by Sarah J.F. Braley | February 01, 2007

The idea of becoming an independent planner sounds so seductive, doesn’t it? Never again having to answer to someone other than yourself; being the boss; making all the decisions. The most important decision when going out on your own, of course, is what kind of planner you will be. The options are endless, as are the variations. Will you handle corporate or association events? Large, midsize or small gatherings? Local or national? Training seminars, incentive trips or general sessions? Will you serve a specific industry? While the choices might seem daunting, successful independents end up planning the kinds of meetings they do best -- and love most.

Before hanging up your shingle, “be brutally honest with yourself,” says Barb Taylor Carpender, CMM, CEO of Taylored Alliances in Denver. “What is it you do well? What is it other people think you do well and why?” asks Carpender, a facilitator who is working with Meeting Professionals International to design programs for small-business owners.

What follows is some expert advice for finding just the right niche.

Jump in with both feet

Five-star, luxury programs are the specialty of Masterplan Inc. in La Grange Highlands, Ill. The company was founded 16 years ago by president Mary Jo Blythe, CMP, when the destination marketing company for which she worked was sold.

“The clients I was working with were gravitating toward higher-end programs, so that was where I felt comfortable,” says Blythe, who now has 17 full-time employees and about 25 independent contractors who go on-site to assist during programs. She incorporated in 1991: “It was time to decide if I really wanted to take the business and run -- and I did.”

Eli Gorin, a young independent who founded his company, gMeetings, one year ago, already has chosen Latin American meetings as his niche. “I’m fluent in Spanish; I can understand Portuguese,” says Gorin from his Aventura, Fla., office. “Miami is the base of a lot of Latin American divisions of large companies. I want to work not just with people going down there, but people coming here.”

In researching companies that hold meetings in South and Central America, Gorin found many have planners for their U.S.-based meetings, but their departments aren’t large enough to handle events out of the country. “I noticed administrative assistants and secretaries are setting up these meetings,” he says. “I’ve been offering my services to them.”

His hard work recently brought in a new client: a technology distribution company holding events in many countries. “My contact said their resources are stretched thin,” Gorin says. “If I prove myself here, they could become a long-term client.”