What does it take to build a successful career in? Here's a look at the paths of three top achievers, and a game plan for advancing your own career.
Thirty-six-year-old Michele Fetsko started out more than a decade ago as a registration manager with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASLHA) in Rockville, Md. She moved on to become shipping manager before taking charge of the group's smaller meetings and assuming growing responsibility for its large annual convention. About three years ago, her career really took off. That's when the association took its first steps toward requiring online submissions of academic papers for the review and rating process. ASLHA also began developing an online convention program with personal scheduler and search functions for convention attendees.
Almost before she knew it, Fetsko's responsibilities evolved beyond traditional meeting planning functions. Sure, she's still in charge of orchestrating special events at the annual convention, and she still manages the call for papers for the convention. But as the associate director of conventions and meetings, Fetsko now also manages technology applications for ASLHA, serving as liaison with the association's Web team and charged with figuring out how to use technology to improve the organization's processes. It is also her job to flesh out a still-nascent online distance-learning program and to develop effective ways of making the vast amount of information presented at ASHA's annual convention available online for members who do not attend.
Then there is the case of 53-year-old James Youngblood, an 18-year veteran of the Dallas-based American Heart Association, who 12 years ago began managing the program for the association's scientific session. Youngblood was named director of meetings in 1990, then promoted to vice president, science information, with overall responsibility for meetings, publishing, and membership. Last summer he became an executive vice president with administration responsibility for AHA's entire organization.
As his responsibilities have grown, so has Youngblood's involvement in integrating Internet-based technologies to expand the reach of the annual meeting and educational programming. Recently he helped orchestrate an unprecedented collaboration between his association and the American College of Cardiology, formerly considered a serious competitor. The two groups are creating a joint Web site where physicians and patients can find cardiology-related information.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Youngblood in January became chairman of the Professional Convention Management Association. In March he will leave the American Heart Association to become CEO of the North American Society of Pacing and Electrophysiology in Natick, Mass.
Like Fetsko and Youngblood, Debra Rosencrance, 38, has played an increasingly strategic role within her organization, especially with regard to the use of technology. Vice president of meetings and exhibits for the American Academy of Ophthalmology in San Francisco, she joined the academy 14 years ago as scientific program manager. A vice president since 1997, Rosencrance is overseeing the academy's transition to online registration and submission of abstracts. She is gearing up to streamline the processes within the meetings division itself, evaluating which job functions can be automated. She is also involved in plans to re-launch the academy's Web site in March, including working on a project that will supply the site year-round with scientific information presented at its annual meetings. Even before such Web-based initiatives are in place, two meetings division staffers devote half their time to working on the Web site.
"The care and feeding of a dynamic Web site is tremendous," Rosencrance says.
Facing New Frontiers As the career paths of these three top achievers illustrate, to succeed in the 21st century, association planners must evolve into strategic players in advancing their association's mission. They need to consider how to integrate new online offerings with traditional face-to-face events. That's not to say they can overlook the details of meeting and event planning, but such details no longer constitute the heart and soul of the job. Youngblood sums it up this way:
"You have to have basic meeting planning skills. You have to be extremely flexible. You need some knowledge of management and supervision. You need to train yourself to be able to manage detail under your thumb and at the same time be able to think big and look five years out. You're going to be called on to have more vision. You also really need a fairly broad knowledge of electronic communications."
To help association planners succeed in this rather daunting new world, here is a six-step program, with tips from these three leaders and others for moving your career - and your association - forward.
Step #1: Re-envision your job At the Produce Marketing Association in Newark, Del., Patricia Foss Quinlan, director, conventions and meetings, finds that it is no longer sufficient to produce events that earn revenue for the association. "Now I really get into how our events fit into the association's strategic plan and what the industry is doing. If I don't know that, I'm kind of an anachronism."
On the expositions front, Douglas L. Ducate, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research in Chicago, sees greater demands onorganizers as well. "The focus of the early exhibition organizers was selling exhibit space, then organizing the event. Today, the logistics piece is fairly simple. Now the challenge is driving quality audiences to these exhibitions. Show managers have had to become marketers, and they have had to understand their customers - the exhibiting companies as well as the attendees."
Step #2: Break down internal walls Many successful associations are adopting a more interdepartmental approach, according to Jacy Hanson, formerly the meetings director for the American Diabetes Association and now vice president of industry relations for MyAssociation.com. She suggests that meeting and event professionals take the lead in this regard. One way is to look at the integrated marketing opportunities that meetings and trade shows offer, she counsels.
"One role of a meeting planner is non-dues revenue, which to me means how does the meeting and the education you're providing link with publication sales, new membership, or any type of resources your organization might sell. When you're putting a meeting together, you need to look at every department in your association and ask what products and services the organization has related to each particular session. Then, market jointly."
The Produce Marketing Association is one group that has taken a team approach. "I find myself in meetings about surveys, membership, strategic planning. I have a much broader internal involvement than five years ago," notes Quinlan, who adds that she has had to make a conscious effort to adapt. "When you've been operating more or less independently, it doesn't automatically occur to you to ask. `Who else do I need in this meeting about the October event?' You have to retrain yourself."
Step #3: Focus on community Fetsko of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association believes that creating ways for people who have similar interests to come together and network is a big part of what makes meetings and conventions valuable. Now, those networking opportunities extend beyond the convention. "What you do is you build those communities online with discussion forums and chat rooms. That creates a need to meet, to have discussions face to face, to share. One builds on the other."
Quinlan is looking at similar issues. "I believe that what would have value beyond the virtual trade show is two-way communication. We're trying to add to our virtual trade show by doing listservs with speakers before and after the event, and listservs with members interested in similar topics. You can enhance rather than replace your event that way."
