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Planning the perfect meeting possible, but takes time

Last year, 90,000 association meetings were held in the U.S., drawing millions of delegates, according to the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). Chances are, plenty went wrong.

“Planning the perfect meeting is an art form unto itself,” said Chris Bounds Chapman, a certified meeting planner with the Mississippi Development Authority’s division of tourism, meetings and conventions. “And with a tremendous increase in the market, there’s more pressure than ever for meeting planners to do it right.”

Whether planning a large convention for thousands of delegates years in advance or a small meeting for a few people next week, here’s a list of do’s and don’ts to make life a little simpler for meeting planners:

• Do join a professional meeting planners’ organization and a trade association. “It’s extremely important to be involved in both because meeting planners’ organizations will give you support from others doing the same thing and provide the education needed to progress your career and become more successful for your company,” said Chapman.

“Industry publications are there to serve members and will address meeting planning at some point. You can learn what’s specific to your industry.”

• Do make sure the dates selected do not conflict with other industry or national events or company functions.

• Do read the fine print. “The attrition clause is a buzzword going around the industry because it’s costing people money,” said Chapman. “Meeting planners have learned to handle it like every other roadblock. Attrition clauses are negotiable but penalties can best be avoided by proper research and planning. First, consider the meeting location and guesstimate the number of local attendees. Second, consider whether properties adjacent to the host hotel will compete for room reservations and revenue. Third, review the past history room night reports. Fourth, count new members and possible new delegates and sponsors that might not have attended in the past. Then, place a room block with a firm cut-off date for reservations to the host hotel in advance of attribution penalties. Then publish the consequences of not making reservations, explaining to delegates the risk of increased rates or no availability. When appropriate, include the housing room reservation form with the meeting reservation package to help monitor room reservation count.”

• Do have a second party review the contract. “If I’m signing a contract, I get someone knowledgeable in the industry to read it,” said Chapman. “It’s important to get another perspective because one might catch something the other might miss.”

• Do establish SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based) objectives. However, make sure the final decision-makers have input on these objectives. The last thing needed is a hidden agenda.

• Do take ownership of the meeting. Even though meeting planners report to decision-makers, they have a vested interest in the outcome of the meeting.

• Do hold a pre-conference meeting. “Iron out details a day or two before the event,” said Chapman. “There’s no need to fly by the seat of your pants.”

• Do go with the flow. “Natural disasters are the worst, but at least you can truthfully say it’s no one’s fault,” said Chapman. “We had a terrible ice storm during a governor’s conference several years ago … the electricity in the hotel went out and we had to wear boots and gloves in the meeting room. Water was a problem, so we had to send out for bottled water for people to be able to brush their teeth. Food was a problem and nobody could leave, so we had chicken for three days. But it gave us something to talk about, and the situation became funny after a while.”

• Don’t try to accomplish everything yourself. “Consider outsourcing parts of the meeting to an independent planner, travel agent or meetings-management company,” said Chapman.

• Don’t miscalculate food costs. “They’re tricky to determine,” said Chapman. “Taxes and gratuities could cost up to 15% to 18%.”

• Don’t hire an unfamiliar vendor without verifying references. “Otherwise, you risk not having a service performed even after that vendor is paid a fee or deposit,” said Chapman.

• Don’t try to remember everything that needs to be done at once. “It’s almost impossible,” said Chapman. “Jot down notes as thoughts come to you.”

• Don’t forget that the host city’s convention and visitors bureau (CVB) is there to help you. “We give meeting planners information so they don’t waste time detailing meetings,” said Christine Blackmon McInnis, sales and service manager for the Jackson CVB. “We do a lot of the footwork for them so they will have a successful meeting.”

• And finally, don’t forget the donuts.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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