Kate McGee was a young corporate planner two years out of college when September 11 changed the world. Like so many in the business — which was already struggling with a weak economy — McGee found herself laid off and re-evaluating her place in the world.
It was then, she says, that she fell into independent planning — mostly by circumstance. “I'd worked with Kathryn Jurgensen (of Irvine, Calif.-based Premier Meetings) on a few meetings after I lost my job. She knew I was planning on moving back to Colorado for financial reasons. So she approached me about opening a regional office in Colorado. It was a great opportunity and a chance to stay in the business.”
Flashback to the 1998-'99 school year, right before McGee graduated from the University of Kansas with a bachelor's degree in business communication. During her studies, at a time when she wasn't so sure that public relations was the path she wanted to walk, McGee took a class on special event planning.
“I realized then that this was something I could do, [something] that I'd be good at,” McGee says. She took a job in Southern California as a corporate meeting planner right out of college and jumped to another company soon after. She spent 18 successful months there before 9/11 and the avalanche of change that followed.
“It's been a slow start,” McGee says. “This is an end of meeting planning I wasn't used to, especially the marketing side. That's been a change for me, and I think I'm still trying to find my niche.”
Working at home is one aspect of her job that she's still trying to get used to. “I'm used to lots of people being around,” she says. “So that's different, yeah.” Making cold calls is another. “Kathryn gave me great advice about that,” McGee says. “The no's are never personal. For every 50 times I hear no, there will be that ‘yes.’”
McGee's not sure exactly where her career will lead her, but she says the call of independent planning will always be there.
“There are just so many advantages. You have the freedom to take on different clients and to avoid all the headaches of an office atmosphere. And it's so great in terms of networking.
“It's a good place to be right now.”
Ben and Jan Benfield are president and executive vice president of The Benfield Group Inc., Marietta, Ga.. This husband and wife team could easily let the stress of work seep into their marriage. But they don't.
Before their business began, Jan was a full-time corporate planner, and Ben was the spouse who accompanied his wife to Meeting Planners International education conferences.
“At first, I didn't think I should be involved, but I'd find myself asking to sit in on the seminars,” Ben says. “I couldn't keep my hands out of the air. I just got involved.” It wasn't long before he hung up his gloves as an executive, became an independent planner, and hung out The Benfield Group's shingle.
“Ben realized it was a great business to be in,” Jan says. She remained a full-time planner until the company she worked for was sold. “Then I came home to work with Ben.”
The two are equal partners in all aspects, although Jan does point out that Ben has two windows in his office and she has none. That gets Ben laughing. Though work stays in the office, there are fragments of married life that trickle in. The biggest? Knowing and playing off each other's strengths.
As an example, says Ben, Jan loves photography. “So we'll take the camera everywhere. I'll be carrying the camera, and I'll say, ‘Jan, there's a great shot!’ Then I'll hand her the camera, because she's the photographer.”
“When you live and work with someone, you get to know each other really well,” Jan says. “We both share in negotiations. We bounce ideas off each other. I like to be the operations gal. Ben's the guy that can really put that budget together.”
They share the trying times, too. “The full-time planner knows that he might get fired,” Ben says. “The independent knows that his entire career could be riding on one event.”
Lynne Tiras had an epiphany in 1986. Why work a lot of uncompensated hours at her full-time meeting planning job when she could be her own boss?
So Tiras said goodbye to her old job and founded International Meeting Managers in Houston.
Things didn't take off at first — but Tiras wasn't looking for any kind of big business boom. She had one meeting, and, at the time, that was enough. There was a TV on her desk. And the money she was making? “Oh, that was just shopping money,” Tiras says.
But something happened. Word got out about Tiras, and and the phone started ringing. “When I took the TV home, my husband said, ‘This must be serious.’”
Then, one day, came one of Tiras's shining moments. There she was, in the lobby of her new headquarters. No longer was her company one office with a TV on a desk. It had a hallway, with doors leading to many offices.
“‘Look at what we've done,’ I said. ‘Look at what happened!’” Before long, her one-person show grew to a staff of 12, with eight planners in Houston, one in Chicago, and one in Detroit.
Soon Tiras discovered the major difference between being an independent and an on-staff planner. “You can't jump into the deep end,” she says.
“You've got to do your homework. This is not meeting planning — it's running a business.”
Sally O'Connor loves fine wine, gourmet food, the back nine, Paris, and the theater. Lucky for her, she's in a business that employs them all.
“It's show biz,” says the independent planner and CEO of Sally O'Connor and Associates Inc., Brookline, Mass. “It's all show biz.”
O'Connor had always wanted to run her own business, and when the financial company where she worked merged with another company, she decided that was her cue to step into the spotlight on her own. “It's been fabulous,” she says. “Complete freedom.”
