Todd Zint had a plan. Back in 1998, after three and a half years as one of 24 meeting planners for Santa Ana, Calif. — based technology company Ingram Micro, he knew that the only way he could move up in his meeting planning career was to leave the company. So, he took a position at Newport Beach, Calif. — based Equitable Distributors, LLC (the wholesale distribution arm of Equitable) as manager of meeting planning, not only moving up the ladder as a planner but beginning his specialization in the financial services sector. Two years later, he hit pay dirt when AXA Financial purchased Equitable and he was asked to be director of meeting planning. The catch? The position was located in New York.
“It's about risk and reward,” says Zint. “It's rare that meeting planners make it to the director level. I knew that if I wanted to get that title, I'd have to move [across the country] to New York to do it. I made the decision to move up, and took the position.”
After 9/11, though, Zint was ready to return to California and started to keep his ears open for opportunities. The timing was right in March 2002, when MetLife opened a new distribution arm in Newport Beach, Calif., that happened to be run by the same executive team that had been at AXA Distributors, LLC. “They asked me to come aboard and manage meetings from a strategic marketing perspective,” he says. “Even better, they would give me a VP title.”
Zint moved back to the West Coast, secure with the impressive title of VP, corporate relations and events for MetLife Investors. But the security didn't last long. About a year later, consolidation within the company made his position redundant and he was in the job market again, but this time with the negotiating power of a VP title. He landed a position at Seattle-based Washington Mutual as vice president of corporate meetings and events, with the mandate of “consolidating and merging all different lines into one planning department to drive efficiencies,” says Zint. A year and a half later, though, a new senior management team decided they didn't want to centralize meeting planning after all — and Zint was again out of a job.
“At that point, I had to take a hard look at all the changes of the previous four years,” he says, “and figure out what I really wanted to do.” Washington Mutual provided access to a career counseling company, which worked with Zint to help him determine his best fit. “I really pushed,” he says. “I needed to know where I could provide the most value and in what kind of company. After a lot of work, I realized that [my ideal employer] was a small to mid-sized company, where I could review current efficiencies and recommend alternative solutions without having to sell it to multiple layers — not a mega-sized company with a lot of bureaucracy.”
With a new goal and a new plan in mind, Zint began his job search. In January 2005, his efforts culminated in a position as assistant vice president of meeting planning for Austin-based NFP Insurance Services Inc.
Where the Jobs Are
Of course, before any meeting planner can create a plan, you need to know what the possibilities are. One career path is to move from company to company, acquiring a better title with each move, as Zint did, but there are numerous other possibilities for advancement for financial services and insurance meeting planners. Until 2014, overall employment of meeting and convention planners is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is especially true in industries that are experiencing high growth, such as private security and insurance companies, as well as the medical and pharmaceutical sectors and their allied associations, and government agencies.
In addition, meeting planners are in an enviable position, as many of their skills are transferable, opening up possibilities of moving to a better position at another financial services or insurance company; transferring into a different niche of corporate, association, or government meeting planning; or even moving into any of the allied fields, such as hotel management,, or going into business as an independent meetings consultant.
Not sure how to move your career forward? Here are some tried-and-true strategies from financial services and insurance meeting planners who have made that leap and gotten their career onto the fast track, moving into positions with a more lucrative salary, more extensive responsibilities, and more job satisfaction.
Have a Plan
In Zint's case, having a plan meant first analyzing his strengths and weaknesses to determine what kind of company would be the best fit for him. From there, he spoke with a number of people he knew through the industry association Financial and Insurance Conference Planners. “It's such a small industry that networking plays a critical role,” he says.
Zint's planning didn't stop in 2005 when he got his position with NFP Insurance Services. “It can be dangerous when you're a meeting planner in senior management,” he says. “I'd pigeonholed myself in the past by being in high-level meeting planning, and I looked at all that very carefully when I changed jobs.” To expand his horizons, Zint had a talk with his company president six months after he started at NFP. “I noted that I'd already built up the department, along with credibility, trust, and integrity with the business-line executive team. Based on that, I let him know that I'd very much like the opportunity to take on another department and build that up as well,” he recalls. “Three weeks later, he came back to me and asked me to manage the newly formed marketing communications resource department.” Zint is now vice president of marketing communications, which encompasses meeting planning as well as the marketing and communications of all meetings and other targeted marketing initiatives at NFP Insurance.
Steve Clark, CMP, also had a plan, but it was a very different one from Zint's. After nearly 18 years with Madison, Wis. — based Cuna Mutual Group, “I had a great position, but I could see that, down the road, the company was going to face some changes,” he says. In his time there, Clark had “run food service, had [managed] travel twice, and expanded and centralized the meetings department from one assistant to a staff of eight and about 500 meetings a year.” Still, when downsizing hit in 2002 and he was approached to let go of a manager, he offered up himself. “I already had the plan in mind to someday go out on my own,” says Clark, “so when the opportunity presented itself, I could come to the table immediately with an option that worked. The entire process took three weeks from the time they came to me till the day I walked out the door.”
