ASPIRING MEETING PLANNERS will find plenty of financial help out there: scholarships to cover tuition and conference attendance, opportunities for networking, and internships at conferences to spark interest in meeting careers.

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas' William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration's tourism and convention department, for example, offers four scholarship programs, three backed by corporate sponsors and the fourth funded by the International Association for Exhibition Management's Southern California chapter. To apply, students must have been at the school for at least a semester and have taken or be enrolled in at least one meeting and event management class.

Many meeting industry associations and trade shows have programs that invite students to attend their events registration-free. At the IMEX trade show in Frankfurt in May, 180 students from across Europe attended a Future Leaders Forum that included a panel discussion about the advantages of working in tourism and travel. About 30 of those student attendees were invited to Meeting Professionals International's Professional Education Conference, held in July in Denver.

Another European trade show, EIBTM, to be held November 30 to December 2 in Barcelona, runs a Forum for Young Professionals and covers travel expenses for the 20 attendees. The forum presents guest speakers covering subjects such as global competition; destination marketing; and teamwork among convention bureaus, convention centers, and hotels. The participants complete role-playing exercises and even prepare hypothetical bids for events.

“The forum is always well-received,” says Debbie Jackson, exhibition director for EIBTM. “We work hard with the International Congress and Convention Association to create an interesting program that is educational and provides participants with a greater insight into the meeting and incentive travel industry.” To be eligible for the forum, students must be under 30 and complete an application that includes a short essay.

Work Like a Pro

The Professional Convention Management Association offers working and nonworking scholarships for students who want to attend its annual meeting. “There's a lot of competition for the working scholarships,” says David Kushner, CEO. “They want the experience. And they work — 12 to 16 hours a day. They do everything the staff does.”

IAEM also recruits student interns to help run its big annual meeting and exhibition, along with two smaller meetings, and encourages its members to do the same for their own conventions. Interns — who are not paid — are involved in much more than attendee registration, says Steven Hacker, president. “We involve them in more meaningful work than baby-sitting,” he says. “They are part of the staff; they meet with the staff every morning at 6, and are debriefed at the end of the program. It tends to be an accurate depiction of what it's like to run a program.”

Arguably the most ambitious student-driven initiative is operated by PCMA, which has a network of 16 student chapters on about 50 college and university campuses across the United States. Some 500 students pay a reduced rate of $40 to join the organization; 100 to 150 of them attend PCMA's annual meeting each year.

Kushner says the student chapters serve as much more than a recruiting tool; they offer members real-life experience structuring and running their own chapters within PCMA's guidelines. Membership also “connects them with a network, gives them access to our job postings, and gets them exposure to high-level members,” he says. Recently, PCMA expanded its online student newsletter content and hired a staff person dedicated to student members.

Not for Students Only

Not all incentives focus on students. A $10,000 scholarship at UNLV used to be divided equally among four students; today, half of that is used for 10 awards of $500 for industry professionals interested in taking the school's online convention education courses.

Joan L. Eisenstodt, moderator of the MIMlist listserv and a Washington, D.C., independent planner, recently launched The Maralyn Levinson Eisenstodt Scholarship Fund to encourage less experienced planners (those with five years' experience or fewer) or those interested in expanding their professional skills. Scholarships cover cross-training in related fields as well as registration and travel expenses for between-jobs professionals looking to network at industry events.

Meeting Professionals International started offering scholarships through its Women's Leadership Initiative last year, primarily targeting planners in the early phases of their careers who are taking classes to hone their skills. An MPI scholarship program to attract multicultural candidates at the campus level also is in the works, says spokeswoman Kelly Schulz. MPI is also developing a new program that will identify potential meetings-related career paths beginning at the educational level and offer members advice on how to reach the next level.