Job hunters share their strategies for finding employment in the association meetings industry.
The job market inmanagement remains tight. And what it takes to get one of those elusive positions is more than an updated résumé. What often matters most are factors such as your network, your visibility, your willingness to consider a broad range of opportunities—and your timing.
But job seekers can take heart in a few positive statistics. Nationally, January was the best single month for job gains in the past two years, with 257,000 jobs created in the private sector. Drilling down to meetings, January also marked a record number of listings submitted to Meetingjobs.com, and February was nearly as strong. Not only that, says Dawn Penfold, CMP, president, Meetingjobs.com, but “last year, those who applied for positions were mainly those who were unemployed. With the economy getting better, I am seeing more employed people become comfortable with moving. This is a good sign because it will open up more positions.”
And the Meeting Professionals International Business Barometer report released in January showed a big upswing in the outlook for meetings industry employment. Nearly one-third of respondents said full-time jobs are increasing; 31 percent said part-time jobs are increasing, and 39 percent saidjobs are increasing. For unemployed association planners, though, the job market is opening up more slowly than for corporate planners, Penfold says. (Just ask Robert Meisnere, who has been out of work since 2008—see sidebar.) But as corporations add workers and increase budgets, that will have a positive ripple effect for associations, as the need for professional development increases, says Penfold, who notes that she has seen an increase in hiring by association management companies and third-party planning firms in recent months as more associations outsource those services.
Since July 2011, meeting planner job postings on the Professional Convention Management Association job board have increased 76 percent over the first half of 2011, says Sherrif Karamat, CAE, COO at PCMA. The association’s membership is 40 percent association planners and 23 percent corporate/independent planners.
“The employment picture is showing signs of improvement for association meeting executives,” he says, noting that a majority of the jobs posted in the past six months have been for association planners. “The association recruiting market is strong and will remain strong for the entire year, and that certainly includes meeting planning positions,” says Jim Zaniello, president, Vetted Solutions, a Washington, D.C.–based executive search firm.
So what has life been like in the trenches? Here’s what some recent job seekers have experienced.
The Social Network
In August 2009, Chris Noyes was laid off from his job as events and program director for the Greater Reston (Va.) Chamber of Commerce, due to restructuring. With more than 10 years on the job, he found himself caught in a numbers game, with his position replaced by a lower-level job. At the time, the unemployment rate was 9.6 percent and rising. “I looked around and things were really scarce,” says Noyes. Most of what he saw were entry-level positions. And when he did come across jobs for experienced planners, they were senior-level or director jobs. “I was caught in the middle,” he says.
He looked for jobs in the Washington, D.C., area and the Northeast, as well as in Michigan, where he has family. He had a few “quality interviews” and was a finalist twice. On most interviews he was told he had more experience than they were looking for.
While he got close a couple of times, he felt it was very difficult to rise above the mountain of applicants. “I found that if you didn’t know anyone where you were interviewing, forget it,” he says.
So after five months of applying for posted openings, he took a different tack. In talking with industry connections, he discovered a need for contract work in meetings logistics. So he launched Noyes Associates and called around to everyone he knew asking if they needed help. Jobs began to roll in, and he was referred to the Bastian Group, based in Denver, which hired him on a one-year contract to plan meetings for its client the Urban Land Institute.
Fast forward to January, and ULI wanted to hire a full-time director of meeting logistics. “[Bastian Group] knew they were looking for someone,” says Noyes, “and they knew me, as I had been working with them for the past year.” He submitted his résumé and two weeks later he had the job. “It’s who you know,” says Noyes, who advises getting out there, attending industry meetings, and building up a network of contacts. “That’s how you’re going to find jobs.”
Next page: What hiring managers want
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What Hiring Managers Want
While things are improving for job seekers, competition remains brutal. More than 140 résumés poured in for an open meeting manager position at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in Rockville, Md., earlier this year, says Ellen Shortill, director, conventions and meetings, at ASHA.
“It’s interesting to see the breadth and depth of experience—and lack thereof,” she says. “We had people who were in no way qualified and were clearly just applying for a lot of things.” There are more job changers out there now, she believes—those who are unhappy with heavy workloads or wage freezes but who had been reluctant to move during the recession. And on the flip side, for this job, which required three to five years of experience, many applicants were overqualified.
An easy filter for Shortill is the cover letter. If it’s generic, she is put off. “The best piece of advice I can give is to mirror your cover letter and résumé to the demands of the position,” she says. If the job description refers to a task one way, mirror that language even if you would call it something else.
One thing Shortill doesn’t mind is an employment gap: “Everybody recognizes that it’s due to the economy.” Even jumping from job to job every couple of years is no longer the red flag it used to be.
But remember, says association search pro Zaniello, employers want to see more than meeting planning skills in your past. Highlighting how you’ve managed budgets or brought additional revenue or attendees to your meeting will get your résumé looked at.
Though human resources initially rejected her résumé, Stacey Chattman, was hired by Courtesy Associates last fall because of the sharp eyes of company president Leslie Thornton. She noticed Chattman’s experience in both operations and meeting planning, a combination that was just right for the job opening.