In looking at his options ahead of time, Clark says, “I knew that going out on my own one day was a possibility, so I'd saved some money and was financially prepared to make a move.” Today, he is a Chicago-based independent meeting contractor, currently underto Deloitte Services LP.
One of the ways Clark prepared for his move was by talking to others in the industry, mostly a network he'd acquired through almost two decades of being involved in industry associations such asand Meeting Professionals International. “I'd already spoken with other people who had gone out on their own, so I knew what to expect and how to prepare,” he says.
In addition to getting advice along the way, having friends in the industry can open new doors. When Kim Sky, CMP, moved to Chicago from Pittsburgh in 2002, she quickly joined the local MPI chapter. “I'd been on the board in Pittsburgh,” she says, “so I joined the Chicago chapter as soon as I got here. It's such a nice way to get integrated into the city and meet people and find out what's happening.”
When she first moved, planner jobs were difficult to find, so she took a position in corporate group sales at the Chicago City Center, tapping into prior experience in the hotel industry. By 2004 she was ready to move on. “I was at an MPI event and some colleagues told me about a position that they thought would be perfect for me.” Turns out they were right, and she was hired as a meeting planner at CNA insurance companies. A year later, she was promoted to meeting planner team leader, heading up a staff of two full-time meeting planners, onemanager, and temporary staff as needed. “As the workload increased, I developed a department strategy, standardized templates and processes, and documented our efforts and successes,” she says. “Management took notice of my lead role and offered the promotion.”
Similarly, all it took was a phone call for Linda Shaw, CMP, CMM, to get her position as conference planner for The Hartford, based in Simsbury, Conn. “I was a conference planner at MML Investor Services until I lost my job due to consolidation,” she says. “I made a call to someone whom I'd met at meetings of FICP, and it turned out The Hartford was looking for a planner. I started eight days later.”
Learn from the Best
While who you know can open the doors, what you know is what will keep them open. Associations are also key in this aspect, both in providing formal educational opportunities as well as the chance to learn from peers. “You get out of an association what you put into it,” says Patricia Kerr, CMP, director of conference planning and recognition for Manulife Financial in Waterloo, Ontario, long an active member of FICP and currently vice president, sponsorship. “You can develop great relationships both with peers and with hospitality partners. If I'm challenged with something, I pick up the phone and ask for advice. If you're having a problem in this industry, who else can you ask?”
“There's no place else to get the information you need,” agrees Jan Hennessey, CMP, CMM, who on September 1 began her position as senior director of meeting and event management at Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., an Allianz company located in Novato, Calif. “But it's not enough to be a member — you need to get involved. You can learn to be a good manager by heading up a committee; you can learn to be a public speaker by volunteering for a panel; you can get your name out there by writing articles for industry publications.”
All those strategies served Hennessey well when she was laid off in 2001 (ironically, from Fireman's Fund) due to downsizing and a corporate decision to outsource. “It was a difficult time and I decided to go through it publicly,” she says. “I wrote articles about what it was like to get laid off, spoke at meetings, and sent my résumé all over the world. I felt like I was down but not out — and I didn't want to hide.” Her openness about her situation brought her to the attention of Oakland, Calif. — based Kaiser Permanente, where she'd worked years earlier. “They called me and asked me to come back and head up a different meetings department from the one I'd previously worked in,” she says.
Hennessey is also a champion of industry certifications. “Corporate America respects credentials,” she says. “I first got my CMP [Certified Meeting Professional] in 1990 when I was fairly new to meeting planning. I was working at Kaiser Permanente, which is a big company filled with people who had credentials, and I knew that people would recognize me as an expert if I had credentials, too.” In 1999, she went a step further and earned her CMM (Certification in Meeting Management), a certification open to meeting planners with more than 10 years' experience that focuses on strategic issues and executive decision-making.
Not only does NFP Insurance Services' Zint have his own CMP and CMM, but he encourages his staff to get theirs as well. “It adds credibility to our department as a whole,” he says, “and helps position people to be successful and move on when the time is right.” As for the CMM, he considers it integral to his success. “It's very strategic and teaches you to look at the big picture of meetings and how best to maximize the planning elements based on the ultimate objective. Plus, it's a great networking opportunity — I still keep in touch with some of my professors to bounce ideas off them.” (See “Education Gets Serious” on page 24 to learn more about the CMP and CMM.)
In addition to being a member of both FICP and MPI, Zint has recently joined the National Business Travel Association. “At some point, I'd love to manage travel,” he says, “so this kind of professional alliance is important.”
Be a Player
While there is pleasure in doing a job well, just doing your job these days isn't enough. It's critical that others recognize what you're doing in order to move up. “Even what you call yourself can be a career strategy,” says Hennessey. “You need to think about how you brand yourself and your department.” She recently implemented such an approach in her new position at Fireman's Fund, where she proposed the name “meeting and event management” for her department to emphasize a larger scope. “If you're not tooting your own horn, who will?” she asks. “Planners need to prove their own value, show off their track record, and be visible.”
