When life throws you lemons, you make lemonade. And when the economy yields no jobs in your field, you find other ways to make a living. Thousands of meeting planners have done just that with the help of the Meeting Candidate Network Inc. (www.meetingjobs.com) and its new service, the Meeting Temp Job Network (www.meetingtempjobs.com). Dawn Penfold, president of the search firm, talks about how temp work has helped to fill a void in the meeting industry and her business. Corporate Meetings & Incentives' Dave Kovaleski spoke with Penfold from her New York office in late April.

Q. Why did you launch the Meeting Temp Job Network?

When the economy started taking a turn for the worse, we all sat down and said, “OK, the important thing is that we serve the industry, find out where the jobs are, and keep our company going.” So our direction was to continue the permanent placement business and start this temp business, because it seemed as if a lot of firms who may not have had the head count for permanent positions had the head count for temporary people.

Q. Has it been successful?

It launched about a year and a half ago and was about 75 percent of our business last year. The recession hit us all very hard. In 2000, we might have had at any time 100 to 150 perm positions available nationally. Last year, it was down to two or three. But on the temp side, there seemed to be a great demand. Companies were realizing that they didn't have to fly a meeting planner out to run a meeting when they could find someone in the local area to handle it.

Q. How does the service work?

It all depends on the type of temps or independent contractors a hiring official needs. If they need someone who has a special expertise — incentive, medical, financial — we have a database that we work hard to develop. Are they looking for somebody for one night for four hours, or are they looking for somebody for two years? It could be that a company needs someone to run an entire conference; it could involve working out of the home or office; it might be database management or on-site work at the registration desk. It might be that a group needs someone to help with evening dinner meetings or perhaps serve as a human sign to point guests to the general session. It could be anything.

Q. How many temps are in your network?

About 12,000. We're really proud that we developed a database of meeting professionals who aren't the traditional meeting professionals. They might not all be members of Meeting Professionals International or Professional Convention Management Association; they may be in third- or fourth-tier cities, so it might be somebody in Utica, N.Y., or Pierre, S.D. We're getting a database nationally right down to the small towns. Some are what I call perma-temps. They do nothing but temp for a living.

Q. What do employers look for in a temp?

First, they have to be aware of the laws involved. There are strict regulations for independent contractors. The other thing they have to be aware of is how to treat these people. They shouldn't treat them as temps; they should treat them as members of the team. Also, hiring officials should determine what level of experience they are looking for and be realistic about what their expectations are for this person.

One thing I've seen with hiring officials is that they'll interview forever trying to find the ideal person, because they are used to hiring people whom they hope are going to be there for two, three, four years. But with temps, it's usually just one or two months, and you're not going to find the perfect person for a two-month position. What you want is someone with the skill sets that can get the job done.

Q. What do temps cost?

Payment can range, depending upon the experience level they want and what their requirements are. Do they want them on an hourly basis or do they want them on a flat daily rate?

I don't think it's always a cost savings to go the temp route. I've seen situations where they say, “We want somebody who's a CMP or CMM with at least five or seven years' experience” and they hire them for $50 an hour to do database work. To me, that's not a cost savings.

Q. What are the benefits of temping for planners?

The benefit for someone who is going to do this permanently is flexibility. It's almost like a project management mentality; they go in knowing that they have a project to complete, and that three months from now they'll be gone and starting a new project.

It's also ideal for people who don't need the benefits. A lot of people out there have a spouse or partner with benefits and are temping so they can be home to go to the baseball games with their children. It's a lifestyle thing.