Meeting planners are in charge of a host of things: scheduling, conflicts and ensuring attendance, to name a few. To do those things correctly, it’s crucial they stay organized, remain level headed and not become overwhelmed.
Many successful meeting planners utilize visualization techniques to help themselves stay calm in the days leading up to the event. If you can visualize it happening successfully, then the likelihood of handling the stress of planning is much higher.
Heather Hall, director of meetings and events for NHDA, plans several large events each year, as well as some regularly scheduled meetings, and understands full well the many stressors that can pop up doing the job. “Each day can bring a new challenge, and you have to always plan for the unexpected,” she says. “Think of any scenario that may be presented that you didn’t count on. It’s also the juggling of several events at once, keeping contacts straight and deadlines managed. Once your event is finished, you are always planning for the next one, finding the location and working through contracts, all while keeping your members and leadership in the loop and engaged.”
Amy Goldberg, director of sales and senior event manager for AE Events, knows there’s no such thing as a typical day in the meetings industry, and you need to be ready for the unexpected. That can lead to stress and worry. “You must understand, the day is filled with a constant reshuffling of priorities to keep pushing the momentum of an event forward at all times,” she says. “There is not just the work I need to get done to help answer client questions and needs, but it is also addressing the questions and needs of the vendors we partner with to make an event come to life. If I can get the answers to them first, so they can keep their parts moving, then I can address my to-do list.”
As an independent planner, Kim Becker, CMP, DES, SEPC, MBA, president & owner of Emerald Meeting and Event Planning, notes hers is a stressful job because she is bringing together large groups of people for work or fun, or both, and there is an inherent weight on the meeting planner that all things must go well from start to finish. “A typical day for me may mean managing details and logistics for up to five or six different clients,” Becker says. “Each one of those clients is most likely in a different phase of the planning process, so there are many details to be managed for each of them, and of course, for the client who is close to the event date, the details and changes come fast and furious.”
Bennell LaPorte, global event planner for LaPorte & Company, notes, although she does have a routine in place that allows her to block out days for client-facing work, external meetings and marketing, to name a few, some days the routine goes out the window, and instead, is dictated by the biggest pressing priority. “On any given day, I can be fielding an inquiry for a destination event in Greece, doing a site tour as part of my planning discovery process, coaching a client, collaborating on design ideas with creative partners or doing research for a travel design project I may have on the books,” she says. “Although everything I do is, for the most part enjoyable, it can quickly feel overwhelming if I have several time-sensitive deadlines and diminishing capacity depending on what is required for the task at hand.”
There’s a reason event planning has consistently ranked as one of the five most-stressful jobs in the world — next to firefighters, military personnel and airline pilots, to name just a few. As the conduits between, and main communicators among, the various vendors and creative partners that are part of any given event, there’s a lot on the plate to manage at any given time.
“From needing to meet the expectations and deadlines of every vendor we’re working with while simultaneously holding steady to the vision the client has for their event, we are all at once therapists, master negotiators, at times miracle workers and often the mediators when it comes to averting disasters,” LaPorte says. “Depending on your business model and whether you take on 20+ events per year or you oversee a much more manageable events schedule, we are constantly dealing with looming deadlines, potential changes to components that will trigger a hundred other small changes elsewhere, competing priorities and not to mention the physical demands of our job.”
One of the items that causes Becker stress is having to rely on other people to make all the details happen that she’s put in writing. “I can present a detailed plan of what should happen in what room and what time on what day, but if my venue partner doesn’t read that plan and execute it correctly, then my stress level on-site goes up when I realize it hasn’t been completed as I had specified,” she says.
Planners are the primary nerve center of the operation, and are all-in when it comes to executing events. From moving and rearranging furniture to creating the perfect space and photo opportunity for guests, to being on their feet 18+ hours a day ensuring that everything is working and running smoothly, the mental, emotional and physical demands of the profession are many, and often not fully understood.
“As planners, we know that everything is ultimately on our shoulders to deliver for our clients, so the pressure of ensuring near perfection at every turn is, at times, daunting — but also thrilling,” LaPorte says. “Event planning has its ebbs and flows of stress, but this year in particular has been especially difficult, from supply-chain issues that are forcing us to continuously push deadlines or come up with alternatives if something won’t arrive on time, to the way in which everything is now markedly more expensive due to inflation.”
