There's a lot to learn from the stories of these four planners-turned-suppliers.

LISA PALMERI

Buyer Side: Travel and Meetings Project Specialist, Abbott Laboratories, Abbott Park, Ill.

Supplier Side: Director, Solutions Consulting, OnVantage; Director of Professional Services, Cvent, McLean, Va.

The Story: When Lisa Palmeri says she’s a freak of nature, she means it in a good way: She is a meeting planner with a high-tech streak. “I learned to love technology back in my days with Abbott. My core job was to manage third-party suppliers and the global business travel hotel program. At the time, the hotel program was managed manually, with 325 properties”—which grew to more than 650 by the time Palmeri left the company. “I needed a technology solution, so I implemented an e-RFP, and that was my entry into technology. It was also my introduction to strategic meetings management (then called meeting consolidation).”

As the business leader for that project, Palmeri gained the experience she uses today as director of professional services at Cvent, leading the team that helps new clients implement SMMPs. “I act as adviser when they have questions about the process or the big picture. If it has an impact on their use of technology, I support them.”

Her corporate experience is key. “I can empathize. I understand large corporations. I’ll usually tell them a few war stories. Recently a client was struggling with how to roll out a new meeting policy. I understand the constituencies involved—procurement, finance, administrative services, ethics and compliance, creative services, travel, meeting planners—so I was able to help with their messages to those stakeholders.”

Palmeri’s other role at Cvent is to take her customer interaction and share it with the SMM product team working on future releases. “I am the liaison, the customer’s voice to the technical team.” Speaking the language of both planner and techie makes her uniquely qualified for the task. As does her desire to have an impact on the meetings industry. “Abbott is a pharmaceutical company. They cure cancer. I couldn’t make big strides in improving the meeting and travel industry there. I wasn’t going to be a major pioneer,” she says. Now, however, “pioneering describes my day every day. Every day I am pushing the limit. We are developing what comes next.”

Challenges: Palmeri’s first leap into the supplier world was with tech company OnVantage, where she was hired as director of solutions—a position created for her. “At OnVantage, I knew I would be starting a new division and would have to recruit resources and build infrastructure. I started from scratch. I had to write a full-scale business plan, including all my competitors and their pricing models. … I had never done that before. But it was great. I am an entrepreneurial spirit. I thrive on making my own destiny.” When OnVantage merged with StarCite two years later, Palmeri’s department was disbanded and she moved on.

Advice on Switching Sides: “Be aware that in a supplier role you might be wearing a lot of hats, and those hats might not be so well-defined. I went from a structured role in a structured company to a more free-spirited company. Know yourself and the best fit for you.”

Supply-Side View: “The biggest current trend and biggest challenge are one and the same: companies’ enthusiasm for strategic meetings management. Last year, the National Business Travel Association annual meeting was all about sourcing. This year, [attendees] were lined up three thick to talk about SMM. The challenge for companies is that it isn’t like other projects where you go through a process and check off milestones. It doesn’t have a finite end. It is an ongoing initiative. Also, a lot of corporations underestimate the resources needs for an SMMP. You have to invest in people and technology.”

LOUANN CASHILL

Buyer Side: Meeting Services Manager, Toyota Motor Sales, Torrance, Calif.

Supplier Side: Strategic Consultant, StarCite, Philadelphia, Pa.

The Story: At press time, Louann Cashill was getting ready to fly across the country for her first client meetings in her new position as a StarCite consultant. She was looking forward to that type of travel, rather than the frantic running around of a typical corporate meeting planner on site at a program.

In addition to leading a different type of meeting these days, Cashill is working in a very different type of environment: her home. It’s quite a change from Toyota’s huge U.S. headquarters office in Torrance, Calif. “It is the perfect fit for me. I am a lot more productive because there are fewer distractions. And I don’t miss the employee dining center.”

While working remotely can be a challenge in a relationship industry, Cashill will continue her presence at industry events, recently serving on a panel at the Meeting Professionals International World Education Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. “That will continue and strengthen,” she says. “I love sharing ideas and making a difference. I find the meetings industry fascinating.”

With StarCite, Cashill works with corporate clients to implement strategic meetings management programs, reenergize current SMMPs, or totally reengineer them. She has lots of advice to give. “It was every day at Toyota. I lived and breathed the SMMP. We made so much progress in four-and-a-half years. And developing a partnership with StarCite was foundational.”

