“For independent planners, the thought of marketing themselves is akin to dental surgery.” That's how Sheila Harris, president of The Harris Group, a marketing consulting firm in Arlington, Va., puts it. According to the results of a recent Harris Group survey of independent planners, she's right: A full 97 percent rely on referrals to get business, and 89 percent rely on networking.
And that's all they do.
“After every event, I ask the corporate executives or planners I've worked with to refer me to executives of other companies they might know,” says Robin Craven, Alliance LLC Meetings Management, Richland, Wash. “My thinking is that my clients know the value of what I do for them and are willing to share that with their colleagues.”
“Give me word of mouth any day,” adds Kathryn Jurgensen, CMP, president of Premier Meetings, Irvine, Calif. “It saves me a lot of money and lot of time to do my marketing through my networking and referral channels.”
The Heart of the Problem
It all comes down to two things: time and money.
“You can spend so much time promoting yourself that there's rarely enough time left to get to what you do best — meeting planning,” says Craven. She's even consideringsome marketing to buy some time.
“We're doing a revised business plan now to examine just what to spend our efforts on. I suspect that by the time it's done, that may well include the outsourcing of marketing activities.”
Craven is well-known among independent meeting planners as the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Meeting and Event Planning. She also gives talks, writes two columns for her newsletter, and oversees her Web site, www.meetingscoach.com. She does no direct mailing and no advertising.
According to the Harris Group survey, she's not alone: Only 28 percent of respondents do direct marketing, 28 percent market on the Internet, 22 percent do telemarketing, and another 22 percent use “other” means to market their services.
The fact that the majority of respondents — 25 percent — spend $2,000 to $5,000 annually on marketing — and only 9 percent spend more than $10,000 — is a direct result of earnings. “Two thousand to $5,000 is a good deal of money to your typical independent meeting planner when you consider that, on the average, independent meeting planners make between $35,000 and $40,000 a year,” says Jurgensen.
But survey author Sheila Harris says that many independents need to sharpen their vision of what kind of business they want to be. “The most essential aspect of the marketing process is knowing exactly where you're going in terms of what kind of work you want to get,” she says. “It sounds like a simple concept everyone should naturally know, but in fact, it's a can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees kind of thing.
“I liken it to what Steven Covey says in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: If you have your ladder against a wall, and you climb that ladder, well, you are climbing, you are making progress. But if you have that ladder against the wrong wall, then it's not really progress at all. Planners just have to find the right wall.”
Part of the problem, says Craven, is that some companies do not understand the value that a meeting planner brings to their bottom line. “They don't want to hear about what we can bring to a meeting or how much we can save them by knowing how to negotiate effectively. They just want us to do it — but they don't want to pay us $100 an hour for it.”
On a more global level, Harris says good marketing strategies are needed not only by independent planners but by the meeting industry in general.
“As prevalent as … independents are, I don't think their main competition is other independents,” she says. “The main competition is corporations that give meeting planning responsibilities to employees who may be uninformed about how to effectively plan meetings, and who don't know that there is an independent planning industry out there to help them.”