by Lisa A. Grimaldi | January 01, 2014
Meeting planners strapped for time and resources often outsource complex site selections, negotiations and other tasks to third-party planners. On occasion, these relationships transcend simple client/supplier roles, and the two professionals become teammates and even close friends. Following, M&C profiles four such dynamic duos.

> Susan Lennon
Deputy executive director, Society for Research in Child Development, based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
> Char Y. Shada, CMP
Director/strategic account manager, Experient, based in Chicago

Susan Lennon and Char Shada, her Experient account manager for more than five years, have shared at least a dozen trips to inspect venues and destinations that might host the Society for Research in Child Development. "She's the only person, outside of my family, who I would feel comfortable sharing a hotel room with," says Lennon, a nine-year veteran with the SRCD.

The two have traveled together via airplane, train and automobile, both across the United States and Eastern Europe, and shared many adventures on the road. They both recall, with great hilarity, a site inspection arranged by one destination to showcase its local color and cuisine: a tour of two strip malls and dinner at an Italian chain restaurant. What's more, their guide was a teetotaler, and ordering an adult beverage was out of the question. "I remember Susan's look of horror," says Shada. "We were polite and sucked it up, but we couldn't wait to get back to the hotel and a have a cocktail."

Since 2007, Shada has worked with Lennon on the association's biannual meeting, which can attract anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 attendees from 45 countries. Experient handles venue inspections and contracts, as well as some aspects of meeting planning.

Lennon, who considers Shada an extension of her staff, says she relies very heavily on her "incredible business sense and negotiating skills."

"If we need more space, I get in touch with her, and she figures out way to make it work," Lennon adds."I know I can't get everything I want, but I have learned what is realistic in a contract, and with Char, I know our best interests have been served."

Though the two have had many successful collaborations, they've also faced difficult business situations together. For example, the association was slapped with high attrition fees at its most recent biannual conference, which took place last year in Seattle. Lennon notes that Shada successfully worked with the hotel to get the contract modified and to help them fill the room block, even enlisting higher-ups at Experient in the effort.

"She lost as much sleep as I did over the crisis. She felt our pain," says a grateful Lennon.
"A relationship like ours doesn't happen often in the business world," says Lennon. "We really listen to each other; we may not always agree with each other, but we're always respectful."

 > Beth Ewing
Business director at PLM World Inc., based in Winston Salem, N.C.
> Tom Schwinden
Global account executive, ConferenceDirect, based in Oviedo, Fla.

This partnership began in less than perfect circumstances. Beth Ewing of PLM World, an annual tech-user conference, was stuck with high room rates (negotiated by her former third-party firm prior to the recession for the 2012 event) and a staggering 50 percent attrition rate. Ewing recalls the hotel wouldn't budge, and her former third-party firm said nothing could be done. Then a client told her to reach out to Schwinden.

After hearing her dilemma, the ConferenceDirect executive suggested a plan: sending out RFPs to other properties and trying to mitigate the penalties as much as possible.

"I was shocked when Tom first suggested it, but I ended up being blown away," says Ewing. Schwinden not only found another hotel with a lower room rate ($125 vs. $199), but he got the new property to agree to pay the cancellation fees for the other contract.

"What he did was nothing short of amazing," muses Ewing.

Since their auspicious beginning, things have only gotten better for this twosome. Ewing has entrusted Schwinden with all site selection and contract negotiations for the 35-year-old event.

"We've produced two world-class events together, with less stress than I've ever experienced," Ewing says. "Tom knows my group inside and out -- things like they prefer to meet under one roof [not easy when the event attracts 1,700 to 1,800 attendees on peak night] and want a family-friendly destination. He also knows that the conference needs to be in a facility with plentiful meeting space with good flow."

Just as important, she adds, "he figured out how I do things and knows what I like. He knows that tablecloths aren't important to me, but having perfect tech during the conference is."

In addition to handling the nuts and bolts of the contract, Schwinden also has helped Ewing and her team to upgrade and grow the show. "We are an old-style tech conference and have been doing things the same way for years," she says. "We want less sitting in rooms or listening to presentations." This year, the collaborators are launching a one-on-one, speed-dating-style component to the event. The concept, Ewing says, was presented by Schwinden, who often shares ideas from his other clients.

For his part, Schwinden says his main goal is to "make Beth look fabulous to her board." The two touch base, either by phone, email or text, once a week. And he always accompanies her to PLM World's board meetings to help sell new ideas or destinations. "She is there for her board members, and I am there for her and her team of planners," he says.