It took meeting planner Barbara Martin six months to find a job after losing her longtime position with a trade association in Washington, D.C. She finally landed a job with the Washington Area Automobile Dealers Association, needing to convince her employer that the association's less intensive meetings schedule would be enough of a challenge for her. “I had to talk a couple of people into seeing me,” the veteran says of her six-month job search. “And once I got there, they said they were afraid I would be bored in the position.”

Martin has plenty of company. As we reported in our December 2002 feature, “Replaceable Planners?,” a wave of downsizing has swept through the convention and trade show planning departments within associations — once considered a bastion of stability compared with corporate meeting planning departments. As that article uncovered, many senior-level planners who were downsized were finding it hard to find comparable jobs as associations turned to “admin” people for meeting planning responsibilities.

As signs of the country's economic recovery grow stronger — corporate profits surging, stock market rebounding — expectations are that the job market will follow suit as in previous recoveries. But as recent job growth figures show, this recovery is different. Although job prospects are brightening for convention and exposition managers, don't expect to find a job hunter's paradise around the corner. It's still a jungle out there.

Job Market Reflects Lots of Turbulence

The numbers are sobering. In the last three years, three million U.S. jobs have vanished. And now, with the overall economy finally showing some signs of life, employers seem skittish about staffing up again. This past December, economists were predicting that payrolls would swell by 150,000 and continue to gain at a similar pace in the coming months. But the U.S. Labor Department reported a scant 1,000 new jobs — hardly a blip for a nation with more than 130 million employed people.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) figures show unemployment remaining at a respectable 5.7 percent, but the bureau is quick to point out that the figure does not factor in an estimated 300,000 job seekers who have quit their job hunt and walked away from the pool of available workers. Economists point out that the return of corporate profits has been fueled in large part by productivity increases (more work output per worker), and that in this recovery, the rate of economic growth will have to grow much more than in the past to stimulate the same level of job hiring.

“If you want to make a real dent in unemployment, you are going to need more than 4 percent growth in the economy,” said Robert DiClemente, chief U.S. economist at Solomon Smith Barney, in a news report on January 10 in The New York Times. Businesses are “are holding down costs by working their existing employees harder, hiring temporary workers, or shipping jobs overseas,” said Sung Won Sohn, chief economist at Wells Fargo & Co., in the same article.

Compared to the corporate world, though, associations may have endured less severe cutbacks in the last three years. By late 2002, about 22 percent of nonprofit organizations responding to an American Society of Association Executives survey had downsized or consolidated their staffs because of the economic downturn. (Ironically, the ASAE department that compiled that statistic was itself downsized out of existence last year, so no more recent information is available.) BLS figures suggest that trend may have turned around by the end of 2003, however: The “membership association and organization” category added more than 5,000 jobs in December.

Association meeting planners may have other reasons to feel optimistic:

  • Employers posted 19.8 percent more jobs on the careers page on ASAE's Web site in 2003 as compared to 2002 (the ranks of seekers grew 8.6 percent in the same period). “We've seen a big jump in the last four months in the daily postings,” says Dixie Arthur, executive vice president of services.

  • Jim Zaniello, a recruiter with Arlington, Va.-based Association Strategies, is seeing associations continue to hire, although they remain cautious. “Smaller groups are outsourcing, but groups with larger shows still like to have, at a bare minimum, one person who is directing the vendors,” he says.

  • Another recruiter, Shira Harrington, expects the job floodgates to swing open this year and next. Associations and private companies both have downsized as much as possible, and now that the economy has righted itself, “the job market is going to balance itself out,” reasons Harrington, senior recruiting consultant with Positions Inc. in Washington, D.C. She says better times will open up opportunities for loyal staffers who have been itching to leave but had nowhere to go.

  • Meeting planners projected a 3 percent employment growth in the recently released FutureWatch 2004, an annual outlook report from Meeting Professionals International and American Express. The report was based on a survey of 2,075 meeting professionals, 54 percent of whom were planners from corporate, independent, consultant, and association segments, and 46 percent from supplier organizations.

Meeting planners also projected an average 3 percent increase in spending this year as opposed to a 1.1 percent decline in 2003. Moreover, average association meeting budgets for 2004 leapt to $3.1 million, up over $1.4 million, according to the report.

One sector of the association community that experienced strong job growth last year is association management companies. According to research by the AMC-institute, based in Westmont, Ill., AMCs experienced a 7.3 percent increase in their workforce last year. What is driving the growth of AMCs in the face of downturns seen elsewhere?

The challenging economy has initiated a rethinking of how association business gets done, according to AMC-institute's chairman, Dee Ann Walker. Volunteer-managed associations often see AMCs as an efficient solution to the problem of finding the time to manage association business while keeping up with the demands of a full-time “day” job, she explains, adding that the AMC field has grown 33 percent in the last eight years.

Indeed, Smith Bucklin, the largest association management company in the country, experienced its best year ever last year, according to CEO Henry S. Givray. The firm picked up 17 new association clients and saw a big leap in clients for which it handles only event planning services. The outsourcing of everything from the complete management of associations to just some functions has been on the rise for several years, Givray says.

New Skill Sets Required in Tight Market

Whether or not the purse springs start loosening up and more positions become available, landing a job or promotion is not likely to be the slam dunk it was in the mid- to late-1990s. For one thing, unless the economy sees another dot-com-like explosion, employers will retain the edge in hiring. And they have gotten more demanding. It's not enough just to excel at planning conferences and events; increasingly, planners are being asked to contribute more to the overall success of the organization.

