by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | September 01, 2004



SGMP executive director
Carl Thompson

In 1981, a coterie of 32 meeting planners, lacking a professional organization devoted to their specialty and eager to find common ground, decided to start their own group. Today, as it approaches the quarter-century mark, the Society of Government Meeting Professionals has grown to 3,500 members, with chapters in 26 states, and is a model for offering members ways to enhance their jobs and careers.
    Today, SGMP has a professionally staffed office of seven headed by an executive director. Its annual educational conference, which offers more than 33 sessions, draws thousands of attendees, and its trade shows are sold out months in advance to suppliers eager to get members’ attention.
    Perhaps an even more significant sign of this association’s maturity, and a personal goal finally realized for Carl Thompson, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based association, is an internally created meeting planner designation Certified Government Meeting Professional which will be offered in 2005 through the online government graduate program.
    “We finally have our own,” says Thompson, a founding member of SGMP. “Members love the idea that it acknowledges and recognizes the specialty of what they do, day in and day out.”

The long road to success
From its early days to as recently as 1996, when SGMP changed the “P” in its name from Planners to Professionals to include its supplier members and third-party contractors, the association’s survival from year to year was capricious. Volunteers ran the organization, information was slow to get out and money was tight. To grow and survive, SGMP needed members. But with no official title of meeting planner existing in the government’s job bank, the association had no real conduit for recruiting.
    Instead, SGMP was forced to rely on word of mouth among planners as well as help from loyal supplier members, who pored through hotel records and provided the names of government clients. Those were the days, says Thompson, when photocopies of the association’s flyer were mailed out by the hundreds to prospective members, and cold calling to encourage people to join the group was routine.
    Growth came, but slowly. Over the years, as word of the association spread, interest grew outside the Beltway. With members unable to attend the monthly meetings in the Washington, D.C., area, chapters sprung up around the country and shaped their role to mirror that of the national board. They elected their own boards of directors, held monthly meetings and social events with guest speakers, and some even began publishing their own newsletters. But SGMP soon learned that acquiring members was only half the battle; retaining them proved to be just as difficult.
    “Most government planners pay their own dues and travel to the annual educational conference on their own time and money,” notes Donna Carey, president of SGMP and California statewide travel program administrator for the Sacramento, Calif.-based Department of General Services. In fact, many planners use their vacation time to attend conferences, Carey adds. “And they don’t have the luxury of getting reimbursed. Their bosses don’t even understand what it is they do.” Given such hurdles, it’s not surprising that many who joined SGMP in its formative years elected not to stay.
    Finally, in 2003, the association’s board decided it was time to tackle member attrition, and a Membership Retention Committee was established. The committee took a lesson from SGMP’s grassroots days and made telephone calls to people who had let their memberships lapse. They asked why and what could be done to encourage them to reconsider. To show that the organization valued their participation and understood their financial predicament, SGMP reduced its annual membership fees for two years, cutting planner dues  dramatically from $75 to $25 and reducing third-party contract planners dues by half, to $75. The efforts paid off. “The committee got an 84 percent membership retention rate,” says Carey, who notes that, in 2005, dues will return to their original levels.