The economy might be recovering, but for meeting planners, the job landscape is forever changed. Companies may start hiring again, but cutbacks, consolidation, and accountability — the buzz words of the past three years — will remain part of the equation.
Follow seven meeting planners, all victims of this jobless recovery, as they share where they have been and where they are headed. Their experiences shed some light on our changing industry.
Rebecca Oteri founder, Event Management Group
“THE CORPORATE MEETING PLANNER IS A DYING BREED,” says Rebecca Oteri, who recently started her own independent meeting planning firm, Event Management Group, in Andover, Mass. “I don't think you'll see many in-house meeting departments any more. They have come under too much scrutiny as corporate America has come under scrutiny.”
Because of the accounting scandals of recent years, companies cannot afford the appearance of having a separate department for meetings, says Oteri. As a result, planners are being moved into marketing, travel, or procurement departments, or their jobs are being outsourced. For people such as Oteri — herself a former corporate planner — the trend opens up a world of opportunity.
Oteri worked for Genuity, an Internet infrastructure provider in Woburn, Mass., for two years before being laid off in 2001 and moving to Beverly, Mass.-based association management company PR/RI to plan. She left last summer to start her own business. “It was something I had been thinking about for a long time.”
While at Genuity — now owned by Level 3 Communications, Broomfield, Colo. — Oteri experienced the corporate boom and bust. She was there for the initial public offering, which launched June 26, 2000, and the subsequent tech stock swoon. “I was with Genuity for two years, which doesn't sound like a lot, but it was about five years' worth of work,” she says. “I learned a tremendous amount about corporate events and marketing because we launched a brand. Having been more on the logistics side, it was nice to move into content development and the marketing part of events.”
But logistics are what Oteri specializes in with her new venture. She targets companies that have folded meetings into marketing and don't have the resources to focus on the nuts and bolts of planning. “There are a lot of people who are excellent at marketing who don't know how to negotiateor handle logistics, so they look to people such as myself.” In fact, two of her clients are corporate directors of marketing.
Oteri has also formed partnerships with other independents who focus on tasks that she doesn't, such as AV. She is working the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July through an audiovisual partner who has hired her to handle event planning. She has had discussions with several other vendors about similar relationships. “I see independent people forming partnerships to go after pieces of business,” she says.
Oteri does not expect the move toto end anytime soon, as companies find ways to do more with less. “I think it's a new model.”
Candace Adams founder,Consulting
CANDACE ADAMS HAS A CONDITION, and she's not afraid to admit it. “I'm a trade show junkie. I'm addicted to being on the show floor,” she declares.
With more professional designations than a five-star general, Adams — also known as The Booth Mom — turned her experience and passion into a successful event management consulting business after being laid off from a corporate planner position.
Not that running a business is something new for her. Adams had been running her company, Trade Show Consulting, based in Carlsbad, Calif., since 1996, but at the height of the technology boom, she got an offer she couldn't refuse when one of her largest clients, IPivot, was bought by Intel in 1999 and she was asked to join as a planner. The ride ended in 2001 when Intel sold off the unit and the marketing staff was let go.
Adams had no regrets, however, taking with her a nice severance package and valuable experience. “It was fascinating just getting to see how the big boys do it,” she says.
After Intel, she went back to her consulting business, and eventually earned four certifications. In addition to the familiar CMM and CMP, she is a CTSM, or Certified Trade Show Marketer, and a CME, or Certified Manager of Exhibits — and she has a CEM, or Certified in Exposition Management, designation on the way. Sometimes, though, she is afraid that the alphabet soup of certifications prices her out of jobs. “I have sort of lost the credibility by having too much credibility.” As a result, she has two business cards, one for exhibit management and one for speaking, writing, and training.
While business has been good, Adams says she has to work about 20 percent more to make the same money she did a few years ago. But she doesn't mind so much. “If I could stay awake 22 hours and work, I'd be doing something on trade shows just for the love of it.”
William Youngs meeting planner, Maritz Corporate Travel
WILLIAM YOUNGS' JOURNEY to finding work as a meeting planner ended the same day it began — one year later, that is.
Youngs was laid off as operations manager in the meeting department at a medical education company on January 7, 2003. Exactly one year later, he started his new job at Maritz Corporate Travel, which is now owned by Carlson Wagonlit. In his new role, he works as a third-party meeting planner and sourcing specialist for AXA Financial, a New York — based financial services company.
With more than 18 years in the meeting business, Youngs found that his extensive resume hurt him with many potential employers. “I was constantly being told I was overqualified,” he says. The corporate mind-set really changed after September 11, says Youngs. Not only was he dealing with companies that were forced to cut costs and do more with less, but he found that meeting planner salary levels had dropped significantly. Since he was laid off from Roche Laboratories in 2001 — his first layoff — Youngs' salary has dropped by $20,000.
As he looked for work, Youngs found that jobs advertised as meeting managers were much larger in scope than they had been in the past. “I always had administrative help to assist with Word, Excel, etc.; now, planners are expected to know and do all those tasks themselves.”