Clients appreciate her history. “Every account I’m working on has said, ‘I’m so glad you were assigned to our account.’ They’re excited because I’m someone who can completely understand their frustration. Change management can be extremely difficult, I know from experience. While we were moving our meeting initiatives forward at Toyota, I had to find solutions to every single problem. I am able to identify with the everyday challenges as well as big-picture challenges.”

Her move to StarCite, she says, was a matter of being offered the right job at the right company. “StarCite gave me the opportunity to offer my skill set and talent. They didn’t try to make me a tech guru. StarCite is leading the industry. It’s forward-thinking and global.” Cashill is also tapping into her customer-service nature. Having worked for The Ritz-Carlton, Pasadena, as director of catering and conference services, Cashill knows service. “I managed a team of 17. They were my customers. The executive team, which was committed to excellence, was my customer. And there were also the outside customers. My customer-service skills were refined at Ritz-Carlton.”

Of course, there were some adjustments to make, going from StarCite client to StarCite employee. “When I arrived in Philadelphia to visit the home office, I realized, ‘Oh, I guess I don’t get picked up in a sedan at the airport anymore!’” Cashill laughs. “But I knew what I was getting into. StarCite had me talk to others who had planner backgrounds. I have not looked back. I love what I do.”

Challenges: “I never thought I would be this technologically savvy,” she says, adding that she knows that this is an area that will require work. “At Toyota, someone ran reports for me. Now I run reports and use our business intelligence solution. I wish I had learned it before I came to StarCite. I know I have to work harder on the tech side to keep up with my peers.”

Advice on Switching Sides: “Ask yourself whether you are really ready to be the one providing services as opposed to the buyer needing services. You must have solid business reasons to take a new job. And make sure you and your potential employer have similar philosophies and goals. Be picky!”

Supply-Side View: “Prospering during an economic downturn is everyone’s challenge. Unemployment is up, placing more demands on productivity. That says to me companies are making employees do more with less. There is more dependence on automation and technology, more outsourcing of non-core business and functions, and a much larger focus on ROI.

“Because of that, meeting buyers and suppliers have to come closer together. Suppliers need to find new ways to reach out to customers, while buyers need to cut costs, move their SMMPs forward, and keep up in their own industry as well as in the meetings industry. I see this as an opportunity for both sides to put their cards on the table and co-create.”

KRISTEN DIERICKX

Buyer Side: Global Meeting Services Manager, BearingPoint, Dallas; Event and Communications Planning Manager, Thomson Reuters, New York

Supplier-Side: Vice President, Account Management and Operations, BCD Meetings & Incentives, Chicago

The Story: With 14 years as a corporate meeting manager behind her, Kristen Dierickx can relate to her clients. And they know it. “I have instant credibility. I’ve been in their shoes. I understand their pressures and their constituencies.” As vice president, account management and operations, at BCD Meetings & Incentives, a Chicago-based stand-alone division of travel management giant BCD, she manages numerous Fortune 50 clients who have implemented enterprise-wide strategic meetings management programs.

Working with those clients, she draws on her experience creating a global meeting services program at BearingPoint, a spinoff of KPMG—experience that involved small steps and a lot of patience.

“They had very little in place, so the first challenge was to conduct a needs assessment and engage key stakeholders to gain their buy-in.” Ultimately, the ongoing need to justify the meeting services program was one reason for her switch to the supplier side. As is the experience of many corporate meeting managers, Dierickx says that her team was “constantly a target, constantly challenged to get buy-in for our program. I wanted to be where meetings were the core competency.”

That experience is also a reason she brings so much to the table for current clients. For example, when two of them went through recent mergers, she helped them to re-implement the merged SMMPs, build relationships, and educate the new companies about, as she puts it, “why we exist.”

Helping a variety of clients appeals to Dierickx. “I touch so many different programs. I’m not facing the same pockets of resistance every day. On the corporate side, I felt like a broken record. Now I’ve got lots of records to play for lots of different clients, and I’m forced to deliver a highly innovative perspective.”