Chattman had been unemployed since June 2011 when Hanley Wood Business Media in Washington, D.C., laid her off as general manager, event services, after four years. “It was a bit of a shock,” she says, because the events business had been doing well. “It was scary. And I’m a single parent with a 17-year-old who’s going to college next year.”
She approached the search like a full-time job. “You have to get yourself out there,” she says, echoing Noyes’ advice. She searched industry job boards and submitted résumés. She joined LinkedIn and connected with contacts from her 20 years in the business. They, in turn, passed along leads. Courtesy Associates is one of many companies that use LinkedIn as a recruiting tool, and that’s where Chattman saw the company’s posting for a director of operations.
Flooded With Resumes
Chattman has now seen the job market from both sides. Three months after she was hired, she was charged with finding two mid-level meeting managers for Courtesy Associates. She received more than 400 résumés, and at press time had done only four interviews. “We are having a tough time finding qualified candidates,” she says. “I’ve gotten résumés from air-traffic controllers, government workers, MBAs, it’s all over the place.”
One résumé turn-off for Chattman is multiple pages. Unless you have 20 years of experience, keep it to one page. Still, she is looking closely at every résumé she receives. “I realize how hard it is. I don’t want to miss anyone.”
Right Place, Right Time
After 15 years as director of conference services for the American Library Association, Deidre Ross, CAE, CMP, found her department outsourced in late 2010. As one of the most well-known planners in the business, she soon was getting calls from friends with leads, and quickly landed an interim job. But it was the outplacement counselor that ALA provided who helped her find her next full-time position. After working to polish Ross’s résumé, the counselor e-mailed it to every search firm in the area. It sounds simple, but Ross says she couldn’t have done it herself without knowing all the search firms.
Almost immediately she got responses, but one opportunity really stood out. The Chicago search firm Tuft & Associates had received a plum listing the very day of Ross’s e-mail blast. The American Osteopathic Association needed a director of meetings and administration. The search team knew of Ross through an acquaintance with the former executive director at ALA, as well as others in the library community. They also knew that Ross was exactly what the client was looking for. Tuft got lots of résumés for the job, but narrowed it down to Ross and a handful of other finalists. Ultimately, Ross got the job and it was a perfect fit, she says.
While much of the credit goes to the outplacement company, it wasn’t the only factor. “It’s part luck, too,” says Ross. “I was in the right place at the right time. I know a lot of very talented people who are at my level who have lost their jobs and they are still looking.”
Next page: The search goes on
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The Search Goes On
“It’s like waiting for a bus. Should I walk or not? Should I leave the industry or not? But I just keep coming back to it,” says Rob Meisnere, CMP. Based in Washington, D.C., Meisnere has been out of work since June 2008 when he was laid off as meeting manager at the National Disability Rights Network. The recession had barely started—things were about to get a lot worse.
A 20-year industry veteran, Meisnere decided to take the summer off and pick up the job search come fall. By that time, the financial industry was melting down and the bottom was about to fall out of the meetings industry. After several months of sending résumés without success, Meisnere changed course.
“Because I didn’t have my CMP, I don’t think I was getting positive responses for interviews,” he says, so he applied to take his CMP exam. At the time, the national unemployment rate was more than 9 percent. Meisnere kept looking, planning to ramp up the job search after he got his CMP in the winter of 2010.
But in 2010, unemployment rates topped 10 percent. “Things dried up. I couldn’t even get interviews. There were so many people applying I couldn’t get through the clutter.” He stayed busy doing freelance work—load-ins and load-outs for events in the D.C. area. He also stayed connected to the industry by being active on various listservs, discussion groups, and other forms of. “I do that so I can feel like I’m still involved,” he says—and so that he can keep up with trends such as hybrid events.
A bright spot is that Meisnere has been able to spend more time with his two daughters. “That’s helped a lot,” he says. The youngest is pre-school age, so he is home with her rather than having her in day care. While he has considered changing careers, he has so much time invested in meeting planning that he plans to continue in it. “You keep thinking that things are going to open up.” And in the first few months of 2012, he has noticed more jobs being posted. “I have to keep plugging away and hope things get better.”
Top 2 LinkedIn Tips
Patrick O’Malley (he actually prefers to be called 617-PATRICK, so that’s what you should search on Google) is a speaker on social media who knows LinkedIn inside and out. He tells job seekers:
1. Use Advanced Searching. Click on “Advanced.” Choose the title of the person who would be your boss at your ideal job. Choose the location and preferred industry (or don’t, which will increase your results). Click “search.” For all the profiles that show up in your results with a little “2nd” next to them, you have a connection in common. Drop the mutual friend’s name when you make your cold call to ask about job openings.
2. Be Easily Found. Know all the words, designations, and titles employers could possibly search for on LinkedIn and be sure your profile includes them—and all variations. (That is, if you have your CMP, include CMP, “certified meeting professional,” and “certified meeting planner,” even though the latter is outdated, somewhere in your profile.) Make your phone number and e-mail address visible to all