by Jonathan Vatner | June 01, 2007

Shari Pietsch, CMP

Shari Pietsch, CMP, went from hotel event manager to
company meeting planner and back to hotels, now with the Sheraton Chicago
Hotel & Towers. “I really value the experience I’ve had,” she says.

Ever since she took a job as a “generic front-desk associate” for a Marriott hotel, Shari Pietsch, now a CMP, was drawn to the concept of “party planning.” That drive led her to something a bit more intense: planning product launches and events for a pharmaceutical company. Several years and many airline miles later, she’s happily returned to the hotel side as director of convention services for the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers.

It’s not hard to find similar stories. Consider Julie Blanton who, after 17 years as a meeting and event planner for the furniture industry, was laid off in 2002. “I planned on doing this forever,” she says. “I wasn’t ready to be done.” Given the dearth of planning jobs in western Michigan, she worked as a realtor for a few years. Then she heard that a JW Marriott, to open in fall 2007 in Grand Rapids, was hiring. Being a convention services manager wasn’t the same thing as being a meeting planner, but she figured it was close enough. Blanton went ahead and applied; in March, she was hired as a senior event manager. “I think I’m uniquely qualified to work on both sides,” she notes. “I can walk in their shoes. I’ve probably already had that issue, that problem, that challenge, that special guest, that unique situation.”

Some meeting planners, like Blanton, end up on the supplier side by chance. Others make the jump -- either from planner to supplier or vice versa -- because they’ve wondered if the other side might just be a better fit.

“It’s happening probably a little more frequently as time goes on,” says Deborah Sexton, president and CEO of the Chicago-based Professional Con-vention Management Association, who has worked on nearly all sides of the industry, from hotelier to convention and visitor bureau executive to association executive. “If you understand the skill sets needed for both sides, you become, frankly, more qualified.”

M&C asked 10 current and former meeting planners why and how they made the switch. Here are their stories, as told in their own words.

The die-hard planner

In 2005, Jody Brandes, CMP, switched jobs from events coordinator at the Nob Hill Masonic Center, an exhibition and event space in San Francisco, to marketing coordinator/meeting planner at Novartis Vaccines & Diagnostics in Emeryville, Calif.

I used to say that I wanted to be a corporate planner because of the stability. When I made the change, though, it wasn’t a stable time. I was hired by Chiron Corp. when it was being acquired by Novartis. I didn’t know what the possibility of staying was, but it was a foot in the door. One reason I got the job was because someone who was really seasoned wasn’t going to take the risk.

I moved because I liked the logistics part of my job better than the sales. On the supplier side it was 80 percent sales and 20 percent logistics. I like the logistics, all the details, keeping track of everything that’s going on. I like to travel, and I like knowing the details of hotels and facilities all over the country. There’s only so much challenge in knowing one facility.

If you don’t want to travel or you don’t like logistics, you shouldn’t be a meeting planner. The most important thing about switching from supplier to planner is being detail-oriented and loving logistics and changes, because that’s what you deal with on a daily basis. Everything you just planned gets changed. If you can roll with it and not get stressed out about it, you’ll be successful.

My best piece of advice is to get involved in Meeting Professionals International. The last three jobs I’ve had I got through networking at MPI. Currently, I’m the director of special events for the Northern California chapter; next year, I’ll be the director of education.