Leigh Wickersham, CAE, executive director, National Institute of Oilseed Products, notes a typical day as a meeting planner sometimes finds her spending too much time working on making/cleaning up/fixing hotel reservations for members. “I think every person’s needs are individual and different, and my members and attendees have found that I will listen to them, answer and follow up,” she says. “Most hotel reservations processes are so automated that members are easily frustrated and want to speak to a person. Often, it doesn’t seem easy or effective to call the hotel.”
Also, Wickersham finds herself trying to figure out how to be creative and flexible working with hotels that are short on staff, and therefore don’t have the time to customize solutions for their needs. “I think most would if they could, but they are stretched too thin,” she says.
A great example is that recently one of her groups sold out of rooms on a shoulder day — Monday, when the convention doesn’t begin until the Wednesday. This caused the reservation link to post a message across the board that the rooms were sold out, which was not true.
“To add insult to injury, we have two different tiers of rooms and room rates, but the link was not set up to offer both of these at the same time,” she says. “Again, causing unnecessary alarm that the room block was sold out, not to mention numerous phone calls and angry emails for me to answer.”
Another recent stressor was the inflexibility when asking for creativity with menus. “I was told that I could order exactly what was listed on the menu or ‘do without,’” Wickersham says. “For example, I wanted to provide breakfast sandwiches instead of a full hot breakfast. I was told ‘no,’ I couldn’t order the sandwiches as they were enhancements only. I also asked about having grilling stations for an outside lunch option. Again, I was told ‘no.’ The reasoning was not enough staff. What’s frustrating is that we are still expected to spend the same on F&B budgets, but with less options, less flexibility, less bang for the buck.”
Meeting and event planners need to be organized to keep stress from seeping in, and one of the best ways to do that is by creating checklists. When checklists are used properly, meeting planners will not only be organized, but will stay on track. Whether it’s a to-do list for themselves, others they work with, separated into days of the week or just someone’s own preparation system, checklists will help make sure that all the details are taken care of. After all, the more one plans ahead, the better the event will go. “When all your tasks have been listed, you will not forget any,” Hall says. “Planners get drained when they find out they missed an important activity. With a checklist, this would be avoided and gives you satisfaction when you have achieved all your listed tasks.”
Over the past two-plus years, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an even more stress-induced environment for meeting planners, with changes occurring daily and the need to change direction at a single moment often necessary. For instance, Hall ran an event in Puerto Rico in late winter, and COVID travel requirements were changing up to the week before the event. “Also, in this new COVID world, you don’t really have any clue what things will be like six months from now or even a week from now,” she says. “So, it’s always something you are thinking about while planning your event and that adds more stress.”
Goldberg notes that, since the pandemic, the events world is not what it used to be. “The same labor shortages you hear about on the news is what all our vendors — caterers, rental companies, florists, A/V specialists, etc. — are experiencing,” she says. “And the same supply-chain issues you hear about apply to the events world too. You have ordered branded telephone chargers for a conference, but they are coming from outside of the U.S., and get held up in production or shipping, or customs.”
Because there is such an influx of events now that the world is reopening, vendors have not been able to ramp back up to full steam in the same way the demand for events has. Rental companies literally have zero chairs left to rent, or have run out of tables, or don’t have any more flowers or vases. “Another stressful aspect is COVID itself. How do we avoid planning a super-spreader event?” Goldberg asks. “Even with the most careful planning and protocols leading up to an event, I can’t dictate how a keynote speaker spends their days the week leading up to an event. What is plan B, C or D, and so on, should a key participant become positive?”
David Jacobson, founder and CEO of TrivWorks, has been in the industry for more than 20 years, starting in political campaign events, then moving into event programming, then corporate entertainment and team building. “The events industry is inherently stressful: deadlines, putting out fires, difficult personalities, dealing with the unexpected,” he says. “I recently had an unexpected staffing shortage on a very busy day, meaning I had to drop everything and fly cross-country to work an event myself — not easy as a business owner and single dad.”
To assuage stress, Jacobson has employed several coping techniques over the years. “The first is exercise. I can’t emphasize enough how important consistent exercise is for relieving stress of all kinds, but especially event-related stress,” he says. “Studies have shown that cardiovascular exercise is proven to decrease anxiety, as well as increase brain function and improve sleep. When planners have a list that’s a mile long and growing, it’s so helpful to start the day with exercise to knock that anxiety level down, feel calm and level-headed, then get a good night’s sleep.”
