For many years, the only college degree program in meeting planning was offered in the somewhat unlikely city of Madison, Wis. That's where, in the mid-1990s, the state's ambitious Meeting Professionals International chapter decided that it was time to act.
“We got together and said, ‘We're really tired of training people,’” recalls Janet Sperstad, CMP, a past president of the Wisconsin MPI chapter and recent MPI International Planner of the Year. “And the hoteliers were saying, ‘We're tired of getting people who don't know how to plan meetings!’ We all wanted a formal education program that would help people enter the profession. Suppliers needed a more educated customer. And for those of us looking to hire people, we'd have a whole different talent pool to pull from.”
The chapter wanted to create something beyond a certificate program and found a willing partner in the administration at Madison Area Technical College. “Madison College has a strong hospitality program, and one of theirmembers was an MPI member; he said he'd help,” Sperstad says. “Some of the four-year universities we spoke with didn't know where it belonged. And some weren't quick enough in their response. We weren't going to wait four years; we wanted it now, so it was born in Madison.”
Sperstad, who is credited as being the founder of the nation's first associate degree in meeting management, is now a faculty member. The first students graduated in 2004, and there are currently 90 students enrolled full time. The cost is $100 per credit hour; for students starting from scratch with no other higher education credits, it will cost just under $8,000 to earn the degree.
Huge Demand for Education
Sperstad fiercely believes that planners need a degree to advance their careers. “The question now is, how do we test out what we've learned into a bachelor's, and how does that roll into a master's?”
That's where Deborah Breiter fits in. She is chairwoman of the University of Central Florida's Department of Tourism, Events & Attractions within the Rosen College of Hospitality Management, which began offering a bachelor's degree program in event management last year. The program already has 560 students who have declared event management as their major. UCF grads need 800 hours of hands-on experience in the events trade to graduate. UCF also rolled out a continuing education and certificate program intended for people who have been in the business but never studied it or who need a refresher course.
That also describes New York University's highly respected certificate program. “A decade ago, there were only one or two; now there are more than 20 certificate or degree programs nationwide,” says Richard Aaron, CMP, CSEP, an associate professor at NYU's Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management and president of BizBash Media in New York. “We have a new generation of emerging techniques that did not exist before. And we have more industry professionals who are teachingand events.”
“We know that our certificate is among the oldest, if not the oldest,” says the school's divisional dean, Lalia Rach. “And because of our location, we know it is one of the most respected. We looked at the industry and asked, ‘Is this a viable, standalone degree?’ For us, it was not. The demand for an undergraduate degree and a master's specific to meeting planning was not strong.”
NYU also offers a bachelor's degree in hotel and tourism management and one in sports management; conferences and events is the No. 2 concentration in both degrees. “This reflects that theof meetings and events has entered the landscape of top executives,” says Rach. “They recognize that it takes individuals who are knowledgeable in the field and have skills to spend wisely and get the best return. So we are taking a ‘business of meetings’ approach.”
Good News for Job Candidates
With all the growth in educational offerings, are meeting department managers expecting new hires to have formal meeting-planning education? Julie Johnson, CMP, CMM, director of events and incentives for Lennox International Worldwide Heating & Cooling in Richardson, Texas, says that a meeting-planning certificate would put a candidate at the top of her list. “Richland College here has a program, as does the University of North Texas. If a job applicant has taken classes or received a degree, those programs give them exposure to the business, from trade shows to meeting planning. I would probably want to hire one of those folks over any other.”
One of the biggest benefits of working in the field, she says, is exposure. “This job can be very demanding. And it's not as glamorous as people think.” As far as the value of a meeting-planning certificate from the Convention Industry Council, it doesn't go far in her company. “I report to the VP of sales, who could care less that I'm a CMP or CMM.”
Aaron says certification holds a lot of weight when he hires. “I definitely think training is an asset when somebody comes out of a university or certificate program. It makes them step up in my thinking, totally.”
