For something that looks so easy, event planning is anything but. Every annual general meeting, wedding reception or book signing creates the possibility for a myriad of mishaps that no one wants to handle.
And with people expecting their events to exceed a simple coat check or serving hors’d-oeuvres, there is little margin for error in what has become a multi-billion dollar industry.
Which makes the decision in choosing a meeting planner all that more important. Simply put, it’s important to know what they do in order to know what to you can do.
“Meeting planners are gaining more credibility in being a strategic partner with whatever organization they are working with or for,” says Kathryn Goldstein of Meeting Professionals International (MPI) (www.mpiweb.org). “Companies are understanding the return on investment that a meeting planner can bring to their event.”
Who are they?
So who are meeting planners? According to Karen Eluck, president of Toronto-based Independent Meeting Planners Association of Canada (IMPAC) (www.impaccanada.com), it depends on the client.
Meeting planners are being drawn into more markets than ever before, she says, including corporate, association, government and not-for-profit sectors. They are also becoming increasingly involved in special events, international meetings, weddings, religious ceremonies, social events and special interest groups.
“One of our members does religious conferences only, and one does medical conferences. So it really varies where our clients come from,” says Eluck, who is also president of KEP Events Ltd. (www.kepevents.com)
Many planners, independent included, work as part of an association, like IMPAC or MPI. The benefit of choosing professionals from an umbrella group, says Goldstein, is peace of mind that they’re hiring someone who has access to the resources that others may not have.
“If you belong to an association … it gives the planner a little more credibility, because they have access to the education programs, the websites, those kinds of things that would give you the up-to-date trends in the industry,” she says.
Education, in fact, is changing the direction of the industry, notes Eluck. Designations such as CMP (certified meeting professional), CSEP (certified special event professional) and CMM (certified meeting management) to name a few, show clients how much experience planners have, or how much they know the business.
“If you went to a doctor, would you want him to have his credentials or not? It’s the same thing. There’s thousands of dollars involved in these things,” says Eluck, noting most schools across North America offer industry-friendly event/meeting planner or hospitality courses.
What do they do?
As a result, today’s meeting planners have evolved from “chips-and-dip girls,” to savvy and sophisticated multitaskers who are using the latest industry trends to ensure clients leave the impression they want, says Goldstein.
In other words, it’s more than just tablecloths and toasts. Before an event takes place, planners will meet with sponsors and organizing committees to decide the size and format of events. They will also set and monitor budgets and review administrative procedures and progress of events.
One of the more important roles of planners today is in attracting delegates. Planners are often responsible for organizing the registration of participants, preparing programs and promotional material and publicizing events.
Planners also work with caterers and event staff to ensure the right menu is served in the right atmosphere.
“If you’re planning a meeting and you’ve got your CEO at that meeting, you want it to be over the top,” says Goldstein. “Or if you’re planning something, like maybe your stock options aren’t where they are should have been … that’s a completely different type of meeting.”
Another important aspect of the meeting industry is lodging, which can be handled by third-party housing bureaus. Destination Plus, for example, negotiates lodging for clients such as exhibitors and attendees at a trade show, at no cost.
“They don’t pay us, the hotels pay us,” says Carolyne Vigon, a partner at Destination Plus, in Toronto. “So it’s a free service for our clients, and it’s very valuable.”
On game day, planners are on hand to make sure things run smoothly. During an afternoon ski trip, for example, planners would manage the specifics of rentals, lift passes and transportation so that delegates wouldn’t.
“It depends on what the customer needs,” says Daniel Lejour, president of Mont Tremblant Meetings and Conferences (www.monttremblantmeetings.com), whose company acts as a central co-ordination and reservation office in the resort town located about 90 minutes north of Montreal. “If the customer wants to have somebody to guide them (on a ski trip), we’ll do it. We’ll pick you up, put you on the bus, take you there and schedule the event.”
Devil’s in the details
While some groups will insist on manning the frontlines, Goldstein warns event planning, regardless of its size, can be a considerable undertaking that will often divert attention from the things that matter like getting the intended message across.
“If anyone has attended a meeting, or really paid attention to what a meeting is all about — whether it’s a dinner for five or a Superbowl half-time show — there’s a lot that goes into that which you have to understand,” she says.
