The evolving profession of strategic meeting planning documented by our recent reader survey is led by change agents unafraid to address new paradigms. Among them is Jan Hennessey, CMP, CMM, a 20-year industry planner who in 2006 rejoined her former company, Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., as senior director, meetings & event management, to lead a new internal planning department. In addition to managing 25 meetings a year, including a large producer conference, Hennessey has been helping to develop strategic meetings management synergies with colleagues at Fireman's Fund's sister company, Allianz Life. A former international board member of Meeting Professionals International and two-term trustee on the MPI Foundation, she has just been elected to Financial and Insurance Conference Planners' board of directors, serving as vice-president, communications. She spoke with us recently from her offices at Fireman's Fund corporate headquarters in Novato, Calif., near San Francisco.

FINANCIAL AND INSURANCE MEETINGS: What does the word strategic mean to you?

HENNESSEY: When I led a workshop on strategic meeting planning, I learned to understand the military roots of this word. It's really about setting up the essential plans to achieve a result. It refers to the integral decisions aimed at achieving results for your company or your department or your meeting. It's about being part of the decision-making process, and about how you will achieve long-term results. When I taught the workshop, the symbol I used for strategic planning was the bull's-eye. To me, the bull's-eye refers to what success would look like, say, in terms of our largest meeting. What are the results that would really matter to the client, and to our other stakeholders, such as the CEO? The bull's-eye is different for everyone. For the meeting department, it might be about delighting and engaging attendees and coming in under budget. For leadership, it also needs to be on target for what our business lines define as success.

Our survey results suggest that industry planners are embracing strategic meetings management processes. Do you agree?

Yes, but our companies are at different places on the continuum of strategic meetings management, and we're not all doing it in the same way. What I think we have in common is that we're tracking spend, consolidating sourcing, and automating the planning processes.

I've been informally benchmarking SMMP with my colleagues, and one of the key things I've heard is how dangerous it is to not involve all the stakeholders, including the meeting clients — the customers of your department. Many colleagues have also talked about mistakes regarding outsourcing, including outsourcing too much. But it's important to qualify that this isn't the same for all companies. Everything depends on your corporate culture and drivers, and on your specific strengths and challenges.

What's role does technology play in SMMP?

A common mistake is that when all the new meetings technology started coming at us about nine years ago, many of us viewed it as the answer to everything. But while technology provides great tools, it doesn't take the place of a good plan. One of the lessons planners have learned is that just putting technology solutions in place doesn't solve all the problems.

What are the biggest changes you have seen in the profession during the past few years? Any predictions for 2008?

The growing role of procurement, dealing with issues of regulatory compliance, globalization, and increasing challenges from a seller's marketplace have been the biggest changes. The seller's market is cyclical and the other three are not.

Our relationship with procurement is evolving. We've moved from the early days when the very word struck fear in our hearts. Today, there are many examples of financial and insurance planners who not only have survived partnering with procurement, but are talking about how great it is. I think that on the whole, procurement has made our lives better. In most cases, we are the ones with the industry knowledge and the relationships with suppliers, and the procurement specialists utilize that.

You note that the seller's market is cyclical — but what are planners to do now, as hotel rates continue to rise?

The bridge over troubled waters is our national sales office contact. They carry us over the hard times because they are our voice to the individual vendors. I'm totally supported by the national sales offices I use, and they really are a huge help when it comes to finding affordable options and negotiating. Our DMC partners help us to do more with less, too.

Only 19 percent of our survey respondents said that they have a company mandate to comply with FINRA guidelines for educational and/or incentive meetings. Will planners need to get more involved with regulatory compliance in the future?

In general, compliance is very complex, and it can involve many different regulatory entities, of which FINRA is just one example. Planners can't possibly know and track all the regulations themselves. We have to work with the experts, including our in-house legal and compliance departments, and never compromise in any way when it comes to questions of ethics.

An even lower percentage of survey respondents, just 10 percent, said that they have a mandate for green initiatives at this time. When will going green become a priority?

Sustainable meetings are here to stay. I know several meeting planners who have been carrying the torch for green meetings, and I believe their time has come.

What I get asked about most often is whether or not planners are including green meeting specs in requests for proposals. Most of us say not yet. We don't know exactly what we can ask for, or what's easily attainable. But we will have the answers soon. People are going to start doing small things and before you know it, the world will change and we won't have to talk about it as much.

How do eco-friendly meetings relate to corporate goals and objectives?

The levels at which meetings are going green varies because companies vary in their environmental consciousness. My company has green insurance products, for instance. Green buildings matter to us, so we might be a little more interested in meeting at green facilities.

For example, we recently held an event at a winery that has an eco-smart wine-making process — they produce organic wines, but it is more than that. Everything about their growing process is ecological, and the design of their buildings also reflects green practices. We brought in the winery's engineer as a guest speaker. He talked to our brokers about the solar panels and other green building applications.

It's important to stress that this emphasis on green helps to communicate our corporate message. It subtly ties in with the brand, adding value to the whole event.

Despite a lot of work by the Convention Industry Council to standardize planner-supplier communications, 46 percent of our survey respondents have never heard of the APEX Meeting and Event Toolbox. What do you see as its future?

