How Meeting Planners Can Earn More Respect

The recession is long over, so why doesn’t it feel that way, meeting planners who just want a little respect.

|Gregg Lapin American Diabetes Association|Linda Mansouria CASSS

You’re still scrimping and cutting as you, waiting for respect, watch the price of F&B continue to rise. You waited too long to book your room block at your preferred venue and are shut out. Your attendees demand more. Your board doesn’t want to increase your budget. You need more sponsorship dollars, especially to pay for costly new technology.

Sound familiar? If it does, you’re in the same situation as most association meeting professionals. A flurry of industry surveys released in the final quarter of 2015 forecast remarkably similar and interlocking market factors affecting meetings in 2016. These include strong overall performance; a growing demand for space at quadruple the rate of supply; tighter hotel cancellation policies; attractive pricing in secondary and suburban markets; rising food and beverage costs; and increased focus on compliance.

For planners, these trends mean more cost cutting along with demands for improved program efficiency and control. Technology is cited as a major budget factor, with younger attendees driving a growing interest in tools, specifically meeting apps. The adoption of online platforms that can track and monitor registration is also driving costs.

Association meetings managers who have strategic meetings management plans in place are better prepared to respond to these new realities. Streamlined processes, mandated policies, vital data and transparency all contribute to efficiency, cost savings, increased buying power and risk mitigation.

These two skilled planners understand their individual association’s members and events intimately, are quick to implement change in response to feedback and trends they identify as important to their group, and speak up from positions of strength backed by solid but flexible strategic planning. The ways in which they stand out are modest, but significant.

Results Driven by Change

Gregg Lapin American Diabetes AssociationStill coming off the high of his annual meeting, which drew 20 percent more professionals than the previous year, the American Association of Diabetes Educators Director of Meeting Services Gregg Lapin is confident and enthusiastic. “That was huge,” he says, referring to the increase in targeted, valuable attendees.

It wasn’t the only goal he met. Lapin, who was still finalizing numbers from the 2015 annual meeting and exhibition in New Orleans at the time of this interview, knows the returns exceeded budget goals, and the net was higher too. “We saw attendance go up, phone calls go down, pickup improve at the hotel, and sponsors were happy. It went perfectly,” he says. 

The fact that everything went right was not a fluke. Lapin is a model of strategic meetings management, practicing nearly everything the industry has been teaching and preaching for years. “You need to know your data, your strength and your meeting,” he says. “What is your value? How do you differ from other groups? How do you solicit business if you don’t?”

For years, the mantra for planners has been doing more with less. Lapin has a blunt response to the old saying. “Whoever heard of a budget going down? How does that work? You want me to do more for less? Explain that.” Now, it’s doing more with a bit more.

Lapin knows what his attendees want and he gives it to them. His team of three—one focuses on registration and housing, another on operations and another helps where needed—conducts surveys online and via print. Then they follow through, something he says many meetings managers fail to do. “Most surveys ask questions that nobody plans to do anything with. This year, we specifically asked about pattern for our 2016 event in San Diego,” he says. Based on the feedback, they are changing days of the week to better accommodate supplier and attendee schedules.[inlinead align="left"]Instead of listing tracks, we listed levels in the program (i.e., zero to three years in the industry). Post-con survey results showed 84 percent of participants were satisfied with the new education levels.[/inlinead]

Friday to Monday dates are replacing Wednesday to Saturday, which in the past meant large exhibitors had to tear down over the weekend at a greater cost for overtime hours. The new pattern works better in big cities because it doesn’t compete with business travel.

Lapin has revamped the site selection process too. “We had previously not rotated cities. However, in 2018, we are starting a four-year rotation, focusing on second-tier cities with better pricing and labor costs,” he adds.

While planning for the 2015 event, Lapin’s team combed through individual comments from the previous year’s meeting. They concluded attendees thought the education was not presented at a high enough level, so they changed their approach. “Instead of listing tracks, we listed levels in the program (i.e., zero to three years in the industry).” Post-con survey results showed 84 percent of participants were satisfied with the new education levels.

Association content was eliminated from general sessions, which were running about four hours each. “We chopped awards and gained an hour and a half there, then cut sessions to one hour from an hour and a half.” Lapin admits he’s lucky to have a board that doesn’t have much input in the day-to-day planning of the meeting, which is staff-driven. Not all planners have that advantage, but he echoes a familiar message: “You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. Some people said we were taking risks, making the changes we did, but the risk is to do the same thing over and over again.”

To cut marketing costs, Lapin reduced registration for the 2015 event in August. Instead of starting in December (“for maybe 22 sign-ups,” he points out), registration now begins in March or April. He also reduced the registration fee by 42 percent. As an added incentive, the nonmember fee is significantly higher than the cost to join the association and register for the event. The changes resulted in a 10 percent increase in new or renewed memberships in the months registration is open, and the streamlined process saved 40 percent on calls.

Trends Demanding Attention

Linda Mansouria CASSSIndustry forecasts support Lapin’s moves, from changing with new attendee demands to proving the value of his meeting—and his position. While predictions for the industry are rosy, meetings managers need to have strategic plans in place, including goals and detailed reporting, as they continue to moderate tight budgets.

“The meetings industry has transitioned from a state of recovery to cautious optimism to experiencing robust and healthy levels of growth around the world,” said Issa Jouaneh, senior vice president and general manager of American Express Meetings & Events, in his company’s 2016 Global Meetings and Events Forecast.

