Are Meeting Professionals a tough crew to manage? You bet.

Because they are on the road so much, there can be communication and comp-time issues. They are expected to work all kinds of crazy hours — so how can a manager possibly compensate them for that? Then there is the pressure-cooker environment, and Type A personalities, and occasional sleep deprivation.

We decided to approach five experienced meeting department managers to explore how they manage it all and keep their staffs — and themselves — sane.

On our panel:

  • JULIE JOHNSON, CMP, CMM, DIRECTOR, EVENTS & INCENTIVES, LENNOX INTERNATIONAL WORLDWIDE HEATING & COOLING, Richardson, Texas — Her staff of four manages 150 meetings a year.

  • PAMELA WYNNE, CMP, CMM, MANAGER OF CORPORATE MEETING PLANNING, EDUCATIONAL TESTING SERVICE, Princeton, N.J. — Wynne oversees strategic sourcing, contract negotiations, cost analysis, billing and reconciliation, and tracking of expenses for about 800 meetings per year with six full-time planners.

  • MICHELLE BERRIOS, CMP, SENIOR MEETING PLANNER, KAISER PERMANENTE, Oakland, Calif. — The majority of her company's 600 to 800 meetings each year are handled by a staff of six in the national corporate meeting department.

  • PEG WOLSCHON, CMP, CTP (CERTIFIED TOUR PROFESSIONAL), MANAGER OF MEETING SERVICES, TENET HEALTHCARE CORP., Dallas — Wolschon runs a fairly new department with about 115 meetings on the books for 2006, a number that is likely to reach 200 by year's end. (Peg left her position as this article went to press.)

  • DEBBIE RICCIARDELLI, CMP, MANAGER, SALES OPERATIONS, ESPRIT PHARMA INC., East Brunswick, N.J. — Although she recently moved to Esprit and now is the sole planner, in her previous positions with Odyssey Pharmaceuticals and Watson Pharmaceuticals, she ran 15 to 25 meetings per year, ranging from five-person meetings to semi-annual meetings for 300 people, usually handled by herself, an additional full-time planner, and two or three ad hoc planners.

CMI: What's different about managing a meeting planning department versus other departments you have managed?

WYNNE: I find it to be a lot harder than managing a department where people are at their desks all day. Usually someone is out, and we have to fill them in later, either via e-mail or by calling them. I try to take into consideration the different learning and communication styles of my staff, but it is much harder to do that with a staff that is multitasking.

RICCIARDELLI: It's not easy to “grade” a meeting planner's performance. Other jobs can be measured more objectively, with facts and figures.

With meetings, unless you are at the planned function, you often have to depend on the feedback of the attendees to determine how well things were executed. If a meeting did not go as well as I would have liked, we will have more than enough people comment on it. If the meeting goes well — as 99.9 percent of them do — the way I get feedback is to ask everyone with whom I cross paths about it.

JOHNSON: I used to be a regional director of sales for a hotel corporation and had even more staff than I do now, but I don't see much difference. Everyone in every job is under some pressure to excel and to attain his or her objectives. Managers must put themselves in their employees' shoes and recognize the pressures that are inherent.

CMI: What's different about the temperament of meeting planners — and how do you deal with all the Type A personalities?

JOHNSON: Since most of us have controlling personalities, we often conflict. But we at least recognize it and move on.

I understand everyone's strengths, and they also realize the team's overall strengths and weaknesses. I give them respect and encourage them to solely manage their programs, offering assistance as needed. I also give them leeway and trust them.

WYNNE: I am definitely not a micromanager. I think that is the only way to successfully manage Type A personalities. I allow each planner flexibility not only in identifying challenges but also in solving problems. We have a rule that if they bring me a problem, they must have suggestions for a solution.

BERRIOS: Most planners are hard-working, have a high attention to detail, and are proud of their work. Listening to their challenges and showing appreciation is key. So much work goes into making a meeting or event flawless, and many times clients do not realize all the work it takes to make it all happen.

WOLSCHON: Planners are detail-oriented individuals. We are fortunate to have excellent, experienced people, and each has his or her own way of creating a successful meeting. There are guidelines for meetings, but mostly we let the person planning it bring in their own way of ensuring the meeting's success.

CMI: Planners certainly travel a lot — more than people in just about any other position. Are there logistical and communication challenges that go along with that?

