For years, meeting-planning jobs have been positioned by the industry as leading to a chance to rub elbows with the movers and shakers of a company. Do a good job in planning, and one of these days you'll be among the folks sitting around the big table, talking strategy.
But is that what really happens? The answer seems to be not exactly, or at least, not easily.
In fact, more-experienced planners often end up feeling trapped in their jobs and find themselves at a dead end, careerwise. Dawn Penfold, president of The Meeting Candidate Network, a New York — based recruitment company that places meeting planners, says she often hears from planners who want to leave meeting planning but have a hard time because of a lack of other skills.
“I get a lot of calls from people who have been in their careers for 15 to 20 years who all of a sudden are looking at what they do and saying, ‘I don't want to travel 25 percent of the time anymore. I don't want to get up at 5 a.m. anymore and go to bed at 11:30 at night. I don't want to unpack 200 boxes,’ but that's all their knowledge base is,” she says.
That's when planners are faced with one of the toughest questions in their careers: What else can they do?
Similar Skill Sets
For Elisa van Dam, the decision about what to do was forced upon her when she was laid off from her post after 5.5 years as vice president of U.S. conferences at IDC, the information technology research company based in Framingham, Mass. With 13 years of meeting planning behind her, she had already been thinking about her next move and had started posting notes on online meeting-planner message boards asking what alternatives other people had found.
“Ultimately, it just seemed like whatever I was going to do, if I stayed in events it was going to be more of the same,” she says.
As she thought about what she had enjoyed at IDC, van Dam says she realized that she liked matching the expertise of IDC's analysts with groups that could use their insights. That led her to consider another kind of institution that follows a similar business model: universities.
She found her current job as director of IT programs at Boston University Corporate Education Center through an informational interview. Her job is not in meeting planning per se, but she uses many skills from her previous jobs. “Instead of doing the kind of work for a single event for 200 to 5,000 people, it's a single event with five to 20 people in a classroom. But the operational and management responsibilities are very similar, because my role is to make money for the university by bringing people in for these training classes.”
Planners who choose to stay within their companies often find themselves on the same kind of journey as van Dam. Sometimes, says Jo-Anne Kruse, senior vice president of human resources for Cendant, in Parsippany, N.J., they will return to whatever they were doing before they became planners. Many times, they fall back on their experience as administrative assistants.
“Many of them will go back to that, but work for someone who does a lot of big conferences — like they'll go work for the head of sales or marketing, or something like that, where they wind up spending a chunk of their job doing meeting planning,” she says.
As one senior benefits executive at a Fortune 100 company explains, although she perceives meeting planning to be a challenging job and one that requires a strong sense of organization and good social skills, those aren't necessarily transferable to a senior management position. “This job requires strong organizational skills, but not strategic and/or critical thinking,” she says. “Companies reward the latter more than the former.”
Start With a Lateral Move
Another option is a move into a related department, such as corporate travel or, increasingly, procurement. For June Schultz, now an executive vice president at Lehman Bros. in New York, the key to moving out of planning and into her current role managing employees' corporate cards had to do with an eagerness to take on new special projects.
After 25 years as a meeting planner, Schultz decided that although she loved the work, she needed to move on. “I just didn't think that in 10 years I wanted to be on my hands and knees stuffing binders,” she explains.
To get to a new role within her department, Schultz began taking on special projects. “I'd do transportation with events, and I spent a year wearing many, many hats, mentoring new employees in the meeting department but also taking responsibility for things like technology and the business continuity plan.”
Over time, those projects “became grander and more time-consuming and visible,” Schultz says. Then, two years ago, a position opened up in corporate card management, and she applied for it. “That was something I thought I would like. It uses all the skills that I was so good at — my follow-up, my detail, my people skills.”
For Birgit Roeterdink, now global procurement director for travel and meetings at Organon, a pharmaceutical corporation in Oss, The Netherlands, one of the keys to moving up was thinking strategically in ways that kept her job aligned with the company's goals.
At Organon, the meeting planning office was within the marketing department. While this is common, it made little sense to her, since most travel-related services were handled by procurement. She decided to ask that her office be reassigned to procurement.
At the same time, the procurement chief happened to be trying to organize a global procurement department for the entire company. Roeterdink convinced him that travel and meetings in the 52 countries in which Organon does business needed to be managed in the same focused way as other purchases.
This move into procurement got her “out of travel and meeting services — the operational thing — and to start focusing on the strategic part,” she says. “And that's what I'm still doing.”
Sell Your Skills
Sometimes, getting ahead is a matter of simple, old-fashioned salesmanship. “I think a lot of times [senior managers] don't understand all that's involved with the management of a meeting,” Penfold says. “They see just the final results, so they see the room set up, they see the materials all together, they see the food and beverages presented to them, they see those gala receptions and those special events, and they think it all just happens,” she says.
“Because of that, they think the skill set of a meeting professional might be very fluffy. They don't realize that they've got budget management skills, they've got communication skills, they have to have technical skills … they have to have knowledge of the latest audiovisual technology that's out there, they have to have marketing skills.”
Roeterdink says she always tried to explain to people inside the company what could happen if they didn't leave their meeting organization to a professional. The key was not only selling herself, but convincing people inside the company that they were taking a risk if they didn't leave the planning to her.
Enumerating your skills in an interview is very important, says Cendant's Kruse. “Most HR people and most hiring managers think in terms of, ‘I have a job that's job title X, and I need to be able to fill it with somebody who has these specific skills.’ If you present yourself as in one kind of a box, you're only going to get tapped if somebody needs that box. If you can position yourself as someone who has a specific set of skills that lend themselves to multiple types of roles, then you're far more marketable.”
This is a must for meeting planners. “People don't understand what they do well enough to even have an opinion of what [meeting planning] is,” she adds. She views that as a positive: Meeting planners are in a unique position to educate their interviewers about their jobs.
However, that lack of understanding of meeting planning remains the key problem facing those looking to move up the ladder. As Roeterdink puts it, few people, even now, recognize meeting planning as a profession.
“That's something which is changing, slowly,” she says. “But let's be honest: Everyone thinks they can plan a meeting.”
How to Get There from Here
A few tips to jump-start your career
SAYING “IT WAS NOTHING” GETS YOU NADA. “If somebody says that was a great conference you just planned, don't say ‘It was nothing,’” advises Dawn Penfold, president of The Meeting Candidate Network, a New York — based recruitment firm. “You've got to show your worth … and the return on what you did.”
SAY YES TO NEW PROJECTS. “Don't turn down something where you might learn something new,” says Penfold.
LEARN ALL YOU CAN. “Anytime there's an opportunity for cross-training and learning something, learn it,” Penfold says. Never turn down opportunities to learn new skills. “Learning beyond their job responsibilities is very key for meeting planners.”
FIND A MENTOR. If you want to advance your career, find someone who can teach you what you need to know. “Try to get a mentor who is fair and objective and is also willing to discuss with you what you're doing wrong and how you should improve,” says Birgit Roeterdink, global procurement director for travel and meetings at Organon, a pharmaceutical corporation based in Oss, The Netherlands.
NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK. Even if a connection you make doesn't translate into a job, use your built-in opportunity to meet people around the company to learn more about where else you might fit in. “It's a good way of seeing if you would be a match,” says Penfold.