Some quick insights into what the job search is like for meeting professionals today—

Pointless: Submitting your resume for an online job posting.
Priceless: Using LinkedIn to find the person who knows the person who helps you find a job.
Helpful: Keeping an open mind.
Hopeful: In January, Dawn Penfold, CMP, received a record number of job listings at her Web site, Meetingjobs.com

National numbers look good, too: January was the best single month for job gains in the past two years, with 257,000 jobs created in the private sector. And, Penfold adds, “last year, those who applied for positions were mainly those who were unemployed. Those who were employed did not want to move, in fear of being on the low rung of the ladder. Now that the economy is getting better, I am seeing more employed people become comfortable with moving. This is a good sign because it will open up more positions.”

Still, she says, top-level vice president positions remain elusive, as do entry-level jobs. “The positions seem to be middle management, with middle management salaries.” As for the companies doing the hiring, she sees third parties and financial services firms with the most jobs currently. “Hiring officials are looking for niche experience—financial is seeking financial, pharma is seeking pharma,” she notes. “And we are seeing 500 to 600 resumes sent for each job posted—not to say that they are qualified resumes.”

So What Are Companies Thinking?
In a phrase: Wait and see. In the National Association for Business Economics quarterly Industry Survey released in late January, only 29 percent of respondents said they expect hiring to increase at their firms or industry sectors in the next six months. (Survey respondents are NABE members who work for private-sector firms and industry trade associations.)

One meeting executive sees that same reluctance to hire in the meetings field: “Everyone is handling the same amount of work, if not more, than in 2011. However, they are being cautious about moving too quickly to increase staff. I think everyone is doing their due diligence, and looking at all the ways an increase in work can be handled (i.e., contractor, temporary employee, using other internal resources). No one wants to move too quickly, only to be in a position down the road where staff reductions must occur. Also, with a continued focus on expense management, all possible avenues must be explored when workloads increase.”

On the other hand, the most recent quarterly 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 said contract jobs are increasing. “I won’t call this a trend, because it’s only happened once, but if we see it again in [the next Barometer], we’ll be able to say there is a more accelerated increase in employment,” said Bill Voegeli, president, Association Insights, who discussed the results during MPI’s European Meetings & Events Conference January 31 in Budapest, Hungary.

The Time Is Now

Trend or not, this is clearly the best time in the past two years to be looking for a meetings job, say those with experience. Joann Chmura, CMP, CMM, senior meeting planner at General Reinsurance Corp. in Stamford, Conn., was part of a workforce reduction at the end of 2009. “I was laid off at the worst time for the insurance industry and the worst time for the meetings industry,” says Chmura, who had been relationship marketing manager, meetings and events, at ConnectiCare in Farmington, Conn. “I looked for a job for 18 months. Psychologically, emotionally, financially—everything takes a hit when you lose your job. I had to start over.”

That included launching a small event-planning business, working with some nonprofits on things like galas and golf tournaments, and creating a business travel program for the Connecticut Chambers of Commerce. “You have to keep working,” she says. “You can get paralyzed with fear in a bad economy. When I was first laid off, reports said there were eight applicants for every job. Now we’re at four to one; normal is two to one.”

That partially explains how long it took her to find her new position despite sending out 1,200 resumes. Chmura sees another reason as well: “A lot of jobs are posted but the postings are not ‘real’ openings. The company always intends to promote or hire from within, but they are obligated to post the job.”

How To Show Your Value
Promoting from within is a particular challenge for meeting executives who are laid off at the VP or director level. Bill Brownson was AVP, meeting and event management, at John Hancock Financial Services when he was part of a workforce reduction last November. Finding an equivalent position is proving to be tough. “When there is an open position, there’s usually a succession plan,” he says. “Unless you know the president you’re probably not going to just come in and lead a meeting department. I responded to a posting for the level of job I had eight years ago because I thought it might lead to another opportunity.” It didn’t.

“If I could write my own script, I would be leading a team and working strategically,” he continues. “But for the right position I would consider something different. There are definitely more mid-level positions out there. When looking at senior or even junior management, that’s where you’re not finding as many.”

Another job seeker, who had been running the global meetings program for a major multinational company, is having a similar experience. “Put a plug in for all of us out there looking,” says this executive, who frankly expected to land another job within six weeks. “If a company would understand the ROI of hiring one of us; if they invested the salary and benefits then looked at the return of bringing on somebody who really gets it, who saves money on hotels, saves money on internal resources to get the job done, who will get their arms around the total meeting spend… Pay me X, and I’ll give it back to you tenfold.”

Chmura makes the same case. “You know you add value, you know all the money you’ve saved over the years, but they just see your higher salary and benefits. And companies are still afraid to spend.”

The Question of Resumes
If you’ve searched for a job lately, you’ve learned about applicant tracking software. With hundreds of resumes submitted for every job listing, there are not enough HR personnel to do the initial filtering. So computers do it. Resumes are scanned for keywords, years of experience, names of schools, professional designations, or whatever a company selects. What happens? Plenty of qualified candidates never get interviewed. “Recently I met with a job consultant,” says the global meetings executive, “who said I needed to tailor my resume to each job posting. So I now have 10 different resumes. If the posting talks about innovation, you need ‘innovation’ on your resume. If they want experience writing strategic business plans, you must say you’ve written strategic business plans (assuming you have, of course!)

