Four years ago, Novell headquarters in Provo, Utah, was home to a bustling corporate events department of about 30 people. Reorganization and belt-tightening have cut it to eight.
“We've learned to do more with fewer people, and we're … having to make tough decisions and rely more on partners and contractors,” says Karen Zunkowski, manager of corporate trade shows at the $1 billion software developer.
Firemans Fund recently surprised the bulk of its meetings team with pink slips and will have contractors handle future programs. A spokesman for the $4 billion Novato, Calif.-based insurer says the decision follows a corporate strategy to outsource more functions. And at Knoll Inc., Peggy Ohara, director of corporate events and incentives, reported that her last day will be February 1, due to “a planned restructuring of the company's incentive program.”
Similar stories are playing out at many companies, especially those in the technology and financial services sectors. As executives place meeting departments under the microscope, planners are losing key staff members or seeing their jobs outsourced.
Some companies are recruiting administrative assistants to plan meetings. Leila MacFeeley, a Greenland, N.H.-based consultant, has had a busy year training corporate assistants about booking hotel rooms and venues, negotiating, and other meeting-related functions. MacFeeley, herself a victim of downsizing in 1993 when then-Prudential Insurance Co. eliminated her post as vice president of conferences and travel, sees the rush to cut in-house planners as a recurring trend. “When business slows, anything that is not a profit-based job is looked at.”
Still, the recession of the early 1990s eliminated more meeting-related jobs than recent events, according to recruiter Dawn Penfold, president of the Meeting Candidate Network in New York (www.meetingjobs.com). Technology and financial employers may be shrinking their ranks, she says, but pharmaceutical and medical companies remain strong, and security and defense-related businesses are expanding.
Cutbacks in the insurance and financial services industries are likely to be short-lived, says another observer. Brett Barrowman, director of conference and travel management services for Oklahoma City-based American Fidelity Group and president of the Insurance Conference Planners Association, has seen some members consolidate meeting departments and replace meetings with videoconferencing. But he maintains that personal contact is too important. “At some point, management has to interact with their employees.”