Meeting Planning for the Non-Meeting Professional

“You’re in charge of the entire conference.” That is what my boss said to me, just after the contracted meeting planner called saying she couldn’t make it. Me, the part-time college intern, moments before the opening session of our association’s annual flagship conference… “You are the only person on our team who is not on stage in five minutes. Do the best you can.” And just like that, I started my career as a meeting planner.

I have been planning conferences full-time for almost seven years. So what are some of the things I wish I had known back then? What are some of the keys to planning events that even non-meeting professionals in your association should know?

Start with the Basics

One of the first details you need to decide when planning an event is where. What city will play host to your event, and what type of venue will you need: a conference center, hotel, alternate venue … or all of the above? CVBs and DMOs are a great place to obtain a city snapshot and can serve as a resource throughout the planning process. If you go the hotel route, all of the major chains have group sales managers to help you find the right venue within their properties.

When selecting a city or venue, here are a few things to take into consideration. When are the peak times? Holidays, school calendars and other city-wide events (Austin during SXSW, for instance) can impact availability. Will the season impact the desirability, and therefore cost, of the venue? Ski resorts have the highest demand during winter, and beach cities are more expensive in the summer. How easy is it for members and attendees to get to your city of venue? Consider your members’ transportation needs not only getting to and from your event (are there direct flights?), but also as they explore your host city (is there public transportation?).

Always conduct an in-person site visit prior to your event. It is important to see for yourself if the event property in good repair, if the staff is friendly and attentive, and if the meeting space layout feels right. A site visit will help ensure that you aren’t caught off guard by too many unexpected details.

If budget is a priority, make sure you compare the total cost of each venue before making a final decision. Various minimums and fees (F&B minimum, taxes, service fees, room rates, required room block, resort fees, and internet, for example) vary and can quickly add up.

Learn to Speak Contract-ese

Contracts with your hotel and venue are a large part of the planning process, and one that can be confusing to any non-meeting professional, so it’s important to understand a few basics. Once you are ready to contract with a venue, understanding the following clauses could make or break your event budget:

  • No exclusives clause: Most venues consider services such as AV, internet and security exclusive to their in-house vendors. Unless you state otherwise in your contract, you could be putting yourself at a huge price negotiation disadvantage.
  • No additional fees: Note no additional fees will be required. You don’t want to contract an outside vendor to save money, only to discover the hotel charges a fee for use of outside vendors.

In general, you also want to avoid contract addendums. However, you do need to include pricing sheets for items like F&B, electric, and rigging. Remember to note in the contract that the pricing sheet is the maximum they will charge you, not the negotiated rate.

All contracts for your event should include bilateral terms—terms of liability, terms of cancellation and a force majeure clause (which relieves both parties from obligations when certain circumstances beyond their control arise).

Don’t forget that it’s always OK to ask questions about any item in the contract, and you should contact your association’s lawyer before signing the final agreement. Read everything, and never sign something you don’t understand.

All Hands on Deck

When it comes to planning a meeting, and especially once you’re on-site, it’s all hands on deck. Recruit your fellow staffers and association volunteers for specific assigned tasks that will help keep the event organized and running smoothly. Pre-event, ask them to help start conversations with potential speakers and sponsors. On-site, assign coworkers and volunteers to moderate and monitor education sessions, support the registration desk and stuff attendee bags. Post-event, have them help follow up with members and get feedback on how you can improve your event in the future.

Even with staff, volunteers and vendors all doing their part, there will be some events that require your association to bring in an independent meeting planner. Ask yourself the following questions to determine if your event calls for hiring a professional:

  • Do you have time to do it yourself?
  • Would your time be more valuable somewhere else?
  • Do you need help with strategy, management, implementation or all of the above?
  • To what level of expertise does this need to be handled?
  • How does this decision impact my attendees?
  • How does this decision impact my budget?

The single best piece of advice I can offer to any association professional thrown into a meeting planning situation is “positive, prioritized anxiety.” Constantly stay positive, and regularly re-evaluate your priorities to determine what has to happen right now, what has to happen next, and what can happen ahead of schedule.

Author Rachel Linder is the Senior Manager, Conferences & Events with Attendee Management, Inc. and Director of Monthly Programs for the MPI Texas Hill Country Chapter. She can be reached at [email protected] or (512) 842-4711.
Photo credit: Detanan/Shutterstock.com

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