Patti Shock is a pioneer: She put together the first college-level meetings curriculum in the 1970s at Georgia State University. In 1988, she was recruited to do the same thing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she built the premier program in the country for meetings and events education.

Then, this past March, UNLV was forced to eliminate the meetings major because of budget cuts, a move that left many wondering what would become of meetings programs at other schools. However, it’s clear that interest in the field is higher than ever and that new competency standards coming out this summer, compiled by academic and meetings industry professionals, will elevate meeting planning education even more.

The cuts at UNLV were not for lack of interest in the program. In fact, it’s just the opposite, explained Shock. “We’re the fastest-growing major in the university,” she said, with more than 300 students in the meetings and events major. “I don’t think our discipline is being targeted as much as they are looking anywhere they can to save money.” College officials were forced to cut back on many programs within hotel/hospitality management, including gaming. All students currently in the program will finish, but new students will have to pursue a degree in hospitality management with a concentration in meetings and events. Shock had to fight for the formal concentration, which essentially means it goes on the transcript. Initially, it was cut back to an informal concentration.

While the change at UNLV was a setback for the industry, the good news is that meeting programs are growing rapidly in the U.S., with more than 200 colleges offering courses in meeting planning, more than ever before. In many places it is the fastest-growing area of study.

This has surprised administrators who think “all you ever need to know about meetings can be taught in 14 weeks,” said Tyra Hilliard, PhD, CMP, associate professor, restaurant, hotel, and meeting management at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

With 1,100 students enrolled in the event management major and 17 events-related courses, the University of Central Florida, Orlando, is the largest meetings and events school in the U.S. and one of the few with a meetings major. “Once you have some success stories like ours, other schools will say, ‘Look at how they were able to grow their enrollments,” said Deborah Breiter, PhD, professor and chairwoman, Department of Tourism, Events, and Attractions at UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

Meetings programs are also growing at community colleges, said Amanda Cecil, PhD, CMP, assistant professor at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, who has tracked all the meetings courses in the U.S. Madison (Wis.) Area Technical College, for example, offers an associate’s degree in meeting and event management and about a dozen courses, said Janet Sperstad, CMP, program director, meeting and event management at MATC.

Where Meetings Degrees Are Housed

Most schools house their meetings courses within a hotel or hospitality degree, but not all. Meetings may fall under education, recreation, restaurant and food service, family and consumer science, food and nutrition, travel/tourism, or communications. “We’re all over the place, and that is something that hurts us as a profession,” said Breiter. “What is our real identity?”

“We haven’t found a home yet because I don’t think people know what meetings and events are about,” said William Host, associate professor, School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Roosevelt University, Chicago.

Many professors believe that meetings programs should be housed within schools of business. “Meetings and events are about business,” said Breiter. “They are serious endeavors that require skill sets and knowledge and are not just about throwing a party.”

“Academic programs need to teach future professionals how to drive business results and change behaviors, not just economic development around putting heads in beds,” said Sperstad.

Teaching materials have also come a long way. “When I first started teaching, there were no books,” said Shock. Schools relied on professional planners who taught based on their experiences—not on established best practices.

The curriculum is no longer limited to first-person experience. There are textbooks and resources available to professors, including Professional Meeting Management, published by the Professional Convention Management Association; the Convention Industry Council Manual; the Certified Meeting Professional Blueprint (recently renamed the CMP International Standard—see story, page 12); and CIC’s Accepted Practices Exchange.

New Competency Standards

A new resource has been released by Meeting Professionals International—the Meeting and Business Events Competency Standards. Developed by a task force of academics and industry professionals, MBECS will outline the core competencies required to be a meeting planner.

“It is the first true occupational standard for meeting and business events,” said Cecil, chairwoman of the MPI task force. “There are very specific knowledge, skills, and abilities that you need to be a meeting planner.”

MBECS has two primary purposes, Cecil explained. One is to be a guide for human resources professionals so they can develop job descriptions. The second is for colleges to use to develop curriculum. The academics on the task force are putting together a curriculum guide based on MBECS.

Already, professors like Hilliard and Sperstad are planning to update their curricula based on MBECS. “The landscape of meeting and event management is shifting from being informal and fragmented to a more developed and connected profession. And one of the canons of being a profession is that you have this unified body of knowledge,” Sperstad said.

Beyond Weddings

And what about the students? “I guarantee you after the royal wedding, we will have this huge surge in inquiries about meeting planning,” said Host. It happens every time a pop culture phenomenon occurs, such as a wedding or glitzy event.”

“Initially students don’t realize that corporations have meetings, associations have meetings, everyone has meetings, and someone has to plan them,” said Glen Ramsborg, PhD, CMP, professor, School of Hospitality Management, Kendall College, Chicago.

Corporate jobs are the toughest for graduates to get, professors say, but many find jobs at associations, association management companies, hotels, convention and visitors bureaus, destination management companies, third-party meeting management companies, general service contractors, even Walt Disney World, which has an internship program with UCF and hires many of its students.

“The students I see transition the fastest into the business world are almost always the ones who come to us with a solid education backed by some hands-on experience,” said Anne Hamilton, vice president, resort sales and services, Disney Destinations, Orlando.

Hilliard sees that today’s students are better prepared than they were 10 to 15 years ago—“and I venture to say even better than five years ago.”

Click here for a PDF chart of top meeting colleges in the U.S., including course offerings.