How times have changed. In the 1970s and '80s in the little village of Maynard, Mass., the towering brick mill in the heart of town bustled with activity. The headquarters of computer industry giant Digital Equipment Corp., the building was home to more than 10,000 of the company's 125,000 employees. Among them was meeting planner Ed Simeone. He focused on planning trade shows as well as marketing and advertising.

Outsourcing wasn't something we even considered back then,” Simeone recalls. “We might hire consultants when we planned a large meeting, but we always did everything ourselves.”

Until Digital, like so many companies, decided it wasn't in the meeting planning business — that it was a software and computer company first and foremost. “People not directly involved in that were the first to go,” he says. “Those functions were decentralized and dispersed among the company's business units.”

Today, Digital is no more, and the old mill has been sleekly renovated and is shared by several dot-coms, among them Simeone, now executive producer of Nashua, N.H.-based Fusion Productions, which focuses on integrating meetings, learning, and technology, counts many corporations among his clients. And outsourcing human resources, marketing and PR, meeting planning, and other “support” functions couldn't be more status quo.

What happened?

The use of meeting planning contractors — either in part or completely — has grown to an all-time high.

Edwin L. Griffin Jr., president and CEO of Meeting Professionals International, says independent meeting planners fill a significant niche in the industry. And it's MPI's fastest-growing niche segment. “We have a membership of 19,000, 10,000 of whom are meeting planners,” he says. The rest are suppliers. “Of those 10,000, the percentage of independent planners is between 15 percent and 18 percent.”

Here's another measure of the growth of the independent-planner niche: The Society of Corporate Meeting Planners began accepting independent planners into its membership about three years ago; today, according to SCMP Executive Director Mike Mazur, 20 percent of its members are independents.

And in the travel-leery aftermath of the terrorist attacks, anthrax scares, and monthly government security alerts, compounded by the downturn in the U.S. economy, outsourcing will only grow.

But there has been a change: More companies recognize the value of effective meeting planning departments. And more in-house planners are recognized as being more than functionaries who book flights and hotel rooms; they are being seen as the professionals who can bring the company a return on its investment in meetings and events.

In these cases, farming out the logistics of a meeting becomes a near necessity. “Most in-house planners are so overwhelmed that they have to outsource,” says Carol Krugman, whose independent company, Krugman Group International, is based in St. Petersburg, Fla. “It's the only way they can concentrate on the content of a meeting, not the logistics.”

Krugman, whose company specializes in arranging events in South America, uses one of her clients as an example. Last year, she was conducting a seminar on international meeting planning. In the audience was Suzanne Maranville, the corporate meeting planner for M-Financial Group, of Portland, Ore. Maranville had been looking to do a more exotic incentive program for her company; Krugman was lecturing on just that topic. The two hooked up after the lecture, and Krugman has been retained by M-Financial to help plan a February incentive cruise to South American ports of call.

“This program involves a full ship charter, with land-based activities in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Punta del Este, and Rio de Janeiro,” Krugman says. “It's one of the most satisfying team efforts of my entire career. Suzanne's group and our group have meshed seamlessly. She has great knowledge of the participants; we have experience with cruise programs.

“As an independent contractor, when you can relieve the day-to-day logistical concerns, leaving the corporate planner to concentrate on the customers or the participants as well as the content of the program, you have the synergy that's so crucial to a successful incentive program or other event.”

Of course, not every planner/independent relationship is as seamless. For example, when corporate planners try to maintain control of all aspects of the event, they don't leave themselves enough time to concentrate on the event's content.

“Sometimes corporate meeting managers are simply afraid for their job,” Simeone says, “or they're concerned that the company will see that certain meeting functions can be outsourced. This is a problem that has escalated over the years.”

Leila MacFeeley, president of Leila M. MacFeeley & Associates, a meeting planning firm in Greenland, N.H, agrees. “Sometimes, as an independent, you have to overcome the corporate planner's fear that you're a threat to them. I make sure they know I'm an extension of their team — that I'm working for them, with them, not against them. If they want to take credit for things that I do, well, they can go right ahead.”

