Staying Ahead of the CurveMay 1, 2018

Keeping Up With Technology and Client Expectations Gives Independent Planners a Leg Up By
May 1, 2018

Staying Ahead of the Curve

Keeping Up With Technology and Client Expectations Gives Independent Planners a Leg Up
PROfound Planning’s Dahlton Bennington (left), director of meetings and incentives, and Marissa Torres, manager of meetings and incentives, in New Orleans.

PROfound Planning’s Dahlton Bennington (left), director of meetings and incentives, and Marissa Torres, manager of meetings and incentives, in New Orleans.

Successful businesses stay abreast of how client expectations evolve, and meeting planning companies are no exception. What today’s clients desire from external planners has moved in the direction of both technological and strategic consultation. Meeting technology, from apps to smart badges, develops so rapidly that many client companies, even those with internal planners, lack the time to research the latest tools that may benefit their events. Regarding strategic consultation, the assistance that third-party planners can provide is quite varied, ranging from cost control to event design to ROI measurement.

What Drives Event Design

“Being able to identify learning opportunities and determining ROI on programs is probably the No. 1 thing (clients are) looking for.”
— Dahlton Bennington

Dahlton Bennington, CMP, CMM, director, meetings and incentives with Dania Beach, Florida-based PROfound Planning, has her finger on the pulse of these strategic needs. She observes, “From a procurement standpoint, I would say they are definitely looking for us to assist in cost avoidance. We are purchasing higher volumes of (products), so we can get better deals.” In terms of event design, “I would say they’re looking for opportunities to be more socially responsible. That’s more of a focal point than sustainability, which is important but I don’t think it’s in their top five driving factors.”

Of course, the event design side comprises much more than brainstorming a philanthropic element for a program. Site selection is an integral part of event design, and involves what Deanne Bryan, vice president, event management with Seattle, Washington-based CRG Events, calls “scenario planning.” “If we want to have the meeting in DC versus L.A., what does that look like? We consider the different labor unions, for example.” Third-parties can bring to light financial considerations that help to weigh the different scenarios. “It’s not just collecting supplier invoices, plugging it into a spreadsheet and then helping to process some of the payments,” Bryan says. “What are some of the geopolitical factors that would shape the budget? What is the financial model? Is this a break-even event? If so, what do we need to do to implement that? It’s having those types of conversations.”

To provide this kind of consultation, event-planning companies must appreciate the strategic role that a given meeting is playing in their client’s organization. “At the end of the day, it’s about looking at meetings as a strategic tool that leadership of organizations can use to accomplish their goals,” says Bennington. “If the goal is to go from a $3 billion to $5 billion company, they’re going to do that by merger or acquisition, penetrating accounts further to bring in revenue, etc. How they do that is by having meetings with their sales team to give them the tools to penetrate accounts further, or using meetings to integrate the cultures of companies that they’ve now acquired with their own.” For independent planners who want to provide strategic input, MPI’s Certificate in Meeting Management is an ideal educational background. Compared to the CMP, Bennington feels that the CMM focuses more on the “strategic approach to meetings and what one needs to do to accomplish goals and objectives through meetings and events.”

On the technology side, third-party expertise is equally valuable. “Whether it’s apps, registration tools, audience response systems, etc., technology is a huge trend and something that is needed in almost all meetings across the board,” Bennington observes. “It’s constantly evolving. They’re looking for us to have that experience, as they don’t necessarily know what to ask for.” According to Bryan, some of CRG Events’ clients are looking for her company to have proficiency with “collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack,” and more broadly to automate processes whenever possible.

“We’re moving toward a culture of automation and constantly (asking questions such as): Why are we delivering this in a Word document? Is there a newsletter format? What other tools exist that can make this process faster?”
— Deanne Bryan

To deliver value on that front, CRG Events has a team that acts like a knowledge-sharing committee on the latest tech products. “They sit in on demos and go to conferences to actually see the technology implemented,” says Bryan. “Then they bring ideas forward in our department meetings, keeping us abreast of new and emerging suppliers. We can then make a strong recommendation to our client. We also send planners outside of our industry a couple times a year; for example, we recently sent someone to SXSW to experience that event from an attendee perspective. And they said (the festival) had this cool networking technology that might be worth implementing on our client’s show. So we can bring that to our client, and they know we’re out in the field doing research.”

The technology initiative can also dovetail with other trends, such as staying paperless to support sustainability and attendee expectations to that effect. Longtime planner Marsha S. Reynolds, CMP, president/owner of Atlanta, Georgia-based Reynolds Meeting & Event Management, has been implementing meeting apps for about five years. “I’m paperless these days with meetings and it’s really a good feeling. People are used to getting a mobile app, not a program book.” With many presentations shortening to a TED Talk format and Q&As becoming more prominent, the app can include an audience response feature as well as presenters’ slides for attendees to review beforehand, Reynolds adds.

Reynolds’ immersion in meeting technology is not only a reflection of an industry trend, but also of her clientele. “They’re all on the corporate side, and 90 percent in the technology industry. That’s our core business, including user meetings, sales meetings and incentive meetings,” she explains. Such companies naturally want app-facilitated meetings, given their attendee demographics and the tech-savvy image they want to uphold.

Specializations That Carry Weight

The tech specialty is part of Reynolds’ overall skillset, and each independent planner or event management firm must seek to define that skillset and the specialties it includes. The result is clarity on one’s industry niche and specific value proposition. Bennington considers her personal specialty to be organization and project management. “The majority of my clients are looking for project management and managing not only my team but their internal teams as well,” she says. As a company, PROfound Planning’s specialization is incentives, including the ability to benchmark the design and effectiveness of a client’s incentive program versus those of similar clients. Her team feels a “great satisfaction in conceptualizing a program that will drive performance in an organization, implementing it, and looking at the individuals whose performance has improved because of the recognition,” Bennington says.