He also won't even look at a candidate who doesn't hold at least a bachelor's degree in something. “I think it's as necessary as in any other profession,” he says, “because this is a profession. It is a discipline and a craft. Everything you do that increases your ability to deliver your skill set is an asset. Someone with a well-rounded education is a good candidate. Somebody who understands catering or venue operations is an even better candidate.”
At Investors Group Financial Services in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Angie Pfeifer, CMM, assistant vice president for corporate meetings, travel and incentives (and 2007-2008 chairwoman of MPI), says a CMP or CMM (see box on page 30) gives candidates an edge. “Having a CMP is the baseline. Or a CMM. I haven't had to hire recently, but having recently redone the job description for my most senior manager, one of the key criteria our classification committee looks at is a degree. It's definitely important in a corporate environment.”
But she adds that only with experience do people truly understand the pressures of a meeting-planning job. “You might be on the job from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and you might have people pulling you in 15 different directions. A degree isn't going to teach you to stay on an even keel. You need to be able to respond appropriately. For me, it's important that someone has lived and breathed what they've learned.”
The Big Question
Dianne B. Devitt, CMP, is a consultant in events and meetings with her own New York-based company, The DND Group, as well as a member of MPI's advisory committee on education. Having taught at NYU for the past 15 years, she is convinced that a business education “helps you to speak your clients' language and encrypt it into the meetings and events industry.
“Meetings and events are finally of age,” Devitt adds. “Companies are realizing that they're part of the communications matrix. The IRS accepts meeting and event planning as a profession.” She even has a corporate vice president taking her current class with one of her meeting coordinators.
Knowledge is power, Devitt emphasizes.
“If I get a call as a meeting planner, and it's the VP of marketing, and I can go to her and say, ‘Do you have five minutes so I can do an analysis and qualify your objectives?’ Then they realize there is a strategy to all this.”
The big question is: Is there a financial reward for better educated, more strategic meeting planners? The answer, so far, is no. Not exactly. Not yet.
“What I've seen from my graduates,” says Sperstad, “is that they haven't gotten higher pay, but they've gotten the jobs. My students walk away with a portfolio of tools and templates that they have used. It separates them from the competition. It has really made the difference for them.”
“If you look at the hotel industry as an example, before there were good bachelor's degrees, you had to learn the hard way and come up through the ranks,” says the University of Central Florida's Breiter. It was hands-on experience that got you the job. Now we see people coming out of these degree programs commanding decent salaries. We're already seeing that on the hotel side; I think we'll see that on the meetings side eventually.”
Where the Degrees Are
Madison Area Technical College, Madison, Wis. — Associate Degree in Meeting & Event Management
Fox Valley Technical College, Appleton, Wis. — Associate Degree in Meeting & Event Management
Indiana University-Purdue University, Columbus, Ohio — Bachelor of Science in Tourism, Conventions, and Event Management
The George Washington University, Washington, D.C. — Master of Tourism Administration, Event & Meeting Management concentration
University of Central Florida Department of Tourism, Events & Attractions, Rosen College of Hospitality Management, Orlando — Bachelor of Science in Event Management
University of Nevada, Las Vegas — Bachelor of Science in Hotel Administration with major in Meeting & Event Management
For an extensive list of colleges offering courses and/or certificates in meeting and event planning, hospitality, or tourism fields, visit Meeting Professionals International at www.mpiweb.org. Click on “knowledge” then “Research, Articles, and Programs.”
For a comprehensive list of hospitality schools in the U.S., many of which offer certificate programs, visit www.hospitality-1st.com/PressNews/Schools.html
CMP Vs. CMM
As the premier industry certification, the Certified Meeting Professional distinguishes holders as professionals who have demonstrated a high level of experience, skill, and knowledge.
The Certification in Meeting Management is structured to complement the CMP designation. Whereas the CMP is more tactical in nature, the CMM focuses on strategic initiatives and executive decision-making.