On the Outside Looking in

In cases in which independent planners work with companies that have no professional meeting planners, the independents are charged with the strategic aspects of the meetings they plan as well as its logistics. Many times, companies that cut their meeting planning departments will hire the individuals as contractors.

That's what happened to Nancy Church, who operates The Conference Co. Inc., in Boylston, Mass. Church worked for 12 years as travel and conference manager for Norton Co., an industrial manufacturing company in Worcester, Mass. As an independent contractor, she continues do a lot of work for Norton, and thus has a unique perspective on the corporate culture.

“I've worked for and with Norton for so long, I know the culture thoroughly. I know what they need and what they want from an event,” she says. “With a company I've never worked with before, I learn everything I can about them. Are they the kind of company that wants limousines or shuttle buses? Do they want to stay in a Ritz-Carlton or a Super 8? You have to learn things like that, down to the smallest detail, before you can even begin to plan a meaningful event.”

Even if a contractor hasn't worked for the company, many, like Simeone, want to know as much about its culture as they can. “If I go into Microsoft and see the laid-back atmosphere, I know I can propose nontraditional teambuilding exercises or Broadway-style event production. I know I can be more freewheeling,” he says. “If I go into a company where all the executives are in the their 50s — more buttoned-down and traditional, like an IBM — I know I have to be quite a bit more conservative in my approach. If I do my homework, I know that when I get to the creative aspect of the event, I'll have to get creative within particular boundaries.”

Church notes an interesting advantage an independent planner can bring to an event, one that might be overlooked by in-house planners.

“I've worked with many different companies over the years, and from each event I've picked up creative ways of doing things that I can suggest to another company,” she says. “One company offered the service of shipping all the brochures and literature they'd gathered over the course of the show overnight to the attendees' home or office. That way, they didn't have to lug it with them back to the hotel or on the plane home. I've used that for other events. Little things like that are very much appreciated.”

The Big Question

Given that today's contractors bring such breadth of knowledge and experience to their clients, will in-house meeting planning departments become obsolete?

Simeone has a warning for the in-house planners out there: “Some people still prefer doing the tactical duties and leaving the corporate strategizing to someone else,” he says. “I think those planners risk being found superfluous by their companies.”

Others disagree. “I don't think meeting planning will go either way totally — there will be a balance,” Church says. “Outsourcing is here to stay. And as companies realize just how important effective in-house planners can be to their business, the corporate planner concept will surely continue.”

“There will always be a need for in-house planners, especially with larger companies,” Krugman adds. “What is changing is their role. More and companies are realizing that their meetings are strategic communications tools, and meeting planners are taking their place on these companies' strategic teams.”

Planner As Trainer

A Little Education Goes a Long Way

Ask Leila MacFeeley to describe one of the more rewarding aspects of running her own meeting planning firm, and she might tell you it has little to do with planning meetings.

Not that she doesn't love that part of her work. But among the services she offers is training her clients' employees in the basics of effective meeting planning.

“Small and midsize companies hire me to educate administrative assistants, secretaries, and other employees on the best ways to negotiate, plan, and manage meetings, and how to do it within a budget,” says MacFeeley, former vice president of conferences and travel for Prudential Insurance Co. (now Prudential Financial), and president of Leila M. MacFeeley & Associates, Greenland, N.H.

“Running a meeting and doing it within budget isn't as easy as it looks. A company that asks a secretary to pick up a phone and book a meeting in an effective, cost-efficient way — well, they're really asking for trouble. It behooves them to hire a consultant to teach them how to do it well.” In fact, she says, handing a meeting off to an inexperienced planner can cost companies as much as 35 percent more.

MacFeeley shared three basics for the inexperienced employee who is asked to take on meeting planning tasks:

Find out the goal of the meeting before you choose the property. — “Believe it or not, this is probably the last thing an inexperienced secretary or administrative assistant considers when she's asked to get a meeting together.”

Don't blow the budget — “Planning a meeting includes many details you might not have considered, such as AV equipment, rental cars, badges, giveaways, meals, coffee breaks. You name it.”

Don't be afraid to negotiate — “Always try to negotiate rates down. If you can't, then negotiate for value-added items or services, such as free coffee breaks, a newspaper placed at guest-room doors — things like that.”