When the insurance market flattened out back in the 1990s, many companies went into other lines of business, such as financial services, to diversify and move forward. That worked for a while, but now that the financial services market is getting a pounding, some companies are cutting back — including their meetings, and sometimes even their meetings departments. Here's advice gleaned from employment experts to help those who've been pink-slipped land on their feet.
Start with a soul search
Before you answer that ad, do some soul searching. Many people have a very narrow perception of what they consider to be the right position for them, usually based on prior experience. But if you can't find something that's exactly like what you've been doing, it may be time to branch out in new directions instead of waiting until that perfect job comes along.
Examine what you've set as your job parameters, and then step back and assess them. Is there a good reason why you wouldn't expand your horizon in a particular area, whether geographical location, salary, type of position, or title? If you're looking for a position with another insurance or financial services company, think about broadening your reach to conference planning companies or other types of corporations that work with or sell to a similar client base.
Accept that times are different, and that perfect job may be hard to find. Base your decisions on whether it would be harmful to your career in the long run if you were to take a less-than-ideal position. You have to determine whether there's a rational reason, or if it's just your ego talking.
Tailor your experience to the job
Someone who's been working in a large company has experience that may be overwhelming to a smaller organization. They see someone who's used to doing meetings for 5,000 people and figure there's no way that person is going to want to do a 500-person program. Instead of using the big numbers, break it down into components: Programs in a seminar series ranged from x to y dollars, for example. Keep it to a range that's within the prospective employer's comfort zone. The opposite also is true — if you're looking to get into a larger firm, show the parallels in your experience to that firm's programs.
Expand your geographic range
If you look at potential employers only within a 30-minute commute, you may be limiting yourself. If you reached out another 15 minutes on your commute, it might open the door to opportunities. Are you willing to relocate to another region? For example, California tends to lag behind other states in experiencing the full effects of an economic recovery. There may be more opportunity in other parts of the country.
Network, network, network
Successful job seekers will continue to network well, not just with other meeting professionals, but with people who do the hiring at other organizations. Supplier partners can be good sources of information — they know when their key contacts are moving on, so they know when openings are coming up.
Explore your search options
By all means, clip the newspaper ads, send your résumé to a headhunter, and register with an online job bank — but only if confidentiality isn't going to be an issue for you, as it can be if you're currently employed. And remember that candidates get a stronger rate of return if they post their résumés on Web vehicles specific to the meeting industry rather than on generic job sites.
Take some time for self-improvement
Time between jobs offers a great opportunity to increase your industry knowledge, whether it's studying for a CMP designation or taking professional courses offered by national associations and their state and local affiliates. These groups, such as Meeting Professionals International and the Insurance Conference Planners Association, can also help you to grow your network.
This is also a good time to work on your transferable skills, in case a meeting planning position doesn't come through. Meeting planning also is about business development and marketing, among other things. Think about what will make you more marketable to your target employer, and then go learn more about it.
Swallow your pride
Corporations have been inflating salaries in recent years, but you may find in today's environment that those big-dollar jobs just aren't around. The biggest struggle for unemployed planners is that they're competing for jobs with lesser responsibilities and lower salaries.
It's a bitter pill to swallow, but it helps to look for mitigating factors. For example, maybe there's a shorter commute involved. You also can try to negotiate non-hard-dollar items as part of your package, such as a part-time telecommuting option or an agreement that the employer will pay for your membership in several meeting industry associations. If they will pay for you to go to one or two meetings a year as well, that could be thousands of dollars you'd save in out-of-pocket expenses. Another mitigating factor could be more growth opportunities.
It's difficult to take a step back when you've spent years building your career, title, and salary, but the reality is that a lot of those senior positions aren't available right now. Employers understand today's realities and won't hold it against you later on if you take on a lesser title and salary than you had in the past.
Jump the fence
Going outside meeting planning per se is not a bad option. You can broaden your skill set, as long as it keeps you within your chosen arena (corporate or association). But jumping the fence to the supplier side may not be such a good idea. Hotels have also been cutting back, and they're unlikely to be willing to teach a fence-jumper the ropes, particularly when it comes to sales jobs. Plus, that jumping back and forth raises questions in some people's minds about whether you're serious about your career track.
It also can be tricky moving into a third-party planning company. If you're coming from a corporation to a firm that mainly handles corporate meetings, then the transition might be smoother than if you're trying to transition to one that works mainly with associations. But the potential employer will want to know what you can bring to the table. If you're coming from an association, be sure to speak to the corporate mentality.
Take a temp job
A short-term, temporary situation can be valuable because it keeps you active in the field and may even evolve into a full-time position. You have to make a commitment for the length of the assignment, but it gives you an opportunity to add a new experience to your résumé while generating some revenue.
Get to the bottom line on your résumé
Explain specifically what you can contribute to the bottom line of the organization, whether it's throughnegotiations, streamlining operations, or creating more efficient forms and systems. Tell them you negotiated a contract that saved your organization $45,000, or you reduced by $10,000, or you increased attendance by 25 percent for a customer-oriented event. Have you saved money by renegotiating the contract with the printer? Put it up top on your résumé. Those are the things that will make your résumé stand out from the other 499 on the potential hirer's desk. And it's not just attendance or the meeting revenue you bring in, or the amount of money you spent in a particular city. It's also about the products and services you spin out of the meetings, such as educational CD-ROMs or audiotapes.
Having a strong résumé and cover letter is important, as is doing some research on the organization before submitting them. It's better to take some time to research and put together a thoughtful résumé and cover letter than it is to be the first to get a generic version in.
Beware of danger zones
If you're looking outside the insurance and financial services arena, generally speaking, positions in fields such as telecommunications, the hospitality and travel industry, and some manufacturing areas are going to be harder to find and hold onto than those industries experiencing less of an economic shakeout. Headhunters are seeing a distinct trend toward corporate planners moving into the more stable areas of health care, pharmaceutical, and medical communication companies, for example. While not as glamorous as some other segments, government meeting planning jobs tend to pay better than association jobs and are usually fairly stable work environments.
Find emotional support
You may feel as if you're alone in the world, but what you're going through is very common. Find somebody you can confidentially and regularly talk with about what you're feeling, not just the job you're looking for. A lot of people have a tough time at 3 p.m. on Fridays, for some reason. Maybe that would be a good time to meet with another job seeker. There's nothing to be ashamed about being between opportunities. This is just a tough economy and a tough market. It really isn't anything personal.
Don't give up
Opportunities will present themselves as long as you stay open to them. People often find that something they did in the past that they thought was inconsequential ends up presenting them with a new opportunity down the road. Don't give up!
JOB SEARCH WEB SITES
American Society of Association Executives
Execunet Corporate Jobs Vehicle
Industry job board at Mpoint by PlanSoft
Meeting Professionals International
Netshare Corporate Jobs Vehicle
Professional Convention Management Association
Searchwide Hospitality Recruitment Experts
Society for Human Resource Mgmt.
Washington Network Group
Yahoo job service
Sources: Sheryl Sookman, CMP, principal, The MeetingConnection, Novato, Calif.; Jim Zaniello, recruiter, Association Strategies, Arlington, Va.