In today’s recovering but still uncertain economy, planners are looking for ways to do more with less. Those who want to increase productivity and flexibility during busy times might consider building an alternative staffing model that includes non-employee assistance. Here are some things to think about.

Examine Staffing Needs
First, figure out how industry trends apply to your own workload. For example, a few years ago, planners could expect at least three months of lead time. Now they are lucky to get six weeks. From travel time to content lead times, leaner meetings with shorter lead times are the new normal. In fact, as the pace at which new research and medical information is published continues to pick up, lead times for medical and pharma industry educational meetings are likely to also continue to shrink. And with more cash in corporate coffers, the number of corporate meetings has been increasing.

Look at your internal planning department. Many companies cut meeting-department jobs at the height of the recession. Many of those positions remain unfilled, even as the meetings industry picks up again. How will you handle your current workload and plan for new bookings?

See the Alternative Staffing Checklist for more questions to help you decide if alternative staffing is a good option for you.

Build an Alternative Staffing Model
If you decide you do have auxiliary staffing needs, you then need to determine what model is right for you.
1. Decide whether to outsource directly or hire a company to do it for you. Finding your own team can give you control over every part of the process. This approach works best when you’re looking to fill a few positions and have the time to recruit and manage the human resources administrative process.

Hiring an agency to manage your contracted meeting staff works best for companies that want to partner with small teams, want several contractors on call, or simply don’t have the time to do it themselves. Ensure that the agency is experienced in alternative staffing for the meetings industry and has access to personnel within your key practice areas.

2. Whether you plan keep it in house or hire an agency, take your industry’s unique needs into account. Medical meeting planning presents myriad strategic and logistical hurdles that can be daunting even to seasoned professionals. Always seek to match the appropriate on-site skill set and background in the industry in each area.

3. Protect your organization against any legal risks that may be associated with working with independents. For example, contract planners often work for the same company multiple times, at the same agreed-upon wage, and for a set amount of hours dictated by the company. All of these factors can be used to make a legal case that the planner was treated as an employee instead of an independent contractor. Minimize your risk by explicitly denoting the planner as an independent in any documents, and always include an attorney in all independent contractor decisions.

4. Determine your geographic scope and client priorities. With a static staffing model, you use the same staff for every meeting you plan. Whether the meeting is in New York or Philadelphia, you always know who to expect. Companies usually choose this model when they are working with clients with a great deal of security who don’t appreciate variation and are willing to pay to use the same staff, no matter what the travel costs. This model also is useful for companies that plan multiple meetings for multiple clients in a small geographic area, because it reduces the costs by using the same staff repeatedly.

If your meeting locations tend to be unpredictable, having a large number of contractors available and based in far-reaching areas can be helpful. A dynamic model that allows for lots of switching and substituting across a large contractor base, yet always ensures a vetted candidate will be available, would work best in this situation.

Companies with regular meeting locations across large areas benefit from a combination of dynamic and static models. They build several small teams specific to each region. Then they use the same teams for meetings in each region. By retaining teams locally, the model allows for consistency at a lower cost.

Whatever model you choose, schedule pre-conference phone calls and meetings to go over final program specs so your contractors can hit the ground running.

Manage Supplemental Resources
As you refine your model, continually revisit it to ensure your agency is taking staffing and management tasks off of your plate. If you’re staffing yourself, build in regular evaluations of contractors to assess their performance and do post-program evaluations of the events they are part of.

Brad Goodsell, the former president of Chicago-based Executive Travel Directors, has been helping businesses execute meetings for 25 years. ETD works with more than 2,500 independent travel directors and meeting planners to staff thousands of meetings every year. Learn more about the company here.

This article was originally published at MeetingsNet in 2012.