“I submitted resumes to positions on LinkedIn and SimplyHired, and I got automated letters saying, ‘We have found other candidates whose experience matches more closely.’ But my experience matched perfectly! So it must have been my wording.”

Brownson sent in his resume for a corporate meeting planning job that he was overqualified for, and, he says, “I think it was my fastest rejection ever. I sent the resume at 3 p.m. and got the ‘No, thanks’ by 4:30 p.m.” The reason? The job required a certified meeting professional designation, which Brownson does not have. “It didn’t matter to the computer that I have 20 years of experience, including leading a meeting team,” he says. “So that’s where it comes down to networking. My resume writer, who does 600 resumes a year, told me, ‘Your next job will come through your network.’”

Constant Networking
After 18 months, Joann Chmura’s did. She was invited to a “Summit on CVBs,” and there she reconnected with a GenRe planner whom she’d met before. She also knew this planner’s supervisor through Financial & Insurance Conference Planners, which Chmura says has been a valuable career resource. Shortly after, Julie Stovroff, an industry contact from Preferred Hotels & Resorts and also an FICP connection, called to say she’d heard there was a position open at GenRe. Chmura called the planner, sent her resume, and within a week had the job.

To her unemployed peers, Chmura says, “Continue to attend industry functions and whatever you get invited to. It takes constant networking.” Based on her experience, “I truly believe that you need an ‘in,’” she says. “You have to be relentless, keep researching, drill down, find out who works at the company, and try to build a relationship.”

She did just that with another job possibility. Seeing the posting from a major company, based in a different state, Chmura worked LinkedIn to find others who worked at the company, finally locating an assistant in a Connecticut office. She called her, developed a relationship, and then submitted her resume. “I got an interview only because I put that assistant down as an internal reference.”

New City, New Search
Beth Humphrey, CMP, whose meeting and trade show management position at healthcare giant McKesson was eliminated in late 2009, has been facing more than just the job search. Having worked for several Fortune 100 companies in the Atlanta area, Humphrey decided to return to her northeast roots and moved to Boston in 2010. “It has been quite a change. I have a lot of industry contacts, but Boston hasn’t been my market, so it’s like starting over. That has been the most challenging aspect—trying to connect and get yourself known.”

To do that, Humphrey joined the New England chapter of Meeting Professionals International and attended meetings. She set up informational meetings and phone calls with friends of friends and people she’d done business with, firmly believing that expanding her network would be the key to finding her next job. In fact, it’s how she’s landed most of her jobs, starting with Sara Lee. She’d been working in hotel sales and got to know someone from the company who needed an events manager. “People do business with people they know and trust,” she says. “And they like to hire people they know or who come recommended by someone they know.”

Humphrey is now under contract with the Boston Globe as a customer advocate. It may not be meetings, but it is not unrelated, she points out. “It’s all about communication, trust, and increasing brand loyalty,” she says. She is also getting a great education in a new industry. Still, she says, “I want to get back to doing what I love.”

Focus on Yourself
Humphrey recently renewed her certified meeting professional designation. The recertification qualifications include continuing education credits, which Humphrey earned through MPI, attending classes in Georgia and in Boston, and through webinars. “I wanted to learn more about sustainability, meeting technology, how people learn, how to set up training based on neuroscience, virtual meetings”—all subjects she tackled as part of the CMP renewal. “I’m recertified and I’m ready to go,” she says. “I have a commitment to the industry, a great background, and updated skills.”

She’s also found time to step away from the search in order to keep up her energy. “Life is a marathon, not a sprint. You do have to realize it is a process,” she says. “I try to keep up with things that make me happy every day or every week: I do yoga, I read books I enjoy. I’ve started a journal, writing three things I’m grateful for each day. If I hit that moment where things aren’t quite so easy, I can go back and read some of those.”

One Job Seeker's Networking Timeline

November 10, 2011

  • Bill Brownson, AVP, meeting and event management, John Hancock Financial Services, is laid off after six years with the company.
  • He calls two colleagues, one of them posts the news on LinkedIn, and Brownson quickly has dozens of supportive e-mails, including some asking for his resume (which makes him think, “I should keep my resume updated!”) It’s a good thing people reach out to him, since he’s had to surrender his BlackBerry—with all his work contacts.

November 17, 2011

  • Meets with a resume writer and begins to send out his updated resume. “It’s a tough time to be out of work. There’s not much happening because of the holidays and the end of the year.”

November 28, 2011

  • He considers declining an invitation to attend the Starwood Boston Advisory Council meeting. “The director of sales at the Westin Copley called and said, ‘That’s not acceptable,’” Brownson laughs. It was the right decision. “I still have expertise to share and it was good to connect with people,” he says. “You have to keep current and keep active.”

December 5, 2011

  • An industry friend tells Brownson of a position her company is developing, but she won’t know more until the new year. She asks for his resume and gets it in the hands of the director. In February, Brownson has a phone interview with the director. He’s now waiting to hear about the next step.