Step #4: Be a marketer "Marketing has been an aspect of the job before, but now it's a big aspect. You have to be able to provide leadership in terms of knowing who your customers are and what they need," Youngblood comments.
Doug Fox, publisher and editor of the weekly e-mail newsletter Event-Web, says he expects that eventually the "marketing component will be integrated into the planning component." The key, Fox says, is to "focus on the Internet as a tool to generate significantly greater attendance at upcoming meetings."
E-mail marketing applications and sophisticated data management systems that allow associations to segment their audiences are among the tools that planners now have at their disposal in this arena. "We're moving into an era where not only can you encourage people to register online, but you can manage the marketing process through personalized e-mail. You can broadcast personalized messages to your target audience and collect demographic data about your audience to get more people to come to your events," Fox explains. "The introduction of advanced e-mail applications can lead to dramatic increases infor associations and their meetings."
Step #5: Be customer-focused Hanson calls the ability to be "customer-focused" a core competency required of association planners today. That customer-focus has become particularly important on the expositions side. Steven Hacker, president, International Association for Exhibition Management, says that show organizers need to assume responsibility for the success of the exhibitor.
"Become a marketing partner with exhibitors to help them take full advantage of all the opportunities that exist for them to reach the customers, whether it's on-site at the show, or before or after the event."
It's just as important to have a handle on the selling cycle, Hacker adds. "Understand the dynamics, not just the logistics, of the entire sales process for your exhibitors. . . . You need to get into the head of both your exhibitor and your visitor, and be able to help them piece together strategies and tactics that will help them achieve their objectives."
Step #6: Experience the future More than anything, planners need to gain first-hand experience of the kinds of high-tech meetings and online events and forums that are at the forefront of the meeting world, according to Hugh Lee, president of the meeting production company Fusion, based in Webster, N.Y. Lee is a frequent industry panelist on integrating technology.
Planners need to "get online and experience some of these things," Lee suggests. "Participate in online communities; participate in webcasts. Live it, don't just read about it."
As Much as You Want Meeting professionals, says James Youngblood, are "really well positioned in organizations to take the opportunity to lead . . . because we are all so meetings-driven."
Rosencrance elaborates: "If you want to move up, you need to develop strategic-planning capabilities, knowledge about continuing education, and, now, technology. Every aspect of meeting planning [for associations] will require some understanding of information technology."
That's a far cry from the traditional planner job description. As Michele Fetsko observes, the role of association meeting planner today is "as much as you want it to be."
Webcasts, listservs, distance learning, virtual trade shows, e-mail marketing, database management - just how much technology training does a planner need? American Speech-Language-Hearing Association's Michele Fetsko recommends starting by "being open to things that are going to make your job easier, especially the rudimentary tasks, like document processing and registration. Anything that can be automated, you should automate."
She says reading about new technologies and developing strong partnerships with her association's information services department have been among the most helpful steps she has taken. Taking a few database management classes "helped me to figure out how I could better explain my needs to our information services people."
Doug Fox, publisher and editor of the weekly e-mail newsletter EventWeb, offers these specific suggestions: "One, I would focus on the latest Web-based registration applications that are marketing-enabled. Two, I would learn about all Web-based applications used to deliver meetings online. Three, I'd learn about the different ways that training programs can be delivered online. Some of these tools will take time to learn, but it's definitely worth the effort."
Dawn Penfold, president of The Meeting Candidate Network, an executive search firm in New York, notes: "Five years ago Internet-related systems knowledge was preferred. Now it's not even mentioned, because it's assumed. Today, knowledge of advanced technology for conferences, such as cybercasting, is preferred. In a few years it will be assumed."
Despite qualms about the contracting economy, meeting and expositions planners can count on a considerable degree of job security and a healthy job market, according to Dawn Penfold, president of The Meeting Candidate Network, an executive search firm in New York.
"I've always said that association planners have the safest job on earth, because they're a profit center," she says. "They're recession-proof if they're good workers and keep bringing in the dollars."
Where are the best opportunities in the association field for exposition managers? "If you look at trends in business and industry, you conclude that industries like health care, technology, biochemistry, and miniaturization - that is, the application of advanced technologies to reduce size - are all developing industries. That's where I would look," says Steven Hacker, president of the International Association for Exhibition Management.
Hacker adds that the growth of technology, the advent of e-commerce, and the creation of dot-com companies have fueled demand for new events that serve high-tech professionals such as webmasters and system administrators. This too creates opportunities.
Regionally, Greater Washington, D.C., and Chicago continue to be the centers of the association world. As for salaries, Penfold says they remain consistent with previous years. "The downside with association positions is that the increases don't compare to the corporate market."
Douglas L. Ducate, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, suggests that a move by for-profit firms, notably media companies, to buy up trade shows may make it advisable to seek work in the private sector. "At the moment there's a huge need for exhibition managers; it's a tremendous market out there, particularly at the group show level. The companies that bought up exhibitions have got to have staff."
Career resources for meetings and exhibitions professionals: * www.asaenet.org/careers Last year, the online job site for the American Society of Association Executives was voted one of the country's top 10 career sites by Forbes magazine. The site includes jobs and resume postings as well as a resume critique service and a library of articles and other resources.
* www.meetingjobs.com The Meeting Candidate Network's Web site includes a listing of jobs, resume postings, links to classified newspaper ads around the country as well as to meeting and exhibition associations, and additional resources for career management.
* www.mpiweb.org The Web site of Meeting Professionals International also includes a job bank, resume listings, and numerous links.