CB Wismar spent his formative years, professionally speaking, honing his skills working at some of the biggest names in the events business, including Carlson Marketing and PGI. In 2007, he joined 40-million-member AARP (once known as the American Association of Retired Persons) in Washington, D.C., as vice president of events. When he jumped the fence from vendor to client, he brought a wealth of experience in creating indelible events with him. We asked him to share his unique perspective here.

Association Meetings: How is life on the client side?

CB Wismar: I explained my situation as having “run off and joined the circus” until someone wondered if that meant that all I did was deal with a bunch of clowns — far from it! The satisfaction has come from the purely serendipitous mixture of a team of truly bright people working in concert to provide information, support, access, and experiences to a very large audience. Couple that with the eager encouragement of an executive team that wants to see things done in world-class fashion with measurable results, and every day becomes an adventure.

AM: You bring a unique background to AARP: creative/production, client service, marketing. Does this change how you handle your projects?

Wismar: There's an old bromide, “How many creative directors does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer: “Does it have to be a light bulb?” That's the difference moving from agency to client allows. I truly do not try to drive the team or our great supplier/partners crazy by asking the questions, but having looked at an event from multiple perspectives, it's almost second nature to challenge the status quo, step out of the ruts, and at least talk about something different.

However, we can never get away from the “money” aspect of anything we do. We can fly attendees to the moon, paint the Eiffel Tower red, and have the dinner music supplied by the world's greatest orchestra. All it takes is money. Having a sense of what things cost and what their value can be — on all levels of an event — is a tremendous help when trying to bring “how about this … ?” into the realm of reality.

AM: In today's economy, everyone's rethinking their events. What do you foresee for the next year?

Wismar: Contracts are being modified and agreements canceled. It appears that imagination has been put on hold and purchasing/accounting has all the votes in any decision.

In the midst of this vortex of uneasiness and anxiety, there are still messages to be shared. There are still great reasons to (as an old friend used to say) “change the way people think and behave.”

Creativity for the next 24 months is going to be less focused on the colors and the presentation and much more on the message. What is it we're trying to accomplish here, and what's the most effective, efficient, direct and manageable way to do it? Does that apply to a corporate event? Yes. Does it apply to an association function? Yes. Does it apply to a reception or a party? Yes.

The true test of professional resilience in this economic climate is the ability to reconstruct, redesign, re-create, reengineer the essentials of any event and come out with something that has meaning and purpose but is scaled back to its ultimate efficiency.

As for vendors? Please understand that “beating people up” to make them provide goods and services below their cost is a very dangerous and, ultimately, fruitless pursuit. There's a very interesting trait that we may see overlooked in the industry when times are good — honesty. Letting everyone know exactly what the budget is will allow everyone to show their best thinking.

AM: You've been in the business for a long time — are we in a better place now (or perhaps a worse one?) than we used to be?

Wismar: Technology has certainly changed the special-events business and, in many ways, made it better. It's also opened up the industry to many people who would not have been able to find a spot 15 or 20 years ago. That's good and bad. Universities now grant certificates and degrees in the event space, and it seems that many who found some satisfaction in putting on the sorority mixer or the church youth retreat feel like this is an easy way to make a living.

Events are can be almost overwhelmingly satisfying — but they are not easy. Planning events requires so many disparate elements that it may truly be one of the few career pursuits that requires facile use of both sides of the brain. It's a hard lesson to learn, and it's only made easier by the grand gestures of people who were willing to mentor, to encourage, to coach, to criticize, to trust, and to support.


  • As of January 12, all nationals and citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries are required by law to obtain a travel authorization prior to traveling to the United States, instead of filling out paper forms at the airport.

  • Meeting Professionals International's FutureWatch 2009 found that planners expect a 9 percent decrease in the number of meetings their organizations will hold this year, and a 3 percent decrease in staffing.

  • Meeting Strategies Worldwide has published a 12-page white paper on the intersection of economic and environmental concerns as they relate to the meetings industry. Visit meetingstrategiesworldwide.com to download a copy.

  • Despite tough times in the auto industry, a new event — the International Motorsports Industry Show — will debut December 2009 at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis.