Like any good meeting planner, Loretta Lowe, CMP, can juggle many tasks at one time. But try as she might, she can't be in more than one place at a time.
So when the San Francisco — based independent meeting planner was called on to plan 45 pharmaceutical meetings throughout the United States, she needed to hire people to take over on-site. Enter the travel director — a person hired specifically to oversee the on-site logistics of a meeting that has already been planned.
Alternately known as a travel director, trip director, TD, or on-site meeting manager, this pivotal position not only goes by various names but also can encompass various responsibilities. For a smaller program, such as a dinner meeting, just one travel director might be on-site to serve as host. For a larger event, a range of travel directors — from the lead TD, with responsibility for the overall program, to specialists in various areas such as F&B, hospitality, or housing — might be there to run the show.
So what is the difference between a travel director and a meeting planner? At meeting, event, and travel management company Maritz Travel, there is a clear differentiation. “The meeting planner or project manager has responsibility for planning everything until the point of operation,” says Alicia Feito, vice president of operations, based in St. Louis. “The travel director comes in at the point of operation and is responsible for executing those plans.”
What to Look for
Regardless of title, the most important factor when hiring a travel director is to ensure that the person doing the hiring and the person being hired have the same understanding of the scope of the assignment.
“It's different for each program,” says Melissa Biele, a senior meeting planner for third-party meeting and event planning company California Host, based in San Francisco, who also has worked as a TD. “For meetings, you want people who have that kind of experience under their belt. But you might also need someone who speaks a foreign language to run tours in a foreign country, someone to operate a registration area, someone to handle food and beverage, and so on.”
What is the same for any program is that the travel director becomes “the face of the company,” says Feito. Because the TD is the person whom attendees will see and interact with, Feito says it's key that this person be enthusiastic and service-oriented. She also requires experience managing teams of people, computer skills, and financial savvy. “TDs must be able to focus on implementing programs, which can be a different skill set from that of a meeting planner,” she says.
Lowe agrees. “The key in reviewing a resume is to ensure they have on-site management experience,” not just pre-meeting coordinating experience, she says. “TDs need to be able to get things done. They have to have their antennae out at all times, looking out for the comfort, safety, and needs of the attendees, as well as be able to ensure the program runs efficiently. Being able to do both is a special and often unrecognized skill.”
She strongly recommends checking references, even when a person appears to have had years of experience. Even then, she says, a lot depends on finding TDs with the management and communication styles that match your needs: Do you or a client need or want to be kept abreast of every decision? Or would you prefer that the TD handle most of it on his or her own?
In either case, Wendy Morris, vice president of sales and marketing of ExpoVention, Great Neck, N.Y., aand meeting management company that offers TD services, emphasizes how important it is for travel directors to be able to dive right into the program. “Travel directors have to be able to show up on-site and just envelop themselves in the big project. A seasoned TD can get a quick overview of the project and then be able to prioritize and jump right in from there.”
In addition, Lowe says it's important for the travel director to be able to handle and communicate problems and complaints. “If there's a problem, I need to hear about it right away so I can be proactive and address it.”
What Can Go Wrong … Just Might
A good travel director knows when and how to take initiative. Lorraine Cruz, CMP, who frequently hires TDs for dinner meetings around the country in her role as program manager for Haymarket Medical, Montvale, N.J., recalls one meeting at which a supplier attendee had left promotional information on a table — and the travel director removed it, knowing that it wasn't appropriate for that kind of meeting.
On a larger scale, Lowe recalls a job at which she was acting as an on-site meeting manager — for a dinner that grew unexpectedly to 1,700 people — when the caterer ran out of food. “I had to go back to my client to get a credit card to order another $20,000 worth of food,” she says.
Biele notes that part of the challenge of hiring on-site temps is that “you — or the client — won't like everyone every time.” While she has not encountered a major problem with a travel director, she has had to replace some on occasion. “We had an international program where one of the attendees felt that someone's Spanish wasn't up to par. They complained, and we were forced to remove him, even though I really think the complainer was just in a bad mood.”
Then there are those independent meeting planners who are, for the most part, retired but promote themselves as on-site meeting managers for the perks of the job. Diana Francies, a travel director in Atlanta, says she has run across some TDs “who treated the meeting like it was a paid vacation,” and were more interested in enjoying the facilities than in doing their jobs.
Set the Stage
The most important tool a company can provide its travel directors is information — and few companies provide enough, TDs say.
“I always send on-site meeting managers all the paperwork ahead of time,” says Cruz. “I send them whatever I have, such as information about the restaurant and the planned meal, a sign-in sheet, background and travel information on the speaker, and so on.” She also calls the TD the day before a program to go over any final details or questions. “I've heard that they often don't get that kind of information ahead of time,” she says, “so they often have to show up not knowing anything and not being prepared.”
Along with the logistical information, Biele says it's important to provide a realistic overview of what is expected. “Tell me the truth. I need to know if I'm going to be working an 18-hour day.”
In addition, Lowe tries to provide TDs with guidelines about what they can and cannot do. “I like to give them as much leeway as possible to make decisions and changes when necessary — but there can be a limit. If something affects the budget, the client needs to know about it first.”
Where to Find Them
Travel directors can sometimes be difficult to find, in large part because of the number of possible titles. Of more than 20,000 Meeting Professionals International members, for example, only 55 self-identify as travel directors. But that doesn't count the hundreds, possibly thousands, who perform that role under other titles, such as on-site meeting planner, on-site meeting manager, meeting consultant,meeting planner, and so on. There is no association dedicated to travel directors.
To find a quality TD, consider these strategies:
Contact colleagues in the area where you need a travel director. “If I need someone in North Carolina, the first thing I do is call a colleague who lives and works there to see who they know,” says independent meeting planner Loretta Lowe, CMP, San Francisco. “A local often has invaluable knowledge of the area, and a personal recommendation is always helpful.” If you don't know anyone in that area, an industry association such as MPI can be helpful in making contacts.
Post a listing with the job details on an industry message board or listserv, such as MeCo or MiForum on Google Groups (http://groups.google.com).
While you typically can't find TDs through a standard temp agency, some agencies do specialize in placing them: Executive Travel Directors (www.traveldirectors.com), Current Temp (www.macmeetings.com), The Meeting Temp Job Network (www.meetingtempjobs.com), and The Meeting Connection (www.themeetingconnection.com).
The Price Is Right
Travel directors are typically paid a daily rate, which can range from $175 to $300 a day, depending on their level of experience and what's required of them on-site. Sometimes a per diem is added for expenses, while other times the travel director will submit an expense report. For smaller assignments, such as a dinner meeting, TDs typically charge hourly, which can range from $12 to $15 an hour for handling simple tasks like registration to $50 to $100 an hour for overseeing the meeting.
Independent meeting planner Loretta Lowe, CMP, San Francisco, advises adding a performance clause to any TD contract. “It's basically an assurance that he or she will represent the company well, maintaining quality and customer service levels,” she says. Depending on the exact wording of the clause, if the TD doesn't perform up to expected levels, the corporation might have some protection in terms of having to pay the agreed-upon fee.
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