When her company relocated and she suddenly found herself out of a job, Pat Benkner decided to go for her Certified Meeting Professional, or CMP, certification, reasoning that it would improve her chances of landing a new position. Michele C. Wierzgac, who opted to pursue a Certificate in Meeting Management, or CMM, sought an academic and professional challenge. Carol Krugman, who has a CMP and a CMM, chose to complete both programs because she deemed them important to her status as an industry leader. “I had started to do a lot of speaking and training, and I thought if I was going to be standing in front of my peers, sharing my expertise with them and serving as a role model, the least I could do was put my money where my mouth was,” she says.

The reasons for pursuing professional designations vary, but one thing is clear: More meeting planners view certification as a key tool in efforts to burnish their professional image. At the same time, many assert that a lack of consistent standards undermines the value of tacking a few initials onto one's name.

Certification on the Rise

Despite a soft economy, the Convention Liaison Council, the umbrella organization that oversees the CMP, reports that a record number of meeting managers lined up to take the test the last two times it was offered. More than 7,000 planners and suppliers have earned the designation since it debuted in 1985, making it the granddaddy in the meeting certification field. The CMM, a more costly program managed by Meeting Professionals International that is aimed at the more experienced meeting planner, has been completed by just over 200 people in the United States. (The program has a longer history in Europe.) An assortment of other certification programs have cropped up in the last decade, including the CSEP (Certified Special Event Planner), given by the International Special Events Society.

As meeting planners have worked to raise awareness of what they do, corporate America has caught on that there are meeting planners … and there are meeting planners. As a result, “more and more companies, when they're searching for employees, are saying they want somebody who is certified,” says Joan Eisenstodt, president of Washington, D.C.-based Eisenstodt Associates and moderator of the MIM list, a popular meeting management listserv.

Jim Monroe, CMP, CSEP, design director and senior event manager with Gale Sliger Productions, a Dallas event production and decorating firm, says his clients have grown savvier and more demanding in his 28 years in the business. “Back in the old days, when I started, certifications were not necessary. This was not a profession or an industry; it was something people did on the side. Meetings were planned by the CEO's secretary.”

But times have changed. “I woke up one day and realized a whole bunch of business was ignoring us, going around us,” Monroe says. The firm continued to plan social events, but younger corporate managers, many of them armed with MBAs and professional certifications, weren't calling. Monroe decided to fight back by obtaining CMP and CSEP designations. He says both processes helped prepare him to better talk the talk, especially with corporate planners, and have contributed to Gale Sliger Productions' increase in corporate clients.

“Education is more endemic now. As people grow more educated, the need to be educated to compete develops,” Monroe observes.

Darcie Brill, a meeting planner with Bank One Corp. in Columbus, Ohio, and a recent CMP recipient, says she completed the program at the request of her supervisor. Brill, who has worked in the business for about a decade, says the designation creates a comfort level for outsiders. “Knowing you're certified means you have a knowledge level and that you're pretty confident about what you're doing,” she says.

Donna Rae Blanger, CMP, woke up to the value of a CMP when she was job hunting. “A lot of the jobs are now asking for it [certification],” says Blanger, a meetings manager with Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean, Va. It helped that her company supports training, paid all the exam-related fees, and rewarded her with a salary boost once she passed.

But Is It Essential?

Is a CMM, CMP, or other designation necessary to stay competitive? “I don't think it's essential, especially if you've been in the business for a while,” says Blanger, who had little difficulty with the test after 17 years of planning meetings. “I think experience gives you the same edge as the CMP, but I think the CMP doesn't hurt, even if you've been doing this for a long time.”

Some planners with a shorter meetings resume have boosted their stature among potential clients through certification. Wierzgac, CEO of Oak Lawn, Ill.-based Michele & Company, traded a career as an educational administrator to launch her own meeting business. After three years, she researched the CMM program and decided that it offered the type of credential she needed to attract the right clients. “The CMP has its position in the industry as well; it just doesn't meet my needs. The CMP, in my opinion, is logistically oriented. … The CMM is strategic in nature.”

