Given the increasing complexity of association meetings, more planners are finding that they just can't do it all themselves. But where do you find the best contractors? When should you involve them in your planning? What do they charge? In other words, where do you start?

Our guide to outsourcing covers the basic questions you'll need to answer before picking a site selection, special event, production, independent meeting planning, or production company to work with you in producing your event.

Independent Planners

Independent planners are used by organizations without full-time meeting planners — but also by those with planners on staff. They do whatever you need, including site selection, logistics, billing, on-site management, tour or partner program planning, working with suppliers, negotiation and planning of F&B events, contract management, program design, negotiation of airline costs, registration, and housing management. Most independents say that they usually work with an in-house planner; hiring an independent frees the in-house planner to focus on the content of the event, rather than logistics and site selection.

What should I ask? Ask: Are you active in industry organizations? What was your most interesting contract negotiation? What about your most challenging experience on site? Have you had any crisis management experience — were you involved in a meeting on September 11? How did you handle it?

What's the advantage to working with a big company? Larger meeting planning companies offer volume benefits: larger potential discounts because they book more room nights and events each year. But smaller firms may offer more personalized service. It all depends on your organization's needs and preferences.

What should the contract specify? The contract should outline the responsibilities of the in-house planner and the independent, timelines, fees, payment schedule, and cancellation clauses.

What credentials do I look for? Check the independent's qualifications and credentials. Has he or she worked with comparable clients of the same size/type of meeting? Find out about reputation and relationships with properties and suppliers. Many independents earn the industry's most recognized meeting planning credential: the Certified Meeting Professional designation from the Convention Industry Council.

Where do I find them? The Alliance of Meeting Management Consultants offers a member directory (www.ammc.org).

Production Companies

If you only need someone to hook up audio speakers and lights, hire an audiovisual technician. But if you want to add pizzazz, call a production company. Of course, production companies take care of the AV details, making sure your event sounds and looks exactly as you envisioned. Working with planners, production firms can design the theme and oversee every detail.

What do they do? Production companies help planners conceptualize the theme and make it a reality, doing everything from designing the staging to creating customized video. Some offer other specialized services.

What will it cost me? It depends on what the client wants to accomplish. Most companies bill on a line-item basis and collect fees in increments based on when payments are due to vendors, with the balance due upon completion. For example, the bill might be broken out by speaker, entertainment, AV, etc.

For something like entertainment, mark-up would likely be in the 10 percent range. For most other outsourced services, the general range is 15 percent to 30 percent, depending on the item and whether it was billed on a per-day rate or on a per-event basis.

When should I make contact? Most production companies like to be involved at least three to six months in advance. Of course, thanks to technological advances, TelePrompTer copy and graphics can be tweaked moments before a speaker hits the stage.

What should I ask? Find out about a company's reputation, its length of time in business, if it has produced similar events, if it owns or rents equipment, how it charges, what the company considers its core capabilities, and if it sends freelancers or full-time employees on site.

What if I have to cancel? Cancellation policies depend on timing and reason for cancellation. Most production companies base their refund policies on what work has been completed, as well as on terms of the agreements with subcontractors.

Where do I find them? Listings of industry professionals categorized by specialty are available on the Media Communications Association International Web site (www.mca-i.org). Individual companies' Web sites may also feature sample projects.

Site Selection/Sourcing Firm

Researching destinations and hotels that fit your group's specs is time-consuming. You may know the kind of destination you want, perhaps even the type of property — resort, city hotel, conference center — but you don't want to do all the legwork to find it and book it. Site selection firms sprang up more than 10 years ago; their forerunner was the hotel representation firm. The difference is that a hotel rep firm's sourcing agents are paid a retainer by a hotel to represent them.

The pure site selection firm of today is more akin to a travel agent for the meeting industry: It collects a commission from the hotel when it books and negotiates room nights for a meeting. It can be likened to a buyer's agent in the real estate industry. Although a site selection firm makes its money from the hotel (the seller), it represents the best interests of the buyer (the meeting sponsor/organizer).

In most cases, a representative of the client (the planner or a higher executive, depending on the company) signs a contract with the hotel.

What do they do? Based on a client's specs, site selection firms help organizers search for the right destination and property and help negotiate contracts.

What will it cost me? In most cases, a site selection firm's fee would be paid by the property. Typical commission is 10 percent of the booked rooms' cost for the event, although some firms do collect fees in the 15 percent to 20 percent range. Usually, the firm is paid when the event is over and the client pays the bill.

When are meeting properties researched? Research happens online via the meeting industry's many hotel databases, by calls to national sales offices and individual properties, and through on-site inspections.

When should I make contact? As soon as you know where and when you want to book, call. Some suggest calling before you pick a destination so that options aren't limited. Large conferences obviously need more time for outsourcing, so contact a company a year or more out.

What do they need to know? Gather your data on region, the number of guest rooms needed, arrival/departure patterns, the meeting schedule, meeting room needs, food and beverage, preferable location specifics (airport or downtown, for example), personality of meeting (informal, refined, high-tech), previous meeting locations, and any prior experience you've had with that property and/or locale.