RICCIARDELLI: With the prevalence of cell phones, communication has improved quite a bit. What's still an issue are time zone differences. Also, when I need an answer immediately and my planner is involved in running a trip to the opera, that can be challenging, as they cannot answer my call at the moment. On the other hand, calling a planner at 8 p.m. is not unheard of, since when they are on-site, they're basically on call 24/7.

JOHNSON: My planners do not have BlackBerries, and often others forget this and get frustrated when they cannot reach a planner, especially on-site. However, most internal folks have our cell numbers, and we have started giving them to customers for travel days, especially for international travel.

BERRIOS: In my department, each planner is responsible for weekly schedule updates to the department. This allows everyone on the team to know the availability of each planner. If someone is gone for an extended period, he is responsible for informing clients of his availability while off-site and referring them to a colleague who can offer assistance. We work as teams so that if any one person is not available, there is usually someone in the office who can step in.

WOLSCHON: A significant portion of our meetings are local, so we do not travel as frequently as many planners. We use the latest technology to stay connected, including BlackBerry devices, high-speed VPN connections, and cellular modem cards for our laptops.

CMI: How do you counter the misconceptions among others in the company that your meeting planners are traveling for fun all over the globe?

RICCIARDELLI: It seems that most of the people who feel that way are the ones who typically don't attend the functions, so they don't see the on-site efforts. There really is not that much you can do about this misconception, since the reality is that most corporate meetings are typically held in desirable locations.

JOHNSON: It's a tough perception to counter. We let them know that most of the time we only see the airport and the hotel. It's not all fun and games. It's a great job with benefits, but a lot of travel and long hours.

WYNNE: We conduct internal training sessions for staff in the business units on things such as “How to Be a Good On-Site Manager” and “How to Conduct a Site Visit.” This helps our clients understand what we do. Also, if you can produce superior results in terms of cost savings and cost avoidance, it doesn't matter what others think as long as the people who matter (your stakeholders) understand your value.

CMI: How do you create sanity for your staffs — and yourselves — in such a high-pressure environment?

RICCIARDELLI: If I have the luxury of a group of planners at one meeting, I typically try to rotate them so they all have at least a few hours to perhaps take in some scenery or just relax.

JOHNSON: I always try to create a moment of laughter so we can regroup when tensions run high or the pressure is on. Sometimes we go to lunch or for a happy hour. Often we need to vent to each other. I have learned to recognize when one of them is having a stressful day and to offer to help or give them a break to refocus.

BERRIOS: If a planner seems too overwhelmed, or an event has grown, we all try to assist by taking on pieces. For some of the larger events, we work as teams. We try to come up with ways to make our jobs easier — and we laugh a lot.

CMI: Meeting planning is a fast-changing environment. Do you offer training or encourage people to get involved in industry associations or to earn their certifications?

RICCIARDELLI: I encourage anyone in any industry to stay involved in their specific industry's associations and to continue their education by being certified. It makes them more desirable as an employee, helps their credibility, and would also make them more hirable should they decide to change positions, either within the same company or elsewhere. Having the certification could be the tie-breaker for someone pursuing other career opportunities.

BERRIOS: Our planners are allowed to attend MPI educational meetings as their schedules allow. They also have the option of attending either MPI's Professional Education Conference or the World Education Conference each year. And all our senior meeting planners are required to have CMP certification. We have also encouraged the planners to participate in a project management course.

WOLSCHON: I am also a huge advocate of continuing education and certification. I have my CMP, and it tells the people I am working with that I am a professional and I know my business.

CMI: What do you do to keep your planners happy and to acknowledge their accomplishments?

RICCIARDELLI: It's challenging because a successful meeting depends a lot on team effort, and when you single someone out, you might alienate someone else in the process. It's important to make sure that you acknowledge everyone's efforts.

JOHNSON: I verbally let them know when they've done a great job. I think that's important. I usually also send them a note. We always recognize significant achievements — a certification or a work anniversary — by going to lunch.

BERRIOS: 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.

WYNNE: One thing you can do is ask staff what motivates them. No two people are the same, and sometimes the person whom you think is the hardest to please maybe just needs a little public praise.

Some of the little things I use are cards, public commendations, pizza parties, ice cream parties, oh, and tons and tons of chocolate!

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