LaPorte notes when you’re running on pure adrenaline and caffeine during event days after months of endless hours of planning, it’s hard to simply shut down once an event is complete. “At the beginning of my career, it was a challenge for me to figure out what would work to help me get back to center,” she says. “I often would be going from one event to the next without so much as a 48-hour breather, so when that became untenable, I needed to learn, and quickly, how to create a business model that allowed me to operate at my best for my clients without leaving me running on fumes.”
For her, good stress management is a function of setting clear boundaries in her work, which allows her to keep stress at manageable levels without it compromising the quality or integrity of the work. “In this business, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of things on our daily to-do lists, become anxious or depressed if business is slow and you need to make adjustments all while balancing family life and everything in between,” she says.
A few things LaPorte does to manage and alleviate the stress that comes from doing events year-round is setting clear boundaries within her business that, unless it’s a dire emergency, she doesn’t respond to work matters after hours. “In order to serve our clients with the concierge-level service they expect from us, my team and I only take on a select number of event projects each year,” LaPorte says. “This ensures that we’re not just churning out events back-to-back, but instead, that we’re being mindful and dedicating the required time for excellent execution while giving ourselves the space to breathe in between events.”
Additionally, each day, regardless of how busy she might be, LaPorte takes at least 20 minutes to either meditate, listen to some music to unwind or dive into a few chapters of a good book. “The less thinking I need to do at the end of the day the better,” she says.
One way Wickersham has been able to find some “new help” with stress levels is to engage DMCs. “They try to use their creativity to help add excitement and flair to events. Unfortunately, they also add to the costs,” she says. “Another way that I alleviate my stress is to partner with my HelmsBriscoe representative, who knows and understands my clients and works sometimes hours and hours trying to figure out how to help with hotel-related struggles. I’m not sure all do this, but [my representative] is the best.”
Hall’s biggest tips for lessening stress are to be organized and expect the unexpected thrown at you at the last minute. “Don’t procrastinate and always plan ahead,” she says. “I imagine most planners like me are not only ‘a planner’ in your professional life, but in your personal life as well,” she says. “Sometimes, you just need to give yourself a break from it all. Step away from the computer, especially in the evenings. And sometimes you just need to take a day to rest your mind.”
After so many years in the business, Goldberg notes you begin to recognize when the intensity is hitting you, and the difference between being stressed versus being overwhelmed or under prepared. “The intensity is normal — you have spent an enormous amount of time planning for a single day or a few hours in a day and you want it to go as planned,” Goldberg says. “That being said, as the planner, you have to be prepared that things come up and you pivot, and you make good decisions on behalf of your client in the moment to fix and change, and still execute. You are prepared for this and you work with your team to talk through every detail and every possibility so you can handle any surprise. And of course, post event, you decompress and celebrate with some exercise, a great massage and a glass of champagne.”
Dealing with stress eats up valuable time that could and should be used in helping to grow the client, to help improve the client experience, and to help find and build on new industry challenges. When a planner is stressed, Goldberg notes, you make decisions based on a reaction to something in the moment, and your emotions or those of your client can get in the way of a sound decision.
“When you can look at situation calmly — even in stressful situation — you can think more clearly about how to create solutions, rather than pushing the problem further down the road,” she says. “We spend months, even years, building trust with our clients that AE Events can and will execute the event at hand. We are like ducks — calm and serene above the water, while we paddle at a feverish pace under the water to make it all happen. You can’t absorb that pressure constantly without a personal strategy to compartmentalize and be good to yourself, your mind and your body.”
Jacobson adds that when planners are stressed, that trickles down to the staff and independent contractors, which ultimately lands directly onto clients and their event attendees. “It’s ultimately the responsibility of the planner to ensure the event goes well, and if you’re in a perpetual state of stress, that’s not going to help you work at your highest level,” he says. “In fact, high levels of stress have been shown to increase the potential for conflict, which is the exact opposite of what you want to have with your stakeholders while planning an event. Give yourself the care and attention you need to lower your stress level, and you will make better decisions. You will also have better interactions with your colleagues and clients.”
Remember, keeping your stress managed is important in maintaining the love for the job. “There’s so much satisfaction at the end of a successful event,” Hall says. “When your colleagues and members are happy with the outcome, all the stress leading up to it is worth it — and then it’s on to the next one.” I&FMM.