They work six- to eight-hour shifts as greeters, registration attendants, room monitors and "human signage." They field questions, handle crowd control, run errands and put out fires. What do these critical helpers get paid? Typically, nothing. They're the interns.
Some planners depend heavily on this young and eager work force. At annual meetings of the Professional Convention Management Association, about 10 to 20 percent of up to 300 volunteers typically are students, according to Sarah Corradino, PCMA's Chicago-based manager of meetings and events.
"Using volunteers can save you a great deal of money," Corradino notes. "Even if you did the math at minimum wage, you're talking thousands of dollars in savings." Moreover, she says, "You don't always get the same enthusiasm with temp workers as you do with hospitality students."
Not only are these students -- some of whom aspire to become meeting planners -- hungry for on-the-job training, some hospitality schools actually require that they get such experience.
Sounding the call
The local convention and visitors bureau is a good starting point, says Pamela A. Troop, CMP, director of meeting operations and special events for Washington, D.C.-based ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership. When Troop was planning last August's annual meeting and expo in San Diego, DeeAnne Snyder, CMP, director of convention services for the San Diego Convention Center Corp., arranged for 30 local hospitality students to participate as volunteers. "It was not at all difficult to get that many volunteers," says Snyder. "The students were absolutely eager to be a part of the process."
If a CVB isn't willing or able to do the legwork, go directly to a local hospitality school. Meeting Professionals International offers a full list of institutions at mpiweb.org/Education/UniversitiesAndColleges.aspx.
When contacting a school, ask for the career services department or the person who handles student internships, advises Randy Crabtree, Meeting Professionals International's Dallas-based membership marketing manager. Some hospitality schools will note a planner's needs and post the details on an internal online job-posting board.
"While we can't guarantee students will volunteer -- especially if it's an unpaid event -- we do encourage them to apply," says Erika Jones, director of career services at Kendall College's Les Roches School of Hospitality Management in Chicago.
If not enough takers come forth, Jones recommends offering $25 to $50 a day. This usually draws more interest, she says, and still costs much less than a temp worker's daily wages.
Other ways to find interns include calling local chapters of associations such as MPI or the Professional Convention Management Association, both of which encourage student involvement.
The right tasks
Katja Morgenstern, a senior project manager for Atlanta-based Meeting Consultants Inc., cautions that corporate clients often are "very proprietary" with their information and might be uncomfortable using students. "But at association meetings," she notes, "there is more freedom and opportunity to use interns."
Note that students should not be considered for all tasks; see "What to Delegate."
Interns' enthusiasm makes them good candidates for assignments that require attendee interaction. For example, at MeetDifferent 2009, held in Atlanta this past February, MPI used volunteers to circulate among the attendees and invite them to come to a computer station and update their profiles, says Randy Crabtree.
"There's not too much student interns can't do," says PCMA's Corradino -- as long as there's some type of learning element incorporated into their duties. "We wouldn't assign them to something like coat check; we would hire temps to do that," she notes. "We have to be responsible for these students, because we want to have good relationships with hospitality schools. A professor is not going to be happy if his student has sat at a coat check for eight hours a day."
"The unfortunate thing is when planners are looking for students to do very grunt-level work," says Jeffrey Catrett, dean of Les Roches School of Hospitality Management. "We'd rather they get more involved."