Hennessey also emphasizes diversification. “There are always projects or ideas that are lying around or not being managed well,” she says. “If a department [head] can see the opportunity and pick up those areas, planners can become more essential — and harder to outsource.”
Zint calls those projects “low-hanging fruit” and that's what he's after these days.
“What are the things we can take on that will have minimal impact on our resources?” he questions. In his case, areas that he thinks are ripe for the picking within his company include promotional items and procurement. He's also focused on learning more about meeting content and marketing, which are now part of his department.
One of the best ways planners can position themselves to move forward is by presenting themselves as a strategic part of the company, rather than just a logistical operator in a small niche.
“The role of planner continues to evolve as we are perceived as true strategic partners and not just fulfilling the role of logistics,” says Michael Burke, CMP, manager, conference and travel services, The Hanover Insurance Group, Worcester, Mass., and president of FICP. “With Sarbanes-Oxley and the many legal regulations around business and incentive meetings, it's become more crucial to have people in these positions who understand the [regulatory] environment and are able to help companies avoid exposure. Planners need to continually demonstrate their value within their companies.”
“Although we are very regulated, you can't just be an order-taker,” agrees Laurie Fitzgerald, CMP, meeting manager at Northbrook, Ill. — based Allstate Financial. “You have to be both strategic and creative, while staying within the corporate guidelines, which can be a challenge.”
That's the kind of thinking that has allowed Karen Knox, CMP, CMM, to increase her staff from two in 1999 to its current four full-time planners, along with another four independent contractors who work as needed. “When I first started as a manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Northern Carolina [based in Durham], our department was ‘meeting services’ — we took requests and we filled them,” she says. “We were in a little hole in the basement; now we're on the fourth floor executive level, the department is ‘meetings management,’ and we're defined as a strategic business partner with other internal departments.”
Knox credits her involvement with MPI as a catalyst to becoming strategic. “It's a trend in the industry,” she says. “What I learned from MPI and from acquiring my CMM has allowed me to present my department in a different light and helped me to get a seat at the big table.”
She's not done yet. “I see myself elevating my position within my company,” Knox says. “There's no reason in the world why I can't be a VP of meetings management.”
Todd Zint has already achieved the coveted VP title, but he's not resting on his laurels. “So many planners focus only on meeting planning logistics,” he says, “but we also need to look at the big picture, be strategic, and think outside of the box. My feeling is that the more you're in charge of, the more valuable you are, and the less likely it is that you would be the one to go in the case of a merger or acquisition. I'm always trying to figure out how I can make myself more valuable to my company.”
Your Associations at Work
In an ongoing effort to help members define their careers and move forward, several industry associations provide career resources, including online job- and résumé-posting options. Here are some of the tools available online from Financial & Insurance Conference Planners, Meeting Professionals International, ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership, and Professional Convention Management Association.
FICP: Both members and nonmembers can post résumés and open positions on the online job board for free, although only members and hospitality partners can view the listings. The Web site is currently undergoing a complete redesign, slated to debut at the November annual meeting. “Our Web site committee is in the process of identifying our content priorities,” says Steve Bova, CAE, executive director of FICP, “but FICP is committed to enhancing our members' careers and we envision that increased functionality and sophistication of the new site will lead to additional resources related to career enhancement.” www.ficpnet.com/resources
MPI: The most all-encompassing of recent association initiatives, MPI Member Solutions was launched early this year as a tool to create personalized career paths for meeting professionals. MPI Professional Pathways is an online skills self-assessment tool (free for members; $40 for nonmembers), which results in three reports: My Gap Report (analysis of where the person is compared to the industry standard for any given position); My Skills Assessment Recommended Resources (recommended events, books, articles, etc., to address needs identified in the Gap Report); and My Job Best Fit (compares responses from the skills assessment to all jobs in the MPI system to see how participants match up). Other resources include a job search and posting bank, free peer-to-peer assistance with career planning and strategizing, sample résumés, and articles on career development. www.mpiweb.org
ASAE & THE CENTER: Career Headquarters is the largest online Web site of its kind. Members can post their résumés and employers can list jobs for associations and related industries, such as hospitality, travel and tourism, and financial services. The center provides career FAQs, the ability to e-mail a career question to ASAE staff, and resources for purchasing behavioral-style assessments, résumé writing services, and job coaching services. www.asaecenter.org/yourcareer
PCMA: The Online Career Center allows members to post their résumés for free ($25 for nonmembers), either with names or anonymously for those who prefer their job search remain private. Employers can also post job openings ($250 for PCMA members; $350 for nonmembers), which remain online for 60 days. Salary surveys are also available on the site. www.pcma.org/resources/careercenter
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