Daphne J. Meyers, CMM, a senior event manager with Microsoft Business Solutions in Fargo, N.D., also was attracted to the CMM designation because of its strategic focus. “The gist of the CMM training and education was that if you're truly going to be the planner that you want to be, and the manager that you want to be, you need to think strategically and remove yourself as much as possible from tactical thinking,” she says.

However, Meyers doesn't see a CMP or CMM as essential. “I know a lot of really good professionals who don't have CMP after their name, and they don't need to. They have other qualifications. It's a package.”

Krugman says that she obtained the certifications more as a personal choice than as proof of her competence. “It was a statement of my commitment to the profession more than anything else.”

On the other hand, Eisenstodt, who has chosen not to pursue certification, has met her share of CMPs who lack a firm command of the knowledge they've been tested on. “I look at hotel contracts from hoteliers who are CMPs and I shake my head and think, ‘What part did you miss?’”

Perhaps the harshest criticism leveled at certification programs concerns their lack of consistency. “Certification in our industry means absolutely nothing without the industry also accepting and practicing the standards that are taught in the certification,” says David Sachs, an account manager with PlanSoft Corp. in Twinsburg, Ohio, who planned corporate and association meetings for 17 years. He thinks that hotels, vendors, and planners all need to adhere to a set of standards.

Sachs also bemoans some organizations' blind insistence on certification. “I know of one company that wants all their meeting-based employees to have the CMP, and they are given incentives to pass the test. But no one practices, as a standard, what they have learned, and the push to have a CMP designation behind all employees' names is motivated for all the wrong reasons.”

But many others seek certification for more personal reasons. “I have a lot of respect and esteem for people who pursue further education around their profession,” Meyers says. “I think any effort to learn is an indication that someone wants to be the best planner they can be.”

TOP 3 CERTIFICATIONS
Designation Offered By Requirements Cost Duration How Many Are There? First Offered
CMP
Certified Meeting Professional
Convention Industry Council 3 years as a meeting manager or a 4-year degree; written exam $185 to apply; $325 for exam 5 years 7,460 1985
CMM
Certificate in Meeting Management
Meeting Professionals International references; professional experience; completion of 4.5-day program, group case study, and business project; online exam $75-$125 to apply; $1,600-$1,800 for program and testing 3 years 204 1998
CSEP
Certified Special Events Planner
International Special Events Society applicants accrue points for ISES contributions, experience, etc.; test includes essay and portfolio assessment $100-$300 to to enroll; $125-$225 to apply; $170-$270 for test 5 years 150 1983


Those “OTHER” LETTERS

Robert Johnson isn't a bit apologetic about the standards for the International Society of Meeting Planners' five professional designations. Johnson, executive director of the Alexandria, Minn.-based group, defends ISMP's practice of certifying applicants without requiring them to pass a written test, which most meeting planner certification programs do.

“We go more on experience,” Johnson explains. “We're an association for those people who are already in the industry.”

When they join, members of ISMP can choose one of the designations, which include Registered Meeting Planner, Certified Event Planner, Certified Entertainment Manager, Certified Destination Specialist, and Incentive Travel Specialist. To join, applicants pay dues of $165 and provide evidence of “extensive experience of at least two years in the field of meeting/event planning” or formal or continuing education credits.

Tests are not part of the process, and recertification isn't necessary, Johnson says, because “we believe that not only our members but other members of the industry are getting recertified every day out there doing their jobs.” He suggests that organizations that demand recertification might simply be greedy. “To force members to be recertified is usually in my opinion more of a vehicle to extract money from people to go to conferences.”

Not everyone appreciates ISMP's policies. “I think it's criminal, literally and figuratively,” says Joan Eisenstodt, a respected Washington, D.C.-based planner and moderator of the MIM Listserv.

“First of all, it [giving someone certification without testing] is like dangling a carrot to someone and saying, ‘All you have to do is send in X dollars and you, too, can be certified.’ And it denigrates our profession, saying it's not worthy to know a body of knowledge.”