking are important to any conference; however, attendees remember the experience over everything else. Ensuring positive customer experiences in all we do is essential at Hyland. It’s part of our culture and core values. To hear that our customers and employees had a negative experience at our flagship event was devastating.”

The question the following year became how to ensure a positive customer experience while maintaining costs. Maxey says their strategy started with planning early and working with the hotel and vendors to create custom menus and networking events that would provide a positive experience without breaking the bank.

“We also looked at ways to negotiate new contracts with vendors to save costs elsewhere. We cut back on our general session set and restructured our networking event schedule. Through our partner, Experient, we negotiated additional incentives, such as food and beverage discounts and rebates, into our contracts to help offset costs. Finally, we researched conferences of similar size and scope and realized we weren’t charging enough. Through a nominal increase in registration fees, we increased available funds and improved attendee experience.”

The strategies worked. “Our Net Promoter Score (NPS) jumped more than 32 points in one year! Our alumni rate (repeat attendees) has increased every year. As planners, we take tremendous pride in the events we produce. These events are built with our blood, sweat and tears, and we want attendees to have the best conference experience possible,” Maxey says. “Following the 2014 event, I read every word on each individual survey and was heartbroken. I made it my mission to turn that failure into success.”

Today, Hyland continues to grow its global customer base and conference attendance. “Our annual end-user conference has more than doubled since 2014, and our NPS scores remain high,” Maxey notes. “That being said, I still read every word on each survey to ensure I keep pace with customer feedback. I’ve started reading the real-time responses in the mobile app during the event to address attendee feedback immediately. Now,
instead of being heartbroken when I see the results, I’m beaming with pride that our customers are having such a positive experience.”

What ultimately separates success from failure? Hard work, preparation, creative thinking and willingness to venture where others have not can define successful events. As for failure, sometimes the issue is out of a planner’s control, and sometimes failure results from an error in judgement. Professionals understand that both success and failure are part of the job.

Danielle Rothenberg, experience designer with AlliedPRA South Florida, is rightly proud of a successful event set at Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, an opulent, Italian-inspired National Historic Landmark.

“The event was crafted as a complete surprise for attendees, beginning with guests entering through the unmarked service entrance,” Rothenberg says. “They were greeted with a specialty cocktail and led down waterfall steps to the sounds of a violin duo echoing throughout the formal gardens. After cocktails, guests were escorted through a secret garden entranceway and around the waterfront to the East Terrace for dinner. Special touches were made throughout the entire event, including a history of the property.”

The site’s architectural, landscaping and natural beauty made the setting stand out, and the thought and service Rothenberg and her team put in elevated the event even higher.

Sometimes, however, situations arise that cannot be foreseen, as was the case with Rothenberg’s high-end incentive program just six hours before check-in.

“A foreign king, his security detail and the secret service were staying at the luxury hotel. They decided last minute to extend their stay. The planner was literally in the air on the way to our pre-con when she was informed that the guest rooms she booked were no longer available. The hotel worked vigorously to secure sleeping rooms at two comparable area hotels.”

he biggest challenge, Rothenberg says, was that the group’s meeting space, receptions and meals were already scheduled to be hosted on property. “Don Bontemps, senior event producer, was quick on his feet to save the day. He worked with the hoteliers and client to come up with solutions. Sleeping rooms were selected at one of the comparable hotels, and a continuous shuttle service was arranged between the properties.”

Not as simple as it sounds. “Special arrangements had to be made for continuous use of the hotel’s front ramp for the shuttles. Mr. Bontemps had to coordinate directly with the royal family’s security detail and the secret service to ensure that our group’s movements wouldn’t interfere with the royal family’s arrivals and departures,” Rothenberg says. “It was the definition of every planner’s worst nightmare.”

In the end, hard work and creative re-planning turned disaster into success. Among the positives according to Rothenberg: “Attendees were able to experience not one but two of the most amazing properties in Miami Beach with two totally different design aesthetics.”

The devil, as the saying goes, is often in the detail, as Nicholas has learned. “One client’s objectives is to ‘delight the attendee.’ If that succeeds, she considers it a successful program even if things aren’t going perfectly behind the scenes. We recently booked a unique property that had unconventional meeting space, a good fit for this group. When we saw the A/V setup, however, we realized the screen was too small for the space. We thought surely this would hinder the attendee experience. When we told the attendees that we found another hotel for next time, they made clear they wanted to stay at the unique hotel with unconventional meeting space. As a venue finder, the failure on my part was that I was focused on finding the right ambience, one objective for this program, but failed to consider more carefully the A/V placement. The program was a success, but I gave my client a few gray hairs in the interim.”

