Featured Story

December 2009

Independent Planners

by Katie Morell

The past few years have felt like a rollercoaster ride for independent meeting planners, never quite knowing what the next curve will bring. In this ever-changing market, Meetings West asked a few veteran planners, including job placement experts Sheryl Sookman Schelter and Dawn Penfold, to contribute their two cents on everything from issues of competition to the trends planners are facing today and the forecast for the year ahead.

Have you noticed a lot more competition for business these days?

Sheryl Sookman Schelter, CMP, principal, The MeetingConnection, Novato, Calif.: The competition has been very stiff as far as applying for jobs. There are definitely more people who are attempting to be independent planners just out of necessity because there are so few jobs out there. There are more people trying to do project work to fill in until they can find a full-time position and there are people out there who this is their full time job—being an independent planner. That has just added to the number of people competing for independent projects.

Pamela Milan, president, Milan and Associates, College Park, Md.:
I’ve seen tremendous competition. People are cutting back on their meetings and if they are still having meetings, they are smaller. It is tougher out there for us because the pie is smaller.

Toni Sylvester, CMP, president, Sylvester Management Corp., Columbia, S.C.:
No. Part of it is that I’m located in Columbia, South Carolina, and there aren’t a lot of independent planners here.

Reggie Sears, CMP, owner/meeting planner, Sears Enterprises, Sacramento, Calif.:
No, not really. I think there are enough associations and groups to go around. If it is competition, it is friendly competition. We assist each other; we share business.

Brian Meyer, president, Meeting Expectations, Atlanta:
Yes, there is. It is standing out more than ever now. I think that it’s because there are a lot of corporate planners that have been let go. There are a lot of independent planners that we are competing against and less business to go around. It has always been competitive, but more so than ever right now.

Karen Farrington, CMP, president, Suncoast Meetings & Events, Lutz. Fla.:
I have not been affected by a lot of competition in the meeting planning industry. Most of my business comes from referrals from other clients. I think there are many people that are becoming independent planners in these times but find it challenging to stay independent because it is hard to find clients and there is not always a steady cash flow.

What are some strategies for survival in today’s marketplace? Sookman Schleter:
To be really competitive you’ve got to be up on all the current technology that is being used, whether it is online registration, virtual meeting formats or webinars.

You need to be passionate about it. Read constantly and go to your local meetings. Get your name out there.

You have to take really good care of your existing clients. Do a little more than what they ask for. You don’t want them shopping around to see if they can get the same service for less from someone else. If you want to grow, see if existing clients will let you do a little more for them instead of looking for new clients.

You have to be ready to sell yourself in one minute while you are networking because you never know how business will come. Have your business cards and elevator speech ready. If you are looking for new business, I say the Internet is the only way to go. Get a website. But networking, good customer service and the elevator speech still work. Just do an outstanding job every time and don’t settle for less than excellence.

Prove your value to the organization. Be knowledgeable of your customer’s needs and pick the right venue for them. If it is a frugal organization, don’t pick an extravagant venue. Make sound recommendations. Take a look at the budget and make sure it supports your strategic objectives for the meeting. Provide a lot of post-conference data on the return on investment of the meeting. Also, you really need to have a rock solid marketing plan. Be up-to-date on social networking and have good mailing lists. That is really important stuff.

Never take a client for granted. I have become much more strategic for my clients. It used to be enough to do logistics for site search and meeting planning, but recently I’ve had to become an integral part of their association. I’ve positioned myself as someone who can look at their marketing strategies, position their target market and focus in on how they can get more attendance at the conference instead of just planning the conference.

What industries are in demand for meetings these days?Sookman Schelter:
Insurance, pharma and the whole healthcare arena. There are also a few newer industries where people can find opportunities, such as energy and green building. Look where the stimulus money is going and what is shifting in this country—those things will have the greatest opportunities.

Pharmacology, medical, healthcare, insurance. I’m seeing a lot more state government meetings than federal government meetings. I attribute that to the new administration.

Speaking very generally, associations are still going strong, government is still going strong and corporate is not. I’ve talked to hotels that are down 35-40 percent from last year in their corporate meetings.

Associations are still around, but I am seeing a downsizing of attendance and numbers. Meyer:
The association-oriented events and events focused on professional development and education and certification seem to be holding their own in this economy.

Is it important to have a niche?

Sookman Schelter:
It does help to have a niche. People are very selective right now with whom they bring on board, so if they want someone who knows pharma, for example, they don’t want to bring on someone who needs any type of training. On the flip side, if you get too niche focused, you narrow your opportunities.

Sears: You can seriously diversify if you have a big business. But if you are smaller or just starting out, I would say focus on the market that you know and stay current.

Meyer: You don’t want to be overly specialized, but I do think there is value in having a niche. Let’s say, if you are a guru in medical, that is valuable. But at the same time, most meetings have the same core elements, so being versatile is pretty good in this economy.

Farrington: It is much more important to be diversified. Be knowledgeable in a wide range of things.

What trends/issues are you seeing in the independent meeting planning industry these days?

Sookman Schelter: I’ve seen that a number of smaller meeting management companies have either dissolved this year or have merged with another company. That in itself has created more competition in the marketplace.

Sylvester: Independent planners need to keep up with the overload of information, whether it’s Internet, e-mail or Twitter. We are trying to figure out the best way to communicate with people and handle all the information that is out there. It is easy to get overloaded.

Sears: I see some planners joining larger independent meeting companies because of the economy. I’ve also seen more that aren’t making it as independent planners. If you are established, you are okay, but it is probably difficult to break in right now.

Meyer: The number one issue right now is, when is the economy going to rebound? Meeting planners have been affected by unemployment and I think everyone wants to know what changes that we’ve seen over the past 12 months are going to be permanent. Independent planners need to be cognizant of what is going on with the virtual meetings world. How are they going to augment or replace face-to-face meetings?

Farrington: Independent planners have to get more educated and more aware of what is going on through places like MPI and ASAE so they can be more knowledgeable for their clients. You have to be much more aware of social networking and different ways you can get more attendance to meetings and events.

What do you see as the future of independent meeting planning?

Sookman Schelter: I think things are starting to loosen up a little bit and companies are beginning to look at their 2010 schedule. I’ve heard of one company that didn’t have any meetings in 2009 and now they are all coming back in 2010. That is not a total barometer, but it is encouraging. I think there is going to be more project work in the coming year for independent planners. There are encouraging messages out there from companies who have held back last year and are on track to bring their meetings back. They may have done without this past year, but they can’t do that for another year cycle.

Sylvester: I suspect that there is going to be a bit more business for independents because there is so much downsizing. When companies and associations come back online they are going to need someone to help them with meetings. There may be more business for independent planners in the next year or so.
Meyer: I do think right now we are at the bottom in terms of the economy, in terms of the industry and in terms of companies cutting meetings out of their budget. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, we will see the meetings segment pick back up. I think average daily rates and overall occupancy will pick up, and that bodes well for independent planners. Companies that took meetings off their schedules in 2009 will put them back on and companies that curtailed them this year will get back on track. As the economy recovers, the industry will recover along with it. I also think there will be a lot of importance placed on local events that cut down on travel time. Virtual meetings will also continue to be big—bringing the meeting to the people instead of the people to the meeting. 

—Katie Morell is the former news editor and staff writer for Meetings Media. She herself is now
navigating the independent life as a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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