What should I ask? Find out the site selection company's bargaining power, the relationships they have with hotels, and how quickly they can respond to your needs. Some may have agreements with certain properties to promote their hotels or destinations. At the outset, ask if such arrangements exist, and find out what they mean when it comes to negotiating the best rates and contracts.

Why size company should I go with? Many reputable “mom-and-pop” site selection firms do good work, offering personalized service. Theoretically, the larger the company, the greater the purchasing power.

What about cancellation policies? Ask a site selection firm about its cancellation policies. Since most are not paid their commission until the meeting takes place, they miss out on income when meetings are canceled.

What credentials do I look for? There is no association for site selection companies. However, some people who work for these companies are members of major meeting industry organizations. For references and reputations, ask a site selection company for names of its clients before deciding to work together.

Special Event Planners

Event planners are much more than party planners. They help you choose the theme, decoration, and entertainment for your event, and then produce it. Some companies operate locally; others work with clients nationally, planning everything from formal galas to arena concerts.

What do they do? Event planners do everything from decor, entertainment, sound, lighting, and transportation to booking speakers, purchasing gifts for VIP attendees, planning and negotiating F&B, and even designing invitations and signage.

What will it cost me? The industry standard is 18 percent to 20 percent commission, based on total event cost. This can be billed in various ways: a flat management fee or a built-in mark-up fee on line items, for example. A 50 percent deposit is usually due at the start, with another 25 percent due before the event and the remainder upon completion.

When should I make contact? Venues fill quickly, especially in big cities, so the more lead time, the better. But there really is no standard. Tell your event planner the event's purpose; the dates considered and flexibility; number of guests; format (black tie, informal); budget; event history; and what you're serving at other meals during the meeting. Some companies need a budget estimate to get a realistic idea of what the event they want will cost.

What should I ask? Find out about the event planner's background, client listing, references, and places they have done business; do a credit check, and ask for case histories for similar events. Check the planner's level of creativity, fee structure, and if the planner is insured and belongs to industry associations. Does the planner own his or her props? Has the planner won industry awards?

Who will I work with? Most planners appoint a team leader to the account, who coordinates the event with the client.

What if I have to cancel? It depends on how close the event is to the cancellation. Many fees are nonrefundable because the event planner has already done the contracted work. Policies also depend on what is in vendor agreements — if talent is booked, you're likely to pay whether the event happens or not.

What credentials should I look for? The International Special Events Society (www.ises.com) offers the CSEP (Certified Special Events Professional) designation.

Where can I find them? Local convention and visitors bureaus can provide you with a list. To get a list of CVBs, go to the International Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus' Web site, www.iacvb.org, or call (202) 296-7888. Also, check with area hotels to see who they consider the top-notch event planners. The International Special Events Society has a finder service on its Web site (www.ises.com) that is searchable by chapter location and service/product.

Destination Management Companies

Destination management companies are local companies that can serve as local liaisons for meeting planners. Once thought of as strictly local transportation providers, DMCs can do so much more. They can orchestrate events, recommend off-the-beaten-path venues, and basically take care of whatever you need, from props and staging to entertainment.

Although DMCs typically work only in the city in which they are based, many belong to national and global networks. So if you had a good experience with a DMC in Denver, you can expect comparable service elsewhere by looking to the same network for a referral.

The main benefit of using a DMC is its in-depth local knowledge. They may also have more leverage in the local market when it comes to negotiating with vendors.

What do they do? Destination management companies find venues; find and hire entertainment; arrange tours, F&B, theme parties, sporting events, props, and transportation; help to purchase welcome or spouse gifts.

What will it cost me? DMCs work on a fee basis. Some can quote a net management fee that is broken down by the number of attendees, or a line-by-line itemized account with a built-in management fee, usually in the 20 percent range and negotiable.

When is payment due? Most DMCs require a deposit up front. Usually, 75 percent to 80 percent of payment is required in installments before the event.

When should I make contact? It depends on the complexity of the bookings. If you just want to do a few dine-arounds, that can be booked quickly. If you want to hold an event at a venue such as the Smithsonian, which allows a limited number of bookings per year, you will need much more notice.

What do they need to know? Tell your DMC what you hope to achieve with the event. Considerations include budget and F&B needs, as well as the attendees' gender, profession, and age.

What should I ask? Does the DMC know the right subcontractors and have good relationships with local vendors? Can it ensure that vendors are insured? What is its bargaining clout? Can it provide bank references? How long has the company been in existence, and how much of its business is repeat business? How large is its full-time staff? What are the cancellation policies and payment terms? Is it involved in industry associations?

What if I have to cancel? If you booked an entertainer who held the date, you can expect to pay his or her fee. If you are only days away from an event and your caterer has purchased food, they are not likely to be very flexible.

What credentials should I look for? The Association of Destination Management recently introduced the Destination Management Certified Professional designation. Convention and visitors bureaus can give you the names of DMC members. Associations such as the Society of Incentive & Travel Executives (www.site-intl.org) can also direct you to member DMCs, as can the Association of Destination Management (www.adme.org), which has an online member directory that is searchable by location.