Stella Beene Venson, who has been planning religious conferences since 1986, has pretty much seen it all. For most of that time she’s worked as meeting administrator for the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, managing a wide variety of meetings, across the country and around the world. Now she takes on a new challenge as an independent planner.
Q: How did you get involved in the meetings industry?
I started out working years ago in hotels for the Department of Defense on Air Force bases in England and in Spokane, Wash. When we moved to Nashville I went to work for the United Methodist Church as an event planner for the Division of Chaplains. Then I became the overall event planner for an agency of the United Methodist Church—the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. I retired from there last year.
Now you work as an independent planner. What do you like about it?
I like the flexibility—I am able to be more creative. And I have more time to work with my clients, who include the Black Clergy Women’s Conference and the Tennessee State University National Alumni Convention. I also manage meetings for the National Black Methodists for Church Renewal and Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century.
How has your job changed over the years?
We do more short-term than long-term planning now. Working with shorter term windows you have to work harder to find the venue that best fits your client. And the budgets have been reduced—you have more to do and less to work with so you have to be more creative to get the job done.
What are the most important qualities of a good meeting planner?
Continuing education—you have to stay up on the changes that are happening within the industry. Honesty—be honest with your suppliers. Networking—we do business with our friends. And to do that, we have to be able to establish relationships with people, including those working with suppliers and venues. You also have to know your clients.
What new initiatives have you adopted?
We ask for reduced costs for catered meals, and for a percentage off when our attendees eat non-catered meals in any of the hotel’s food venues. We are also watching our AV costs. A lot of times you don’t need all the AV that people are accustomed to asking for.
I also try to negotiate out clauses, or if I can’t do that, negotiate them down.
We use less paper and do more things digitally now. We use to keep our attendees informed, creating Facebook pages and encouraging attendees to follow them. We try to do everything we can on the Internet.
What about the job keeps you up at night?
I sleep very well (laughs). But sometimes groups can be very relaxed—they think they have until next week when it needs to be done today.
I’d also like to see some hotels be more upfront, and be honest about their capabilities and their meeting space. Don’t try to sell me space knowing it’s not going to work. Most of the hotels—99.5 percent—have been very good to work with.
I don’t come in all gung-ho and pushy. I take my job as my ministry. I feel like God is calling me to be a servant in the hospitality industry. You carry that out in the way you deal with people. It helps me deal with all the different personalities.
What do you like most about the job?
Making sure that everybody is comfortable, making sure that the event is stellar regardless of what the budget is and where it is happening. And making sure my clients meet their goals from start to finish.
You’ve been an RCMA board member and active with various meetings industry organizations. What drives your involvement?
I want to know what’s going on in the industry, to get different viewpoints, and to hold dialogues with a variety of people. And as an event planner for a global denomination, it was in my best interest to be part of a global community.
What are your interests outside of meetings?
I like golf, swimming, bowling, football, and basketball, but I don’t like cooking anymore (laughs).
And I love my children and grandchildren.