Among CRG Events’ specialties are site searching, contracting and budget management. “We have a site search and contract specialist who sits underneath event management, and we also recently launched a budget program,” Bryan explains. “We’re definitely seeing an unmet need and an opportunity with some of our clients to demonstrate some fiscal leadership as far as managing large-scale budgets. So we moved some people from the finance team to our event management side, and they work alongside a lot of our project managers. They own the budget and work on our client-specific budget management tools. They help to drive conversations around how to translate the money into attendee experiences.”

Creating a brand experience for attendees is the specialty of Schaumburg, Illinois-based Total Event Resources, led by President/Chief Creative Officer Kathy L. Miller. Describing the company as a “live event agency,” Miller says her team’s focus is on messaging and branding. “What we’re really doing with our clients is storytelling with experiential meetings and events, so I feel like that’s our specialty, as opposed to, say, milestone events. We create the exposure and the experience they need about their brand. We can do logistics all day long, but it’s really about looking at the big picture and going beyond the logistics to their vision.” One client, for example, wanted to show their attendees how technologically savvy they were, and Miller’s team needed to “bring that theme to life.” In addition to changing the registration process to self-check in, Total Event Resources “created an Innovation Center for them that carried that message in all areas of the conference.”

What is 'Full Service'?

Along with having one or more specialties, many event management companies bill themselves as “full service.” But what exactly does that popular phrase mean? To some, it means being able to handle many kinds of meetings, including “incentive programs, board meetings, roadshows, trade shows, customer evaluation boards, and dare I say company picnics,” says Bennington. To others, “full service” signifies the ability to manage the entire lifecycle of a meeting, “conceptualizing it, aligning with the organization’s strategy, managing its implementation and then reporting on the results and the ROI of that program,” she explains. Being versed in all these stages clearly requires a variety of skills. Bryan gives a few examples: “Our business model is such that we offer registration, finance, housing and event management, project management, budget management, site searching and contracting — we really can handle everything from A to Z.” As a result, “we don’t say no very often; when RFPs come through the door we really can adapt our business to meet the client’s needs.”

Creating a ‘Full Service’ Company

A full service company in either sense — proficiency with a variety of meetings or with the lifecycle of the individual meeting — has a certain advantage for the client. Namely, the client can reduce the number of third parties they deal with, perhaps to a single partner. For example, they would deal with one company for both their incentives and board meetings. Similarly, they would work with one company for their site sourcing and their post-event evaluations. This saves some of the time involved in meeting with multiple third parties for different events or components of a single event. That one partner also comes to know the client and their attendees on a deeper level. “It enables us to really get into their culture and ecosystem and to understand what that client is all about,” Bryan says. “The more that we can work with them, the more we can adapt to their needs.”

Given the marketplace advantage of being full service, or something close to it, many event management companies seek to build a team that can live up to that billing. The team’s sheer amount of experience is one important aspect. PROfound Planning, for example, has a team of 17 full-time professionals with over 300 years of combined experience. At CRG Events, “we have a lot of tenure,” says Bryan. “At our retreat there was 150 collective CRG years within my department, and 77 percent of that from senior managers.” But the importance of experience and tenure does not preclude the junior planner from contributing to the organization. Bennington appreciates “the creative, excited newcomer to the industry that has their eyes wide open and sees the world with nothing but opportunity. They might not necessarily have all the experience in the world to manage the whole team, but their fresh perspective I think is invaluable.” At CRG Events, “we have lots of millennials and recent graduates,” says Bryan. “They’re the pipeline to innovation. They’re constantly asking why we’re doing things a certain way. That’s how we stay fresh and nimble in this industry that’s changing all the time.”

Apart from experience, the full service team must have a multifaceted skillset. “Our operations manager has found a lot of diverse people to add to our team, including those with AV backgrounds, theater art backgrounds, and English majors who are incredibly effective communicators and have deep relations with suppliers,” says Bryan. “So we have a very well-rounded staff right now, and it’s growing.” For example, the company is continuing to build out its project management side with staff members who are certified PMPs (Project Management Professionals). As an example of staff specialization at PROfound Planning, Bennington cites a team member who “calls herself the ‘Queen of the Curb’; she has phenomenal skillsets in managing transportation for large groups of people. I feel that if you surround yourself with people that are like you, you’re doing yourself a disservice,” she adds. “You need to surround yourself with people that are different and can offer different viewpoints.”

Total Event Resources currently has 12 full-time employees who “understand the vision of our company and the vision of our clients and their brand,” Miller describes. “They have an entrepreneurial spirit and are passionate and immersed. They come to me and say, ‘I want to spend this amount of money to go to this conference, this is what I’m going to get out of it and here’s what I’m going to bring back to the agency.’ They want to grow professionally and personally.” Team members include a creative manager with expertise in experiential design, a former hotel industry professional who understands contract legalities, and even a former chef. Overall, the team is “very well traveled personally, and that’s part of the skillset I look for,” says Miller.

Standing Out in the Crowd

Self-promotion is an indispensable skill for all third-party planners, given the challenge of distinguishing themselves from numerous competitors. With this in mind, Miller has marketing initiatives in place. “We’ve keyed into those clients that we believe would be a good fit for us, and we’re getting out there to let those people know who we are because there is so much more competition than when I started this agency 22 years ago,” she says. The best marketing impact often comes from satisfied clients, she adds. “We have some great evangelists that are clients of ours; some have made video testimonials. You’re only as good as your last program, and I think we’ve built a great reputation.” The basis of a long-lived reputation is adaptation to the strategic and technological needs of today’s meetings. In short, third parties must evolve with their clients. C&IT

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