The AMEX forecast sends a strong message to association meetings managers on stepping up their game on policies. The report focuses on three areas of compliance: payments, expenses and records; collecting and handling personal information; and attendee selection. It also includes internal controls and risk mitigation strategies, factors that continue to be overlooked by association planners despite industry educators (and attorneys) who have stressed their importance for years.

Linda Mansouria, CMP, CMM, is an industry advocate, educator and meetings manager with strong opinions about her organizational role and responsibilities. “Meeting professionals are the ones keeping associations afloat; they’re a one-man shop raising revenue streams for organizations,” says the planner, who has more than 20 years of experience in event marketing strategy and execution. She honed her skills first as program manager for Cisco Systems Inc. and for the past seven years with professional scientific society CASSS. Like Lapin, her nonprofit in the biotechnology sector requires compliance, especially with global regulations and the Sunshine Act, which in turn necessitates detailed planning and reporting.

“My role is to bring in the right amount of revenue to cover expenses, overhead and losses we experience in our meetings, which are all educational,” says Mansouria, who manages 700-person programs for CASSS. “We get the right decision-makers [in the room]. For that reason, we don’t want our big meeting to grow,” she explains about her unique positioning compared to other planners looking to expand attendance.

[inlinead align="left"]Meeting professionals are the ones keeping associations afloat; they’re a one-man shop raising revenue streams for organizations.[/inlinead] Mansouria’s team includes a planner who manages all strategy forms for global meetings, and another who manages analytical technology programs. “Budgets are always increasing,” she says as she prioritizes her challenges. “Hotels are at their peak, and I see it going into 2016-17, particularly in first-tier cities. Our problem is making sure the host city is [accessible] for all our global attendees. Airlift is critical; ground transportation is important; and safety is a key consideration.” For budget reasons, evening events are not planned, so multiple restaurant options and nighttime activities add to the criteria making first-tier cities a requirement. She also cites increased demands in sleeping rooms, meeting rooms and technology hitting her bottom line.

For Mansouria, technology is critical. “We have to make sure we get with the program and introduce new technology for the new generation,” she says. “We have a meeting app to make sure we are engaging younger scientists. We’re also using it to identify different interest levels. When they register, they identify what field they are in, which allows us to make sure they meet with individuals in that field, enabling better collaboration.” 

To fund the mobile app, Mansouria raised exhibitors’ cost by $100, but each exhibitor gets a lead recovery report as added value. Fortunately for her, sponsors—an important component of all nonprofit meetings—are increasing funding, an upward trend reported in industry forecasts. She still faces the need to acquire more sponsorship dollars to cover increased costs, like food and beverage. “Catering expenses have gone up drastically, driven in large part by the need to respond to everyone’s food choices and allergies,” she said. “You have to figure out ways to work around it. I can’t do all I want.”

But she does take risks, trying out new methods to engage attendees. In response to shortened attention spans, she now offers multiple roundtables, employing a moderator and a scribe rather than an instructor. “People want to engage with and learn from their peers. We provide bullet point sheets so there is no lull; we keep it fluid and current.”

Redefining the Role

Mansouria describes her job as managing many moving parts. Lapin, ever the strategic planner, is doing case studies from his recent event, evaluating five areas: attendee experience, exhibits, education support, future meeting locations and structural issues.[inlinead align="left"]It’s up to industry associations to really work with government and management companies to talk about what meeting planners have to do.[/inlinead]

They both agree with this summary from the AMEX forecast: “As the work required of the meeting planner broadens in scope to include data tracking and analysis provision as well as effective meeting delivery, the job of the meeting planner becomes more complex.” As the role becomes more intense, it is requiring a shift in skill set.

A similar conclusion came from IMEX America 2015, which recognized the wider impact of meetings in driving the knowledge-based industry and a more powerful role for meeting professionals. “We’ve talked about this for years,” says Mansouria. “It’s up to industry associations to really work with government and management companies to talk about what meeting planners have to do, the budgets they have to work with and what they are doing for their organizations.”

While respect for meetings managers has grown, some senior managers at organizations still don’t realize all meeting planners do. Mansouria urges meeting managers to “toot their own horn” and make management aware of the value they add to the entire organization. She points out that those who work under a meetings management program where everything is reported gain more recognition.

Lapin wants something more tangible. “Someone needs to come up with a better title,” he says, “or something more indicative of what we do.”

Measuring Success

Lapin’s strategic planning and follow-through are impressive, and he attributes a large part of his success to being in a strong, niche market. “Anything with diabetes is different [from other associations] because it’s a lifelong disease.”

Health care meetings and events, especially in elderly care segments, report strong growth from 2015 events and predict even more in 2016. For example, Healthcare Design Expo & Conference had an 11 percent increase in attendance at its November 2015 event in Washington, D.C. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, the world’s largest global trade association in that industry, hosted a record 29,279 partnering meetings at its 2015 convention in Philadelphia in June 2015. The event drew 15,858 industry leaders from 69 countries and 47 states.

There are many lessons to be learned from these creative, strategic association meetings managers. In some cases, the difference between their meetings and yours might simply be your market segment. Regardless, the one thing we’re all asking for is a little respect.

Sources referred to in this story and the following reports, including compiled figures that are not credited, are from: 2016 Global Meetings and Events Forecast from American Express Meetings & Events, 2016 Meetings and Events Forecast from CWT Meetings & Events, and 2015 Associations Survey from Union of International Associations.