And in these post-9/11 times, O'Connor does what an independent has to do. She maintains a high profile in the industry. She researches to find growing and successful companies that might benefit from her services. And she markets herself.
“The industry's a lot more complicated,” O'Connor says. “are stronger, terminology is more complex, and hotels are a little less flexible.” But for her, that means just another night on the stage — in meeting planning terms, of course.
Sandy Biback received some sage advice from a co-worker not so long ago: “You'll never make it.” Was it jealousy or tough love? Either way, it worked.
Flash forward 12 years, and you find a successful business owner and president-elect of the Independent Meeting Planners Association of Canada. Not that starting out was easy. It took eight months for Biback to land Imagination+ Meeting Planners Inc.'s first client. “It was a scary and exciting time,” she says. “I was making cold calls — and hating it. But I was motivated.”
When she reeled in that first client, she was so thrilled that she underquoted the job. “They were really nice. They came back and said, ‘Are you sure about this?’”
Today, she's sure about a lot of things. Like the importance of passing on what she has learned. Biback teaches industry-related classes at George Brown University and Centennial College in Toronto.
She tells her students that a heavy dose of creative thinking is needed to pull off a successful meeting. “Einstein said, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge,’” Biback says. “It's a quote I've used as inspiration all through my career. You can't be afraid to use your creativity.”
What does it earn you? In Biback's eyes, total freedom and understanding from the people who matter most — family.
“It was on my mother's 75th birthday that she realized I wasn't just a ‘party planner,’” Biback says. Using her contacts in the industry, she hired a tour bus and a storyteller and took her mother on a trip through her past — along with 50 other people. “It was wonderful,” Biback says.
Judy and Susan Franzblau are close allies in the family confederacy. For Susan Franzblau, vice president of Global Events, Los Angeles, and her mother, Judy, president, the mother-daughter alliance extends to meeting planning.
“I was working in the film industry 12 years ago when, all of a sudden, I was out of work,” Susan explains. “So I started helping with the computers (at Global). Slowly but steadily….”
Susan joined Judy as an independent meeting planner. It was a process that Judy came to slowly and steadily, as well. “I was managing a travel agency and doing a bit of corporate meeting planning. Gradually I gained more meetings, and I realized I liked planning better.”
There have been few stumbling blocks for the duo, although they admit to having some bad luck with a client or two. “The big thing I learned early on was that you really have to qualify your clients. You should work with people you want to work with. And everything should be straight and above board.”
Today Global Events is a fulfilling enterprise for Judy, particularly because her family is involved. “Working with family has its real advantages,” Judy says. “Once you work out the rules, you're working with someone you know, trust, and love. That's just great. We've no office politics.”
“Well, different kinds of office politics,” Susan teases.
Joan Eisenstodt calls it common sense and necessity. At least that's how she explains becoming an independent planner.
Eisenstodt moved to Washington, D.C., in 1978 to work as a meeting planner for a nonprofit organization. Working on a small budget, the organization would routinely lay off and rehire her. During her downtime, Eisenstodt would pick up consulting work. Then, out of what she and her employer call common sense and necessity, she went solo, her employer becoming the first client of what would become Eisenstodt Associates LLC. Common sense, too, perhaps, because Eisenstodt comes from a family of independents.
“Everyone in my family is virtually self-employed,” she says, “which has helped me because I saw firsthand what would be involved (in starting a business).”
Today, Eisenstodt is much more than a planner. She's the well-known moderator and “list mistress” of the Meeting Industry Mall Meetings Matter Listserv (the MIMlist) — and leads well-attended (often standing-room-only) educational seminars at many industry events.
Eisenstodt's involvement in education for fellow planners brings the first 21 years of her career full circle. And it is a glowing circle for Eisenstodt. “What a great moment when I start getting e-mails saying, ‘You're right! It works!’”
Rod Abraham calls it the “The Mysterious Case of the Defective Phone.”
Rod Abraham, president of The Professional Meeting Planner Network, Durham, N.C., struck out on his own in 1982, leaving his job as an executive at an association when it stopped being fun. For this avid spy-novel reader, those first few months quickly revealed a number of mysteries. “I wasn't sure if I was a meeting management consultant, an association management consultant, or a meeting management company. It took some time for me to focus.”
It also took time for Abraham to answer another mystery. Why wasn't his phone ringing?
“I thought I had a defective phone,” he says, laughing. “Lots of people told me how much they respected me and so forth, but the phone didn't ring. It was rough for the first few years because I was guilty of the classic — and often fatal — error: Not marketing myself.”
Today, his phone rings off the hook with people asking him to speak at industry events, serve on advisory boards, and help develop meeting industry standards. “Meeting professionals should get involved in organizations that represent their life's work. The more you give, the more you get!”