As the search went on, he considered leaving the industry, but each time he thought about it, a new job opening would lure him back.
At Maritz/Carlson Wagonlit, it looks as if he's found his new home.
Renee Goetz independent meeting planner contractor
RENEE GOETZ IS NOT AFRAID to take chances.
Some may see her decision to pack up her independent meeting planning practice in San Francisco and relocate to New York City as a gamble — but she sees it differently. “People ask me why I moved to New York, and my first response is for a new adventure, and in my second breath, I believe there is more opportunity there,” says Goetz, a CMP.
Goetz's move to New York in December mirrors a risk she took in 1999 that proved to be her entrance into meeting planning. She had been working as a director in senior academic management in the University of California system for 12 years, but she left in fall 1999 after deciding that she wasn't on the right career path.
“When I left my last employer, I didn't know I was going to be a meeting contractor,” says Goetz. “It materialized almost out of thin air.” She came across ajob within the university system that called for planning meetings. Meeting planning had been a secondary part of her job at the university, so she applied and won the contract. “I didn't realize when it was happening what the ramifications would be,” says Goetz.
She had found a new career.
She found plenty of work on a contract basis in San Francisco, but then business dried up as the dot-com boom went bust. She had long entertained the idea of moving to New York, and, after conducting her own personal site visit, she packed her bags. “I had been looking at job Web sites throughout this entire time period, not just for San Francisco but also for New York, and I saw more job openings in New York,” she explains.
Since the move, she has gotten more interviews, both for contract and for full-time work. She intends to be gainfully employed as a meeting planner before long. “I'm holding strong that there's a place for me here.”
Cris Canning founder, Hospitality Ink
CRIS CANNING HAS COME full circle.
When Canning joined Coronado, Calif. — based event planning firm Charter Connection as sales director in 1999, she told her boss that she would commit to five years, and then leave to start her own business. Nearly five years to the day, she launched Hospitality Ink, a public relations and marketing firm for independent meeting planners and suppliers.
For someone who started her career in public relations, Canning's new endeavor combines the best of both worlds. “They always say you're supposed to follow your passion, so I decided to take my educational background, which is public relations, and apply it to the industry I know best.”
But meeting her self-imposed deadline was not a foregone conclusion. As recently as late last year, it didn't look as if it would happen. “I never thought I had an entrepreneurial bone in my body, since I was a single mom and needed the security of a regular paycheck and insurance,” she says. But with her kids grown, she decided to take the leap.
Hospitality Ink fills a niche in the independent planning community, she says, particularly for small firms. Recognizing that some outfits won't have the budget to hire her on retainer, she is publishing a workbook, tailored to the meeting industry, showing independents how to get the word out about their companies. Canning says the next step is to get out there and sell herself. But she is inspired by the chance to control her own destiny and optimistic about her success. As she puts it: “Failure is not an option.”
Candace Homer graduate, George Washington University
CANDACE HOMER IS COMMITTED to a career in the meeting industry. She just hopes that the industry commits to her.
Homer, who is working in the marketing department of a law firm, has been looking for work as a meeting planner since December, when she earned her master's degree in meeting management from George Washington University. So far, it has not been easy.
“The market is very tight. It's hard to get your foot in the door,” says Homer, who has used staffing firms, networked, and sent out countless resumes. Her fear is that when the jobs do open up, they will go to experienced planners first.
Homer has been working in marketing since she got her undergraduate degree from Hampton University five years ago. Jobs included stints at a financial planning company and a law firm, where she got a chance to dabble in meeting planning and soon decided to make a career change. “I think it fits very well with my personality,” says Homer, who is an avowed perfectionist and likes the organizational component of running an event. So in fall 2002, she enrolled in the GWU master's program.
Homer will continue to work at the law firm until a meeting planning job comes along. “I'm in it for the long haul,” she says. “And I'll keep looking until I find something.
MaryAnne Bobrow founder, Bobrow & Associates
FOR MARYANNE BOBROW, an independent meeting management career was not one that she would have mapped out for herself. “I've been to hell and back, and now I'm ready to move forward,” says Bobrow, who founded Bobrow & Associates, Fair Oaks, Calif., in February after 13 years as an association executive. Her company offers full-service association management as well as project-based tasks for associations and corporations.
A string of health issues forced Bobrow to leave her job as executive director at the Wild West Veterinary Conference. It started last year when she was confronted with eldercare issues — her mother's deepening case of Alzheimer's disease and her father's hospitalization after a heart attack — as well as her own health problems. She injured her knee and had to undergo surgery; while in recovery, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. During her recuperation, she had time to reflect on her career path, and she decided to make a change. “As an executive director of a small association, you run full speed, 365 days a year,” she says. “There are no valleys, only peaks.”
One reason that she decided to launch her own company was to create a better balance between her work and home life. “Being on your own, you can pace yourself,” she explains. “You're more efficient because you don't have to worry about what other people perceive you're doing.”