Houston Brown Jr. is an accountant and a meeting planner — two jobs that complement each other well, he says.

“As an accountant, I know what money is actually there. And as a meeting planner, I use techniques to get it accomplished,” he explains.

For example, last year at the RCMA conference he attended one of the Behind-the-Scenes offerings. In a session on room setup, he learned a centerpiece idea that he put into use recently. It saved the meeting money.

“That's why I enjoy going to RCMA. It puts into perspective all the parts of the business,” he says.

Brown owns an accounting firm with a five-person staff, and his firm specializes in church finances. His job titles with the Church of Jesus Christ Inc., in Washington, D.C., include not only meeting planner, but also trustee, corporate secretary, business manager, and senior administrator. He's been working for the 500-member church since 1987.

Six Meetings, One Planner

In his role as a meeting planner for the church, Brown oversees six events, including three regional meetings that involve the diocese for his church, a region covering Pennsylvania to North Carolina that is made up of 20 congregations.

Those events, which involve 600 to 1,000 people, are held annually in January, May, and September. Over Labor Day weekend every other year, the major event for the church brings together 1,600 to 2,000 people. Smaller meetings of 50 to 100 people are held for women in October and men in April. The women's and men's retreats are mostly for lay people, but the others are leadership-training events that include seminars and worship opportunities for lay people and families.

Because meeting planning is just one part of his role, Brown has had to find efficient methods for getting the job done. “Somebody's got to be able to help,” Brown remembers thinking when he started as a meeting planner. “There's got to be someone who knows what to do.”

The answer to his dilemma came to him by happenstance. “I was at a hotel, and someone asked me if I as a member of RCMA. I said, ‘Can you tell me what that means?’” Brown recalls with a laugh.

He's been an RCMA member for about seven years now. “What I think is so invaluable is the training it provides,” Brown says, mentioning sessions on contract issues and networking as two of the more valuable benefits of membership.

Real-World Value

He recently put RCMA training into real-life use as he negotiated with a hotel to refund money on a recent meeting. Armed with knowledge that he had gained at RCMA, Brown was able to get the hotel to give him relief — reducing a fee from $56,000 to $18,000.

“If I hadn't been sitting in that class last year, it wouldn't have happened,” Brown says.

In addition to the seminars, attending RCMA allows him to get to know hotel and convention-bureau representatives, saving him a lot of travel.

And Brown says RCM is a useful reference, and he uses it as a teaching tool for his church assistants.

The Internet has also proven to be a helpful tool for Brown, increasing his efficiency. He uses it to narrow hotel and city choices, minimizing travel time. “It's still good to take a physical look” at properties, he says. “But at least you can limit it to a couple of places.”

Brown believes that a meeting planner needs to have organization skills as well as be willing to negotiate, be willing to look at new ideas, pay attention to what attendees want, and be flexible enough to make it work.

The groups that he works with try to plan events two years out, deciding on the location and finding the hotel. Brown tries to do most of the organization early, using the hotels and convention bureaus to carry to out his organization's wishes. “Then I just sit back and start acting as the middleman,” he says.