Are planners a tougher crew to manage than other employees?

You bet.

For starters, they need to be offered different incentives than their co-workers. Mostly what they want is some time off and a little stress relief. They need recognition for doing an arduous job that their fellow employees often misunderstand and underestimate, and they need help coping with all the regulatory changes in the medical industry that affect meetings.

We decided to approach five experienced healthcare industry meeting department managers (see sidebar, page 64) to find out how they manage it all, and keep their staffs — and themselves — sane.

MM: What's different about managing a meeting planning department versus other departments?

JENNIFER HEGNER: We're focused on one area, but we seem to touch almost every department — research and development, clinical, sales, and finance. We're very diverse compared to some groups. People underestimate the knowledge and information that passes through a meetings department. That's why I find this so appealing. If you want to know about the company, you get many different perspectives.

JUDY BENAROCHE JOHNSON: Pharma meetings are in the spotlight more than other types of meetings, and we deal with a lot of compliance issues. Also, the types of attendees are physicians, clinical teams, and pharma company employees who generally do not know one another prior to arrival. They have different objectives versus a sales meeting at which all the attendees are from one company.

DEBBIE RICCIARDELLI: It's not as easy to “grade” a meeting planner's performance as other employees. Unless you are at the planned function, you often have to depend on the feedback of the attendees to determine how well the meeting was executed. I usually don't have to solicit feedback if the meeting did not go as well as I would have liked, as more than enough people will comment. If the meeting goes well, as 99.9 percent of them do, I ask the person who was my contact from the company side for feedback, and anyone else whom I speak with who was in attendance if I cross their path. Other jobs can be measured more objectively, with facts and figures.

MM: There have been numerous changes in the medical meeting industry: regulatory, compliance, and legal issues; and the role of procurement. How do you help your staff to handle the increased stress level?

HEGNER: We have a network of people we can reach out to for help. We have a good relationship with our corporate attorney and our regulatory and clinical departments, for example. They've helped us to understand any changes in the industry and how we may have to change our behavior [in response]. We have a positive attitude here — life changes, and you have to adapt to those changes.

I really believe that it's all about relationships. If you have a good relationship [with different departments], that keeps you ahead of the game. They can be great advocates in getting you through it as painlessly as possible. You can't be a successful meeting planner these days and be stuck in your ways. You have to keep up with trends, technology, your industry, and your company to be successful.

JOHNSON: We continue to stay abreast of issues by reading as many publications as possible, attending conferences, and viewing Web sites and then communicating the issues clearly and often. The company must be creative, and everyone needs to have a willingness to change, learn, and continue to reinvent their roles within the company.

MM: How do you compensate staff for time away and late hours?

VALERIE RICHARD: Personally, I have five weeks' vacation (when I can use it!) plus extra days off when I must work weekends. I also am allowed to keep my planner and travel points (hotel and airline programs).

JOHNSON: We offer Meeting Time Off to be used at the meeting manager's discretion. MTO is earned for weekend days worked.

RICCIARDELLI: If a planner works weekends or long days, I try to be lenient with the punctuality and time off rules. Of course, as with anything else, you have to make sure everyone is in agreement as to what constitutes “reasonable” and make sure you are both on the same page, or it can get one-sided very quickly.

MICHELLE BERRIOS: We offer an AWS (adjusted weekly schedule). If a planner is on site over the weekend, he or she has the opportunity to take a day off during the week after the event.

MM: How do you keep your meeting planners happy and acknowledge their accomplishments?

RICCIARDELLI: It's challenging because a successful meeting depends a lot on team effort, and when you single someone out who has done an outstanding job, you might alienate someone else in the process. It's important to make sure that you acknowledge everyone's efforts and make a strong attempt to find the personal contribution that each planner added to the meeting and be sure to include that.

BERRIOS: We try and take moments during our meetings to say “Ta Da!” or “Woo Hoo!” to acknowledge some of our difficult moments. We have group potlucks when we can, and on holidays, bring treats for one another. With the ever-changing environment of procurement, it is difficult to reward the planners monetarily, so we need to be creative.

HEGNER: I do a variety of things. It depends on the circumstances. Sometimes if I receive a well-written e-mail a planner sends to an internal client that I'm copied on, I may respond and say, “Well written e-mail.” It could be as simple as that. I'll often get up at the end of an event and acknowledge them for hard work. And we have the ability to spot-bonus people here for a job well done. I even do handwritten notes. I'm a big believer in communications with your employees when they do something well and when they have the opportunity to do better. You have to be comfortable communicating through feedback. If I run into an internal client in the hallway who says, “Jane did a good job,” I'll say, ‘Would you mind sending [Jane] an e-mail and copying me? Or acknowledging [her] in a meeting?’ Because I think [recognition] should come not just from [the planning department] leader, but from others in the organization.

