How can meeting department managers keep their independent, world-traveling, Type A planners challenged and motivated? Last issue, five readers shared their secrets to maintaining everyone's sanity in a pressure-cooker environment. This month, we explore how they find the best talent, as well as how they evaluate and compensate their staffs.

Are Planners A Tough crew to manage?

You bet. For starters, they need to be offered different incentives than their co-workers. Let's face it. When you're working weekends and nights, what you crave most is time off and a little stress relief.

In the end, what planners are looking for is recognition for a job with demands that exceed the boundaries of most office positions, the opportunity to call some of the shots, and the chance for training and growth within their companies.

On our panel:

  • JULIE JOHNSON, CMP, CMM, DIRECTOR, EVENTS AND 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 NATIONAL CORPORATE MEETING SERVICES, Oakland, Calif. — The majority of her company's 600 — 800 meetings each year are handled by the National Corporate Meeting Services staff of six. (Michelle left her position as this article was going 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: How do you know when a person is not going to be right for the job?

PAMELA WYNNE: During the interview process, I focus on certain key skills: negotiating, the ability to multitask, organizational skills, risk management, and customer service. I ask questions based on specific work experiences and their ability to problem-solve. I look for people who show the greatest skill in analyzing a problem, looking at solutions, and not being afraid to take risks.

Once a person is hired, it becomes apparent that maybe he or she is good with certain meetings or clients over others. If you can make shifts to have people doing the jobs they are best suited for, the entire team will excel.

DEBBIE RICCIARDELLI: You can tell by the person's demeanor in the office as well: One person who didn't work out used to slam her fists on the desk and get totally frustrated when things weren't going her way. That was very childish behavior.

CMI: What are some signs of trouble to watch out for with meeting planners?

JULIE JOHNSON: Whininess. Lack of attention to detail. Procrastination.

RICCIARDELLI: Two important things, I think: their ethics (how they handle amenities and offers); and when logistics are not coordinated well (i.e., when someone's flight is changed and the planner never notifies the ground transportation company, things like that).

WYNNE: If they get sidetracked when dealing with clients who are asking for more or are difficult to handle, it's a sign of trouble. It's also up to the manager to make sure planners stay on track and to help with any issues that might cause them to lose focus.

CMI: Tell us about your annual review process for meeting planners.

JOHNSON: Our company has a specific process I must follow. Salary planning is done in the fall. We set an increase date then for the following year. Planners are evaluated on the quality of their programs, customer and peer reviews, and input from VPs with whom they work closely. And, primarily: Did they stay within budgetary constraints and still deliver quality programs?

RICCIARDELLI: Part of the review is also subliminal: how their personality traits match with the job. Is my contract negotiator assertive enough to get the best deal for the company? Is the meet-and-greet employee enough of a people person?

WYNNE: We evaluate the person's financial contribution to the company through cost savings and cost avoidance, improvements to processes, and customer service ratings. Objectives are reviewed quarterly, and then we conduct an annual performance review.

MICHELLE BERRIOS: We ask each employee to propose goals for the year, which are then approved by our director. At the end of the year, the director will review the personal goals and client feedback with each person on the team.

CMI: What is the typical raise?

JOHNSON: This year? Three percent, companywide.

RICCIARDELLI: Raises are determined by our corporate office, and we don't have much control over it. However, if a planner achieves any milestones in her career advancement, such as earning a CMP, we try to make a one-time salary adjustment to acknowledge it.

WYNNE: Our company has a twofold performance plan. We have a companywide profit-sharing plan that is based on the overall company success. All employees get a percentage based on individual salary that is distributed as a one-time check, and then, after the performance review period, employees get increases to their base salaries. With the two plans, employees can get a total raise of 5 percent to 15 percent of their salary.

CMI: How do you benchmark salary information?

JOHNSON: Our parent company is looking at the coding for the jobs. Planners were coded as administrative assistants years ago, and that's not in line with planner salaries. I have to go all the way to the president and CEO to sign off on changes like that.

RICCIARDELLI: I use the information that Meeting Professionals International gleans from its surveys, for the most part.

WYNNE: If a manager feels that an employee isn't receiving the minimum salary for a job in their field, our human resources department will do a study to determine that the job description matches the job, and then determine what others in the geographical area who do the same job are receiving in compensation. Compensation packages vary from company to company, so things such as medical/dental, time off, etc., are factored in. Also factored in are educational level, experience, years on the job, etc. I have also used the MPI salary study and my industry peers to make sure my staff is compensated correctly.

CMI: How do you compensate your planners for time out of the office and the late hours inherent in meeting planning ?

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

JOHNSON: This is difficult, as our company does not have a comp-time policy. When it slows down some, I try to provide flexibility with leaving early or coming in later. They definitely have the option of taking the day off after a program or coming in later. Many of our programs are over weekends, and, quite frankly, that time never gets made up. Usually, after our busy season, I like to take my entire staff for a nice lunch and then an afternoon at the spa.

WYNNE: My team is really dedicated and takes a lot of pride in what they do. Even though there are times when they feel overworked, they still give each meeting the time and effort needed to get the job done right. Our management also understands the crazy hours and their level of professionalism.

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

CMI: How frequently do you promote people, and what are the roles and job descriptions?

JOHNSON: Rarely, as all of my planners are at the same level with similar job responsibilities.

RICCIARDELLI: Since the department is not large to begin with, most of the promotions are in the form of a job title change, such as a planner becoming a “senior planner,” based on longevity in the job and increases in responsibility (whether they're now responsible for the meeting from beginning to end, send out the communications to the attendees, do the budgeting, etc.).

WYNNE: The job of “corporate meeting planner” here is defined more as a strategic sourcing and contracting position. The job description includes expert negotiating, budgeting, cost analysis, payment reconciliation, tracking, and reporting on cost savings/avoidance. We have one “senior meeting planner” who serves as the team leader and content area expert. This person also is the manager of the online meeting tracking system.

CMI: Have you had situations where people you hired didn't work out — and why?

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 I soon found out that the answers were all fabricated. For example, she once forgot to reserve a restaurant for our VIPs, and other things like that.

CMI: What did you do about it?

RICCIARDELLI: I was having her work evaluated with the human resources department and compiling and documenting my findings when she resigned.

WYNNE: If an employee is not performing to the minimum qualifications of their job, then a performance discussion needs to take place. If it's simply a personnel conflict or that team members do not work well together, maybe you shift the teams, or you have a candid discussion and try to get to the root of the problem. Also, it's important that emotions are no part of the discussions — only the facts.

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