She also appreciates that everyone at BCDMI is passionate about meetings. “This was the perfect opportunity with the perfect company: close-knit with a boutique feel, yet tied into the third-largest travel management company in the world. We are a lean organization. We get the job done without hierarchy. People roll up their sleeves. It’s the best career decision I’ve made.”

Challenges: Becoming a vendor means you are “no longer the big buyer everyone wants to talk to. That challenged me. I’m very involved in the industry, so that helped.” She serves on the Groups and Meetings Committee of the National Business Travel Association. “I am a supplier but I am not in sales mode in that committee-type environment. I understand that as a supplier I need to make money and retain clients for my company, but ultimately it’s the intellectual property and the value that I and my colleagues bring to the table that is the most important.”

Advice on Switching Sides: “Don’t jump just to jump. I wasn’t in a rush but I was looking to take my career to the next level. At a corporation, you’re going to tap out. There are very few vice presidents of meetings, except in the pharma and financial industries. Where do you want to take your skill set?”

Supply-Side View: “This economy has really bonded us all, planner and supplier. We need each other to get through, the way we did after 9/11. I’ve started hearing my clients use words like ‘partner’ rather than ‘vendor.’ They are embracing us as part of their team, their program, and their company.

“We saw a bounce-back at the end of last year. But there is still a concern about perception. People are being smart with their meetings. Incentives are back slightly but there is a reinvention of the reward trip in our client base. Redefining those programs to be more business-oriented is the goal.”

JULIE TOMICH

Buyer Side: Global Travel, Meetings, and Expense Manager, Intel, Santa Clara, Calif.

Supplier Side: Director, Advisory Services, American Express Business Travel/Maxvantage, New York (Tomich recently was promoted to Vice President, Global Process Transformation, at American Express.)

The Story: Having been with Intel for 10 years, Julie Tomich was ready to give herself a new challenge. She likes a challenge. At hyper-competitive and fast-paced Intel, she and her team created and successfully launched a global travel, meetings, and expense management program over the course of three years, based on the rapidly growing company’s expected needs. “When I got to the end, I thought, ‘I want to do that again!’”

So Tomlich sat down and reviewed her skills and experience. “I learned a lot during the evolution of the meeting program at Intel, and I wanted to share that with others, either at another company or with a supplier where I could assist multiple clients facing similar challenges.”

In 2007, she began doing the latter, joining American Express Business Travel as director, advisory services, to manage meeting programs for a portfolio of clients. “I enjoy understanding a client’s challenges and finding solutions from resources within American Express or Maxvantage. That is very gratifying.”

And as a former corporate meeting program leader, she has a rich perspective to bring to those challenges. “I have a real, deep understanding of the situation of corporate planners. Regardless of the company or industry, and knowing that all companies are different, there are still fundamental commonalities with the role of meeting leader. They are under a lot of budget pressure and they must continually educate stakeholders and partners on the value of strategic meetings management.”

And the benefit of her experience goes both ways, she notes. “I brought the corporate planner perspective back into American Express to help us develop strategies to work with our planner customers.” Now that she is on the supplier side, she has realized the wealth of information she could have tapped into as a corporate planner.

“Meeting leaders are in sales positions. They are constantly influencing and selling their services internally,” she says. “I wish I had leveraged my supplier more for that, asking them about the best way to position meetings, how to speak to the CEO—and using their research, data and resources.”

Challenges: “I was surprised by the amount of effort required to prepare a response to a request for proposal. That was very eye-opening to me, as someone who was always sending RFPs with tight deadlines or at terrible times like over holidays! If I had it to do again, I would be as clear as possible, offer a lot of opportunity for communication, and allow more time for responses.”

Advice on Switching Sides: “Take inventory of your skills and experience. What do you like in your job and what do you not like? Talk to others who have made the switch. Research the right company.” And remember, she says, that “meeting managers do things every day that are transferable. For example, working with meeting owners requires clarifying objectives, setting expectations, negotiating, and influencing. Meeting planners take those skills for granted but they are transferable.”

Supply-Side View: “The trends within meetings around transparency, consolidation, and leveraging strategic partnerships will continue.

There is tremendous pressure around ROI, and a demand for measurements to be more detailed: Where was the money spent and what are we getting for it? That’s what everyone is still trying to achieve—the ability to deliver meetings with a measurable impact on business.”

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