For Terry Manion, executive vice president with Meridican Incentive Consultants in Ontario, Canada, a lesson involved a perennial planner challenge — airlines.

“The morning after the welcome dinner of a program in Panama, we were boarding the group onto coaches for tours when we learned our airline had gone bankrupt. The airline took no responsibility and provided no assistance. The only option was to make individual bookings for each of the 220 guests.”

Manion’s team went to work and kept attendees informed. “We set up a communications lounge so people could contact family and co-workers. We triaged guests, booking those first who had to get home for commitments that couldn’t be missed.”

And the program went on as planned. “What we learned,” Manion says, “is that open and honest communications and not leaving participants in the dark was key. By doing our best to reduce guests’ concerns, they continued to enjoy the program, and everyone left Panama on the originally scheduled departure day.”

Sometimes success is in making the impossible possible, which was the case when a client of Nix wanted to buy out San Antonio Riverwalk. “As the DMC, I asked, ‘You mean the second-largest visited tourist attraction in the state of Texas? You want to close it down for a private event?’”

He told the client not to get her hopes up as it had never been done —but didn’t say no.
“We knew we’d never get approval to buy out the entire Riverwalk, so we went to the city with a scaled back request of a buyout of 10 restaurants and two museums on the Riverwalk, with the addition of a large, flat parking lot and a six-block street closure.”
The theme developed into a carnival and culinary night under the Texas stars. Success was realized, Nix says, thanks to a city government that knows the importance of hospitality and to the Capers team’s relationships with the agencies involved.

“City agencies were not a ‘road block’ to our plan but helped us bridge our ideas into a workable plan,” he says. “Agencies included Visit San Antonio (our DMO), the San Antonio parking division, streets department, health department, police department, fire department, downtown operations, parks department, park police and Texas Alcoholic Beverage Control, to name a few.”

Nix says it took many hours of meetings to get approvals, but the plan came to fruition. “We took on this massive project with one main point of contact and then divided the work among team members. We believe anything can be accomplished with detailed planning. The party was a huge success due to out-of-the-box thinking and the great relationship we have with our city government and our DMO.”

The outcome, he notes, “was serving 5,000 people from 10 private restaurants and two museums and incorporating each restaurant and a major catering company on the streets and parking lot to create a true cultural culinary experience of San Antonio. Carnival rides, games and activities were spread throughout the six blocks of closed streets.”

The client called it the best closing-night reception the group had ever had. “That, to Capers, is a true success story.”

It can be brilliant to say yes to the impossible. But saying no can be the smart move, too.
“We want to make our clients happy,” Nix says. “We want their guests to have an awesome experience in San Antonio. Sometimes, however, we don’t realize our own limitations. At times, we say yes when instead we should tell them that what they want can’t be done successfully.”

One such “learning opportunity” arose when Capers was tasked with transporting 2,500 guests from the convention center to a ranch an hour away during high-traffic time.
“We went to work to see what Capers could offer to make this bus ride feel as short as possible,” Nix says. “First, we arranged a police motorcycle escort with every group of busses to expedite transport. Then, we came up with a brilliant idea that we had done successfully on three to four coaches in the past, but never 53 vehicles. We spoke to vendors that had previously provided trivia and other games on bus rides for us. Two turned us down, stating they couldn’t get enough bus leaders trained for so many vehicles. That should have been a red flag for us.”

Ultimately, they found a vendor willing to work with them and shared the team’s expectations and how they sold the overall experience to the client for its attendees’ enjoyment. There were microphones on every bus, and they all worked.

“However,” Nix says, “the challenge was that once a question was answered, game attendants had to put down the microphone and walk back to give that winner a prize ticket. They had to keep the program running while they did this, and no one on the bus could hear them as they walked up and down the aisle. Additionally, there was no consistency with the energy of the bus leaders. Most just read questions from a card and it became boring fast, while some leaders were energetic and kept people engaged.”
What was the lesson learned? “We should have known our limitations and that of our vendors and not offered this service,” Nix says. “From our client’s mouth to our ears, ‘It was a flop.’ Ouch! We failed our client because their guests didn’t receive the experience we had been able to provide for smaller groups.”

With so many complaints, Capers refunded the client’s fee. “We want to make our clients happy. Sometimes we stumble in the process to make that happen. This learning opportunity helped us better know our limitations and those of our vendors. You must be willing to learn from the lows in order to create more highs,” Nix says.

The truth is, failure is inevitable. You can’t always prepare for it, but you can always learn from it. Once a planner discovers that, success is sure to follow. C&IT

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