RICHARD: When I did have staff before cutbacks, I always sent out a company-wide e-mail thanking the planner for certain projects.

JOHNSON: We offer praise to them both publicly and privately, communicating often that they are an important part of our team. We also have an incentive trip for our staff and their guests, as well as a bonus if we achieve our year-end goal.

MM: How do you help people move up in the organization?

HEGNER: I try to do some succession planning for our department, setting people up for opportunities to increase their professional development. For any manager, it's important to recognize strengths, what employees are good at, and what they enjoy. Cultivate that; work with them with where they want to go in their career. Not everyone wants to or should run a department. They may be excellent housing managers. Everyone plays a critical role on a team. A manager should recognize that.

RICHARD: When I do need outside help on-site or to help with multifaceted projects, I have a group of administrative assistants that I can pull from. A couple of these people will be slated for any possible official planner opening in this department.

JOHNSON: We create positions that best use each person's skills. If needed, we readjust their job responsibilities. We offer training and education and promote from within where possible. For example, because of all the proposals we write, we changed one meeting coordinator's responsibilities to directing and writing all proposals, allowing us to not only streamline the process but to ensure the branding and quality of our communication.

MM: Have you had situations where people didn't work out? How did you handle it ?

JOHNSON: Sometimes planners come from a large corporate environment where they had only one part of the meeting segment to plan (i.e., food and beverage, room management, etc.) and don't have the skill set or desire to take the meeting from start to finish; they can't/won't keep up with rapid changes created by environments of procurement or SOX; they have personal life changes that don't allow them to perform as they had; or they are not able to reinvent themselves as the industry evolves. We allow them to pursue other options that better suit their talents or, to borrow a phrase from Disney, we allow them to find their happiness elsewhere.

RICCIARDELLI: I have only had one situation, thankfully. The planner was a habitual liar, and every time I questioned something, she would have a quick reply, but we soon found out that the answers were all fabricated; she had not contacted the hotel [for] a contract, she did not reserve a restaurant for the VIPs, things like that. I was in the process of having her work evaluated with the human resources department and documenting my findings when she resigned.

MM: There's lots of pharma bashing going on in the press and public. Has that issue come up with your staff?

JOHNSON: Yes, and I think it causes all of us to go on the offense. We become very protective of our clients and the amazing work that they do. The public loves to jump on a case such as Vioxx, but most people don't understand the vast amounts of time, money, and research that it takes to bring a drug to market that may benefit our loved ones or us.

Meeting Managers Panel

  • JENNIFER HEGNER, CMP, CMM, is manager of meetings, events and trade shows, Boston Scientific Neurovascular, Fremont, Calif. Her four-person department manages customer events, trade shows, internal business meetings, an annual incentive program, and up to five sales meetings.

  • VALERIE RICHARD, CMP, associate conference manager, OSI Pharmaceuticals, Boulder, Colo., previously had two planners reporting to her, but as a result of cutbacks she is now flying solo. She plans around 30 meetings per year, including investigator, sales, marketing, and board meetings; she also coordinates trade-show participation and ancillary events at medical association meetings.

  • JUDY BENAROCHE JOHNSON, CMP, is president and CEO, Rx Worldwide Meetings Inc., Plano, Texas. Her staff of 12 plans approximately 45 to 55 meetings a year in the pharmaceutical industry, including sales and investigator meetings, advisory board meetings, and symposia held in conjunction with medical association meetings.

  • MICHELLE BERRIOS, CMP, is senior meeting planner, Kaiser Permanente National Corporate Meeting Services, Oakland, Calif. Her six-person department handles approximately 250 meetings per year for departments including human resources, compliance, and nursing research; they also work with the physician education department and the Permanente Medical Group as needed.

  • DEBBIE RICCIARDELLI, CMP, is manager, sales operations, Esprit Pharma Inc., East Brunswick, N.J. Although she is currently the sole planner, handling about 20 meetings a year including the large, annual incentive trip, in her previous positions with Odyssey Pharmaceuticals and Watson Pharmaceuticals, she managed a small staff and ran 15 to 25 meetings per year, ranging from two-day, five-person meetings to five-day meetings for 300 people.

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