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 meeting logistics.
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 food and beverage, 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.”
The Right Fit
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. “You might 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 with whom attendees will interact, Feito says it's key that this person be enthusiastic and service-oriented. She also requires experience managing teams, 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 résumé 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 with ExpoVention, Great Neck, N.Y., aand meeting management company that offers TD services, emphasizes that travel directors must 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 prioritize and jump right in.”
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.”
A good travel director knows when and how to take initiative, says Lorraine Cruz, CMP, who frequently hires TDs for CME dinner meetings around the country in her role as program manager for the educational medical meeting company Haymarket Medical, based in Montvale, N.J. She recalls one meeting at which a pharmaceutical company attendee had left package inserts on a table — and the travel director removed them, knowing that they weren't appropriate for that kind of meeting.
“The travel director had enough experience withto know that wasn't appropriate,” says Cruz. And that's the kind of experience and knowledge that Cruz looks for when she hires a TD. “Medical meetings are different from others,” she says, “so it's particularly good to know that someone has experience with Accreditation Council for CME rules and regulations. Once I know that someone is comfortable working with medical meetings, I can be more comfortable knowing that they will handle any issues properly.” Such issues can range from minor points (an attendee who wants a substitute meal, for example) to more major ones, such as ensuring that the speaker is using the approved presentation.
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. 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. Diana Francies, a travel director in Atlanta, says she has run across some TDs “who treated the meeting like it was a paid vacation.”
Give Them Guidance
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, “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.
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.”
Lowe also provides TDs with guidelines about what they can and cannot do. “I 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.”
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. “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.
Finding Travel Directors
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 identify themselves 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, contract 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
While you typically can't find TDs through a standard temp agency, some agencies do specialize in placing them: Professional Meeting Planners Network/ Executive Travel Directors/ Current Temp /The Meeting Temp Job Network and The Meeting Connection