December 21, 2011

  • Meets with outplacement agency and professional job coach—an appointment that has been set up by John Hancock Financial Services.

January 10, 2012

  • A headhunter contacts Brownson on LinkedIn. “In my 20 years I never met a recruiter who specialized in our industry but he found me,” he says. To no avail, however, as the recruiter only works with the hospitality side of the business.

January 12, 2012

  • Follows up on a promising lead for a position with an insurance and financial company in the Boston area. Then the company in question lays off hundreds of employees and puts all hiring on hold.

January 15, 2012

  • Attends Financial & Insurance Conference Planners Northeast Region meeting in Boston. Gets some insight into using LinkedIn even more effectively; reconnects with friends and peers.

January 23, 2012

  • Talks to a recruiter from a company where the head of the meetings department is retiring. Despite the seeming match in qualifications, the salary requirements don’t line up. It’s unclear whether the company is promoting from within and hiring to fill the vacated lower position, or recreating the retiree’s position at a lower level.

February 1, 2012

  • Attends Grand del Mar Advisory Board meeting. Another attendee there knows a VP at a company with an open meetings position. He sends Brownson’s resume with his recommendation. Waiting to hear.

February 10, 2012

  • Interviewed for this article. In the spirit of good networking, he asks us to include his e-mail address in case any reader has a job opening: billbrownson@gmail.com

Tale of a Successful Job Search: What Worked, What Didn't

We won’t be revealing her identity, but this meeting industry veteran’s story was so compelling we want to share it.

Let Go
Last May, she was laid off from a major company, where she had served as an expert in strategic meetings management. Changes at the company meant that her job elimination didn’t come as a surprise, but still was tough to take. “There is a lot of doubt,” she says. “You wonder, ‘Am I good enough?’ It’s a very bad stage. But I had received a nice severance package, which allowed me to take four months off. So I didn’t start looking for a job at first. I was not mentally ready.”

Regrouping
“I enjoyed doing nothing and regrouping. I call it my spiritual awakening,” she says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, the economy had failed, we’d all acquired so much ‘stuff,’ I had a big home, but I wasn’t happy. In 2011 I lost my job, I lost my father, I lost a best friend.”

She ended up losing more—but on purpose. “I downsized. I sold two-thirds of what I owned,” including the big house. “I got back to basics. It happened to a lot of people in America.” Then the savings started running out. Ready to start the job search in earnest, she made a list of 20 words, among them freedom, creativity, friendship, fun, giggles, camaraderie. “Those became my mantra for where I was going to go.”

Following the Old Rules
She launched her job search doing “what we’d always been told we’re supposed to do. I cleaned up my resume. I applied to 30 jobs via the Internet. I got one call. I was going through the motions, but I quickly realized, ‘Okay, that’s not working!’ So I changed my strategy.”

LinkedIn, Part One
The new strategy involved reading the job Web sites for positions, then trying to find out more before applying. “I would research the job on LinkedIn,” she explains, then she’d mine her contacts for someone who might know someone connected to the company. “I did that for 10 jobs. I was so tenacious. I worked them so hard. And none of them came through. I was stunned.”

For those 10 jobs, she made it through to interviewing with four human resources people, but didn’t get hired. “I thought, ‘That’s odd, because I have a lot to offer. So what’s going on?’” It was time for another strategy.

LinkedIn, Part Two
She went back to LinkedIn and handpicked 258 of her 400 contacts. “I wrote a message to all of them saying, ‘This is what I’m looking for. I know some of you know someone…’” She got 42 responses. “That was the magic ticket,” she says. “Some of the responses were from people I worked with in 1995! It was fun.”

From those responses, four jobs shook out, and she began talking with all of them. Meanwhile she also had attended the Meeting Professionals International World Education Conference in July and the Global Business Travel Association meeting in August, networking and being seen.

She looked at the four jobs along with 10 of her 20 words, put them all in a matrix, and compared them side by side. Salary was not at the top of the list. “I was willing to take a lower salary because I was looking at the fun, the creativity… I didn’t want to be sitting in a corporate job crunching numbers.”

The result of the matrix exercise was that one company came out on top. But it still took months to create the job that fit, one that used her SMM expertise and applied it to the company’s event strategy.

Looking back over the job search, she believes her patience was rewarded. “All of my ‘words that matter’ fit perfectly with my job,” she says. And though the search was hard work, she also advises being selective. At one point, she notes, “I was offered a lot of money. But the guy I spoke with was not a kind person. It was so obvious. I knew what I didn’t want, which also helped.”

Paying it Forward
She sent another letter to her LinkedIn contacts when she got her new job. “More than 100 people wrote to say congratulations,” she says, adding that one of them also asked for a discount from the new company and another asked for a job. Speaking of which, she connected industry colleagues in the midst of their own job searches with the three companies whose jobs she had turned down. “One of those might work out,” she says. “It’s a good fit.”

2 Top Tips for LinkedIn

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.

Find more tips and resources at Patrick O'Malley's Web site.