Q&A With Janet Sperstad, CMP

She considers herself a mission-driven public servant.  Her vocation has been to raise the visibility of professionals in the meetings industry. And, for more than 30 years, she’s been doing just that. Janet Sperstad, CMP, is program director for Madison Area Technical College’s meeting and event management degree, and winner of the 2015 MPI Chairman’s Award, given at this year’s World Education Conference. She’s been a business owner, consultant and now a teacher. Her career has put her face to face with top educational institutions, international tourism departments and the U.S. government. But like many in the profession, she didn’t plan her career this way. Collaborate got her inside story. [Related Post: This and That with Janet Sperstad] What was your background when you entered the meetings industry? I had a degree in criminal justice and received a request to assist with an event to determine its business results. I then started my own business and became an independent planner, working with the education department of Wisconsin Institute of Certified Public Accountants to learn how to sell more products through incentives. What challenges did you face starting out? Two things: It was really difficult to define what I did, and there was no training for people entering the event management industry. People would ask, “Oh, do you work for a hotel?” When I tried to explain my profession, the response was, “Well, who employs you?” It was also challenging to hire people for events and train them. [inlinead align="left"]"Event professionals are masters at finding people who can get things done."[/inlinead] How did you get around those challenges? A degree in event management seemed to be the solution. Event professionals are masters at finding people who can get things done, so I got together with five other planners and we went around to universities pitching the idea. That was in 2000, and the response we got was, “Maybe in five years.” Finally, Madison Area Technical College called me after they heard I was trying to start a program. I thought it was strange at first that a technical college was calling about an event management degree, but their interest was what mattered. We raised $200,000 for degree research, and 18 months later we launched the first associate degree in meeting and event management. How did you make the transition from independent planner to teacher? Working with the Wisconsin Institute of CPAs, adult learning was already a part of my world. When MATC wanted me on staff full time, it was a difficult decision to leave my own business. At first I missed some of the diversity that comes from owning a business, since every day is different. But I am lucky MATC gives me a lot of autonomy. Leading the program has enabled me to advance the profession of professionals who do the work. We are in a valid career with real skills. Being in this position has changed how I identify myself. Now when people ask what I do, I say, “I’m a teacher.” When they ask what I teach I say, “event management.” Now the response is, “Oh, that’s a degree?” The explanation of who we are and what we do is getting shorter. When you were contacted by the U.S. Department of Labor to review the Hospitality and Tourism Competency Model a year and a half ago, what did you discover? There was no event professional category. We were listed as a subcategory along with restaurateurs and lodging managers. The Department of Labor seemed surprised when I told them they had the wrong person; I didn’t work for a hotel. I explained that events are not a commodity; hotels are our partners. We do business with them. Our profession aligns more with marketing than hospitality. How did you work to define the meetings and events profession as its own category? The Department of Labor asked me to create a task force to define the skill set needed for the profession. This is important for job seekers because human resources departments in the United States won’t look at a profession if the Department of Labor doesn’t define it. I asked my colleague, Marsha Flanagan, to be on the task force with me. There were 10 industry professionals working to create the job description and define the knowledge and skills needed to perform the role of the meeting and event professional. [inlinead align="left"]"You never know where life takes you, but one thing is for sure—you don’t get what you don’t start."[/inlinead] How would you describe the experience of working with the Department of Labor? It wasn’t a big media event. We focused on the work, public servant talking to public servant. There was no VP of labor working with us. We were at the same level. We also didn’t want to get everyone on the task force engaged at the same time. As the project manager, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t wasting the time of this group of busy event professionals, which included Karen Kotowski, CEO of the Convention Industry Council. What have been some early results of defining the profession? I was amazed when people came up to me at [MPI’s] WEC, saying they showed the competency model to their HR departments and got raises. These are people working for Fortune 500 companies. I’ve also worked with MPI to define the Meeting Business Event Competency Standards—a catalog detailing the skills needed to be a meeting professional, including a curriculum guide for educators—and with the Canadian Tourism Human Resource Council to develop its event coordination certificate. How has your work in education assisted you in your career? When I received my CMP 25 years ago, I never would have thought I’d be the co-chair of CIC’s task force to oversee the quality standards and practices of the exam. I recertify next year, and as co-chair with Karen [Kotowski], I would have to sign my own certification letter. I joked with Karen asking her to sign mine twice. You never know where life takes you, but one thing is for sure—you don’t get what you don’t start. This and That Janet Sperstad gets personal and a little cheeky. Favorite city you’ve ever visited: Calvi on Corsica Island in France Most interesting event you ever planned: Aerial Masterworks, a five-day event and exhibition for 10,000 hair, nail and skin professionals. On top of that, we had to hold 300 model casting calls three times a day the week before, and that almost made me pull my hair out. If you weren’t in the meeting planning profession, you’d be… sane? Best advice you’ve ever received: Before big decisions, my dad, who was a CEO, always asked himself, “Is it the right thing to do?” He had a plaque with those words on his desk by the phone, so when he was having a conversation he could remind himself to make the right decision. One thing your students have taught you: They teach me every day it takes courage to learn, speak up and say they don’t know something. They inspired me to go back to school to get my executive master’s degree in neuroleadership, a mashup of neuroscience and business leadership. Who knew I could learn hard science? Where you see yourself in 10 years: In Corsica, drinking a beautiful chilled rose on the beach (fingers crossed). Advice for young professionals entering the industry: Wanting isn’t enough. Passion isn’t enough. At times, hard work isn’t enough. I tell my students I don’t grade motivation, I grade results. Event planning isn’t about wanting to create an event, hoping it turns out; it’s about doing it. It’s a real experience that only happens when you prepare, plan and execute. Events happen in real time, so there’s no hitting the pause button while you handle something you forgot about. Success really is when opportunity meets preparation. Photo Credit: Orange Photography