I think the toolbox will become a useful resource for industry terminology and practices, particularly for new meeting planners. It is just going to take some time. Imagine how difficult it was for a huge, diverse group of planners and suppliers to come to consensus on what to include. Now, the product has to get refined. Remember, not so very long ago, planners sent in event specifications and hotels typed BEOs on typewriters! The day I look forward to is when there is one way to get meeting specifications entered into a system and have it go right into a universal hotel BEO format. We're not there yet.

Our survey results show that readers are overseen by many different departments, from marketing to field distribution. What do you think is a good fit?

Over the years, I have personally worked in about 10 different departments, and have found that some make more sense than others. I think that marketing and/or communications is a great fit. I believe that meetings are always about marketing, whether for internal clients or external clients. A meeting always carries a message. It is about protecting and promoting the brand. Marketing and communications supports all the other functions in the company, just the way meetings do. This doesn't mean there shouldn't be a dotted line to the procurement department. But I have always thought that marketing/communications is one of the best places for the meeting department to reside.

Another department affiliation that worked well for me was being part of organizational development — sometimes called consulting services. This trained me to become a facilitator and helped me to gain business expertise in such areas as strategic planning and large group dynamics.

How does knowledge about group dynamics help you in your job as a meeting planner?

Understanding group dynamics is extremely useful for solving any kind of problem. One of the best ways to learn is to volunteer for a task force or committee within your company, your community, or your association. When you chair a committee, you instantly become a meeting facilitator.

Historically, the training department or an outside consultant puts together meeting content. But when you are trained to facilitate, you can be part of the team that decides on content for a big program. It can be very useful for a meeting planner to become a sideline facilitator and help guide program development. [See facilitation tips, above.]

Our survey showed that a huge number of financial and insurance companies hold international incentive programs. Do you think this trend will continue?

Yes. The competitive appeal of international locations to motivate can't be beat. But the declining value of the U.S. dollar, particularly in Europe, is challenging. We need ways to deal with the strong euro. I don't know what all the answers are, but I think that travel partners can help. My guess is that we'll also see an increase in international cruise programs — particularly in European and Mediterranean cruises — that allow us to pay in U.S. dollars.

I'm doing an international meeting in '08 in Monaco, and have been reaching out to other FICP planners to see what they have been doing to deal with exchange rates. I've gotten some great ideas, such as opening international bank accounts and paying in euros, or buying international bonds — essentially hedge strategies.

Speaking of FICP, how has membership helped you to become more strategic?

FICP has evolved into a very professional association offering great education at the annual conference, summer education forum, and regional meetings. And the focused networking it brings to members has not changed. I appreciate and understand the value of our intimate network.

A few other things for planners to put in your advice bucket: Be active in your association. It will give you valuable speaking experience — and it's a much safer way to learn than in your corporate environment.

As well, membership in FICP and other industry associations is a great way to build your network. I have a large network, and most of it has been built from my association involvement. I use it many times a day, every day. It has helped my career immensely.

Another trend reported by our survey respondents is that training/education meetings are on the rise. How is this related to trends in the insurance and financial services industry?

Change in organizations always leads to more meetings. We're constantly dealing with mergers, leadership changes, new products, and regulatory compliance. People out in the field are hungry for information. Trying to keep them abreast of everything — and keep them on the same page with all the changes — is mind-boggling. It can be useful to communicate electronically with online learning courses and webinars, but only face-to-face meetings build relationships.

What is your advice for meeting planners looking to move up the ladder to director and vice president positions?

For those who want to move up, the first thing on my list is to focus continuously on professional development. As mentioned earlier, get actively involved in industry associations — it's not enough to just be a member. I recommend more than one to get a true industry perspective. This involvement is probably the one single thing that has done the most for my career in terms of becoming smarter and building a broader range of skills.

Also, earn your credentials. Get your CMP and after you have enough experience, think about getting your CMM. Both were certainly very much worth it to me.

The question everyone asks when talking about professional development is: How do you find the time? It's not easy, but — as my grandmother said — it takes as much time as you've got.

The second thing when looking to move up the ladder is to act like a director. Assume the position. This means being more of a consultant to your client instead of waiting to be told what to do. Have ideas and put them out there, with confidence.

Finally, understand what your company does and the business your company is in. Know what your corporate leadership is trying to accomplish. Anyone on the director or vice president level is knowledgeable about their company's goals and objectives.

Have changing times opened up nontraditional career tracks for industry meeting planners?

Yes. I think there will be new career pathways, both within financial and insurance companies and within third parties. I think that people should be out front with their strengths to help figure out the best job for them. You might excel in meeting marketing communications, for example, or in content development. We also need people in the business who have strong heads for finance. So if you love sourcing and contracts, then meeting procurement could be a great career pathway for you.

Those of you who have the title of meeting planner and love what you do, fear not. We need superior logistics managers now more than ever. Focus on your strengths and become the best at what you do best.

Any concluding thoughts?

When I started out in this business 20 years ago, we were order takers. We've come a long way — your survey shows nearly half of us are in director or vice president positions — and are continuing to evolve.

It's a very exciting time, but we have to be careful what we ask for. We are now on the radar of finance and procurement, and the radical change that has happened in some companies has given us plenty of challenges. I think, though, that we have elevated meeting planning as a profession and are making real strides in proving the value of meetings to our leaders. And that paves the way for our future success.