“The role of the meeting planner has changed,” says Mary Power, president and CEO of the Convention Industry Council. “It goes beyond logistics to the big picture and forecasting and meeting the goals of the organization.” The council is evaluating the questions on the Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) exam, which it administers, to determine whether the test accurately reflects the expected responsibilities of a meeting planner.

“Being successful is different than it was five years ago,” agrees recruiter Zaniello. In addition to the core responsibilities of putting together meetings, trade shows, and educational programs, an association planner must also demonstrate the skills to work within a team that includes marketing, membership development, and other functions.

To solidify your current position or find a new job, “you need to work at being seen as a resource within your own organization,” Zaniello advises. “Any time you can show how what you do affects the bottom line, how you're working with others to ensure the experience is spectacular for members, or how something you do maximizes the revenue of the products or services on the show floor, that helps strengthen your position,” he says.

It's always better to quantify any impact you might have. “It's nice to be able to say ‘I grew revenue,’” Zaniello explains. “It's significantly better to say ‘I grew it 25, 30, or 35 percent.’”

Similarly, being able to show how you saved revenue will win you favor with your current employer or help open new doors, says Harrington. It's important to document any savings, either by making your current manager aware of them or by including them in your résumé. Not surprisingly, sharp contract-negotiation skills are at the top of many clients' wish lists, she says.

While many employers are seeking candidates with solid experience, planners who haven't made a career move in years — either because of complacency or slim pickings — may have trouble attracting the eye of potential hirers. “Sometimes people may have experience, but it seems evident in the most recent months or years that the person hasn't accomplished much, and that can cause issues,” says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray and Christmas, a Chicago-based international outplacement advisory firm. One way to offset the appearance of complacency is to invest in continuing education.

“You may have graduated 10 years ago, but if every year you've taken a course — through ASAE, PCMA, MPI, whatever — and you've done something to improve your skill set, that says you're interested in learning. It shows that it's important to your development to stay up-to-date on the issues affecting meetings,” Zaniello says.

Seeking Alternatives

Instead of focusing on skills that will make them more valuable in their current position, some planners are paving the way for their next career opportunity. Stymied by a lack of appreciation for what she does, Susan Sarver, senior conference manager for the National Association of Securities Dealers in Washington, D.C., decided to attend law school, which she'll complete in 2006. While many associations might say they want meeting planners to act as crucial parts of a team, Sarver observes, others still lack “understanding of what a professional meeting planner contributes to the bottom line of the association in either real dollars or avoiding potential liability.”

“People will not say ‘Oh, my gosh — we'd better see what my meeting planner thinks,’” Sarver observes. And she is not alone. In recent years, when she served on an ASAE council, lack of respect for meeting planners was a popular topic of conversation.

Many meeting planners have in-vested in their careers during the economic downturn by earning CMP status. In the last three years, Power says the CIC-administered program has grown 30 percent. CIC also recently forged a relationship with Leadership Synergies that will help CMPs further develop the skills needed to advance in their careers. An objective evaluator will help eligible planners define their career goals, devise a plan to achieve them, and monitor their own progress. In addition to helping planners keep up with changes in their role, the career development program prepares people for moving into positions beyond the meeting planner function.

Lateral moves are always a possibility, but it's important to do them for the right reasons. A lateral salary move that exposes you to new challenges (bigger meetings, more educational programs, etc.) can be good for your career. Moving out of meetings into other areas, such as membership, is difficult, says Harrington. “Unless you can demonstrate you have other skills sets, it's very difficult to make a transition, especially with headhunters.”

While some recruiters say a planner is a planner is a planner, Dawn Penfold, who specializes in placing meeting planners and is is president of the Meeting Candidate Network, New York City, insists that employers are less willing to train new hires, so they're seeking staff with industry-specific experience. “Associations are looking for association planners, corporate clients are looking for corporate planners — it's even to the point that accounting firms are looking for people from accounting companies.”

Penfold advises association planners looking to cross over into the corporate world to expose themselves as much as possible to marketing and strategic planning, and to demonstrate that they can handle smaller board of directors meetings as well as large conventions.

“I think you can have too much experience,” says planner Barbara Martin, now with the Washington Area Automobile Dealers Association. But she managed to convince potential employers to look past the numbers on her résumé and to figure out where she might fit into their organizations. Sounds like good advice for all job hunters in today's uncertain marketplace.

Freelance business writer Megan Rowe is a contributing editor to this magazine.

Do's and Don'ts in a tight job market

DO start networking before you need a job. “Being known to those who are well networked helps tremendously,” says Jim Zaniello, a recruiter with Arlington, Va.-based Association Strategies.

DON'T rely on the Internet to find a position, advises John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, a Chicago-based international outplacement advisory firm. “A lot of people spend far too much time on the process of e-mailing out résumés. It's still just a piece of electronic information that usually gets put into a database,” he says.

DO try to reach the hiring manager instead of working through human resources.

DO set aside time for hobbies or activities that you enjoy.

DO keep your résumé updated. Ken Hajduk, who was downsized from an association, says not seeing the handwriting on the wall delayed his job search. “I started to work on my résumé, but not fast enough. I was still working and taking care of business, and I didn't put any feelers out until after the fact,” he recalls. Hajduk spent more than four years doing contract work and substitute teaching before he landed a job last March as a show manager with a Chicago area exhibit manager.

DON'T be shy about using the phone. “Regularly calling people for informational interviews is extremely taxing,” says Hajduk, but that kind of personal contact ultimately helped him find a position. And making the first contact after an interview underscores your interest.

DO continue your education, even if it's one course a year.

Career Tool Kit

For a comprehensive list of job-hunting resources, including Web sites, a salary survey, helpful tips, and advice from planners on finding a job, see our Career ToolKit on our Web page at