Consider, for example, a wedding. While the future newlyweds could handle everything from invitations to centrepieces, the mundane details quickly add up, especially on the big day, and add an unwanted stress factor to what should be a happy occasion.
A wedding planner would ease that unwanted stress by connecting with suppliers, overseeing last-minute details and allowing the happy couple to focus on what’s important.
The same applies to lodging for any type of event. Vigon says the benefit of using a housing bureau like Destination Plus is that clients don’t have to worry about any lodging requirements.
“They don’t have to deal with hotels any more. They don’t have to worry about hotels being sold out,” she says. “We take every aspect of housing or accommodation off their plate.”
Question the quality
Planners also increase the quality of services delivered by using trained and experienced professionals who understand industry procedures and requirements.
“We know what to do, when to do it and the best time to do it,” says Lejour. “Especially in areas like (Mont Tremblant), it’s good to know what’s available. And when they deal with us, it’s easier to find the right people to do the right jobs.”
That, in turn, often ends up costing clients less, as planners can increase clients’ accessibility to a network of skilled industry suppliers who work at wholesale rates.
“In the long run, your bottom line is better. It’s less expensive,” says Eluck, adding planners can identify if a supplier may be trying to sell more than the client needs.
“If a client phones me, I know who’s doing what and who’s going to fit with the client very well. So I’m going to bring them the right fit for their event or meeting as far as suppliers go.”
“So then, the end user actually pays the same amount of dollars, but has the expertise of a planner on board.”
Outsourcing event planning also eliminates companies shuffling those responsibilities internally on someone who doesn’t know what they are doing.
“Let’s say XYZ company wants to plan a great meeting for their sales force and the administrative assistant is planning the meeting,” says Goldstein. “That’s not her job. She doesn’t know how to do it. So to get an outside person to help you do that, it’s worth the effort to do that.”
“It’s to gain the resources and knowledge that the meeting planner brings to the table to make your life easier.”
Object of your affection
Another reason people are turning to planners is because they want to realize a return on investment, or return on objectives, says Goldstein. Despite technological advances that allow delegates to attend meetings without leaving their office, nothing compares with face time in getting the message, or objective, across.
“Meetings will never go away. Even with web seminars and teleconferencing and conference calls, still so much business is conducted face-to-face,” says Goldstein. “Companies are understanding the value of that face-to-face rollout for meetings like a trade show, or to roll out the next product, or giving bad news. You don’t just want to send an E-mail.”
Planners can also help improve attendance, which in turn increases profit. The Ontario Association Veterinary Technicians’ annual meeting, for example, increased from 300 delegates in 1992 to more than 1,000 today after outsourcing the planning to Hensall, Ont.-based The Bayley Group (www.bayleygroup.com).
According to IMPAC, exhibitor participation also more than doubled, leaving the association with a 30-percent increase in profits over the past four years.
The Canadian Gas Association, meanwhile, turned over the planning of its annual general meeting to Courtice, Ont.-based WDYS Event Services (www.wdysevents.com) after it became increasingly difficult to handle internally. The association, according to a case study by IMPAC, found that their new supplier had the skills to market the event far better than they could.
It also discovered that, because the marketing effort was able to attract a larger audience, it realized an increase in profits, which helped defray conference expenses.
Planning for success
With every multimedia presentation, lunch-hour social or awards show exists the potential for technical difficulties, cold food and no-shows. It’s the reality of such events, and something many companies are finding out the hard way.
“Even some of the bigger companies still do it in-house, but they really don’t have a department handling that,” says Eluck. “But they’re not up-to-date on what’s happening in the industry, and across the country. So it just takes them a lot longer to get done, and it takes them away from their own job.”
It’s the meeting planners’ job, conversely, to connect with suppliers, extinguish fires as they arise and offer suggestions that may produce better results, such as utilizing multipurpose rooms at a convention centre in a way that clients may not otherwise have considered.
“When it comes to the hotels, we’ve done many set-ups for different occasions,” says Lejour. “Sometimes it’s beneficial to have people like us who’ve done many events.”
Many industry professionals argue that today’s planners are being called upon more than ever to be strategic partners who not only organize great meetings, but also produce tangible results, such as communicating the intended message.
“It’s all a matter of education, and I think it’s turning around,” says Eluck. “I’ve got a couple of companies who didn’t use an outside person, and now they do and they realize the value of it. So it’s growing.”