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Director, Conventions and Conference Planning

PAST With a bachelor’s degree in journalism, Stern had her eye on the corporate communications department when she joined Northwestern National Life in an entry-level post in the sales area. Instead, she helped out with a few meetings and changed her career ambitions. Now, 24 years later, she’s director, conventions and conference planning, for ING, which purchased ReliaStar (the renamed Northwestern National Life) in 2001.

CRED One of the things ING brought to the bargain was a requirement for procurement to sign all contracts. “Kari Kesler had just started the SMMP at ING. I went kicking and screaming!” Stern laughs. “I thought they were stealing my thunder, taking my authority. It took about a year for me to see it as a win/win. They do what they do best, I do what I do best, and we put on the best meeting we can at the best value ING’s volume can buy.” Stern negotiates rates and concessions, then the contracts go to procurement to be signed. “It was a huge change, but it has saved me time in terms of the legalese. And it gives me peace of mind. I’m not the only one on the block if we have to cancel a contract.”

TURNING POINT In December 2008, ING canceled all of its 2009 meetings due to the economic environment and concerns about corporate events during this period. But by March 2009, the sales department knew it had to gather the troops. “Many of our competitors had continued their meetings and they were gathering with their people—who were also our people.” That’s because ING products are sold by independent producers who also attend sales and incentive programs of other companies. ING planned a short-term contest, June through December 2009, and held the incentive conference in early 2010. Soon after, all the company’s meetings were back on the calendar. As to whether the cancellations had a lasting effect, Stern says, “I think it gave everyone some perspective. People appreciate the value of getting together. Sales meetings don’t have to be at a luxury hotel, just a good hotel in a good location.”

AHA MOMENT It’s not a single moment, but Stern says that “with age and experience,” she has learned to manage her own expectations. “I used to literally cry if someone was unhappy. I wanted every single person to get every single thing they wanted.” After five years on the job, she finally realized you can’t make every person happy. More recently, she’s realized that “if someone comes to the meeting unhappy, I can’t make them happy. There is something larger going on.”

ADVICE Still, her advice to new planners is “to care.” Care about your attendees, your convention services manager, your hotel, everyone involved the success of your meeting. —Alison Hall