Meetings & Conventions - Plan of Action - September
Plan of Action
How to write the road map that will plot the future course
of your department or independent meetings business
By Sarah J.F. Braley
ithin days of becoming manager of corporate
meetings at the St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M Company, Sherry Richert
was handed one of the greatest challenges of her professional
career -- and it had nothing to do with event planning. Richert was
charged with writing a business plan for her department. That
document would determine the department's budget, define its role
and identify key goals. A 23-year veteran of 3M's meetings
department, Richert had never done anything like this before, and
she wasn't sure where to begin.
It's hardly an unusual dilemma. Many corporate planners are
charged with writing business plans -- an assignment well outside
the realm of their day-to-day work. For those without a
business-school background or an entrepreneurial past, the prospect
can be daunting.
Why would a meeting planner write a business plan? The reasons
vary greatly. In Richert's case, it was to show how her department
fit into the larger scheme of its parentdivision, administration
services. For others, it's to sell a great idea for growing the
department, creating a new conference or event, or perhaps bringing
business that is outsourced in house or offering meeting services
to other divisions. The plan might be the initiative of the meeting
planner, or an executive might come up with the idea and charge the
meetings department with mapping it out. Whatever the purpose, most
business plans have a number of common elements, which are
described in "Basic
Richert was lucky in a sense: Unlike many companies, 3M offered
managers internal seminars on how to write a business plan. Also,
the executive compiling the overall strategic plan for the division
was an expert she could lean on.
Still, it wasn't easy. "I worked on it on and off for a month,
doing a portfolio analysis of our group, a strategic plan, customer
analysis and short- and long-term plans," says Richert, who heads a
14-person department that plans about 450 meetings each year. Much
of her research was conducted in client focus meetings, where she
asked the internal groups at 3M specifically what they needed from
her planning team.
The document, finished in 1998 and updated each year, now sits
in a binder that Richert pulls out whenever an internal client or
executive asks her to justify the worth of her department. "If you
have to start from scratch," she advises, "you had better network
and benchmark. Go to counterparts in other companies, and talk
through the process with people like me who have a plan in
Ready, aim, goal
Determining how the final plan will be used is an important element
of figuring out how to structure it. "Do you know what the
expectations of the company are and how management is going to act
on the plan?" asks Rhonda Abrams, author of The Successful
Business Plan: Secrets and Strategies (Running R Media, Palo
Alto, Calif.; $27.95), which is filled with worksheets, sample
plans and advice on figuring out the financials.
Without the vision and support of management, the rest is nearly
impossible. That was a costly lesson Cindy (not her real name)
learned in the process of compiling an outline for her first
business plan. After several years as meetings manager for a
corporation with several business units, Cindy was promoted to
director of conference development and was promptly asked to come
up with a plan to find new revenue streams.
"What the company didn't do was give me a path to gather
information," she says of the process, which ended in an incomplete
plan and her resignation from the new position. The opportunity to
speak with others in the company was the stumbling block. "My
superiors actually refused to introduce me to key executives,
saying if I was allowed to go to meetings at that level, other
people at my level wouldn't understand," she says.
The outline she came up with concluded that business
opportunities were nonexistent; she handed in the document along
with her resignation. She fully expected to be fired, but instead
quietly slid back into her former job as manager of a six-person
event planning department. "If I had to do it again, I would ask
certain questions up front, like, 'What do you expect will come out
of this research?' At the time, they would have said they planned
to launch a larger conference division. Then I would have asked how
much potential revenue would make them do that."
Peers also can provide valuable insights. "When you've finished
the plan, discuss it privately with a few colleagues you trust and
ask them for their honest feedback," suggests Jane Applegate,
syndicated business columnist and executive producer of www.SBTV.com, an online
network for entrepreneurs. "Let them serve as the devil's advocate,
and really listen to their opinions before you take the plan up the
Consider incorporating peers' suggestions into your
presentation, Applegate advises, if they seem to make sense. When
it comes time to present your findings, your strongest defense will
be your own confidence, and that comes from the homework you have
done. Only when you know your concept inside and out, says
Applegate, will you be able to defend it from all directions. Be
prepared for rejection, and don't take offense at criticism. As the
saying goes, it's not personal; it's business.
Cutting down outsourcing
At the same time, adds Applegate, be prepared for approval. When
higher-ups OK the plan, you have to be ready to manage the
John Hulka of Sears, Roebuck & Co. was ready. A few years
ago, he looked around the Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based company and
realized how many people were planning their own meetings. As group
manager of corporate travel and hospitality services, he believed a
professional meeting planner could save Sears money, so he decided
to put together a proposal showing how adding a meeting planner to
his department would work, including what it would cost and what it
would save the company.
"I talked to numerous outsourcing companies that provided the
services this person would be doing -- conducting site searches,
bidding, submitting requests for proposals, consolidating the bids,
and then negotiating and planning the meeting," says Hulka. "Then I
put together what the costs were to do it in house, including the
salary we would offer this person. [Hiring a meeting planner] came
out to a third of what it cost outside."
Now he has a full-time planner on staff, and he compiles an
annual report showing the volume of business his department handles
and the documented savings to the company. "It's kept in our
files," Hulka says. "If anybody has any questions about what we are
doing, we can produce that data."
Boosting the client list
Oren Jaffe, CMP, wrote a business plan after deciding the
department he was heading at Cygnus Corp., a professional services
organization based in Rockville, Md., needed to expand beyond the
15 to 20 meetings a year it handled for a federal agency. His goal
was to demonstrate that growing his department could bring in more
money for the company.
"I felt it was important to show that I'm serious about trying
to attract new clients and making a name for the company," says the
director of meeting services, who joined the company last
Jaffe started by interviewing his boss (an executive vice
president) and the president of the firm to learn more about the
company's vision and mission in providing consulting services to
both federal government and general clients. Then he sat down with
internal project directors to determine their needs.
His approach was smart. Says author Abrams, "Most people get
caught up in writing the plan, but it's the process that's
important. It gives you an excuse to get feedback on clients' goals
and strategies, and on the role of your department to their
From his internal interviews, Jaffe developed ideas of what
types of meetings would best suit the organization. Then he went to
work on a marketing element, to show how the new business would be
solicited. "I estimated my time spent on meetings and how much
would be left over to work on the marketing plan, adding in the use
of internal staff to create a brochure and a services person to
work on our Web site," he says. "I determined that 10 percent of
each business day would be spent on marketing until I got more
staff, and then I would spend 90 percent of my time on it."
Setting aside all other tasks, developing the business plan took
Jaffe about two weeks. Within two years, he hopes to meet the
plan's goal of adding 18 more meetings and four clients to his
department's responsibilities. "Once I get staff," he says, "I'm
certainly optimistic I'll be able to do that."
Proving It: Secrets to a
Convincing PlanMany small-business
owners speak about their
business plans in hushed tones as if they were as sacred as the
Dead Sea Scrolls. Or, at the mention of the plan, they wince,
remembering college term papers they wrote on the subject but never
managed to implement in their own companies.
It's not surprising so much dread and confusion
surround the compiling of business plans; they are a challenge to
research and write. But rather than avoiding the process, why not
embrace the opportunity to spend some time thinking about why you
are in business and what is going right or wrong?
"It can be a rude awakening," says Ellen J.
Toups, president of her three-year-old meeting planning company,
Outsources, based in Alexandria, Va. "Because you have put it on
paper, you tend to grade yourself by it. I use my plan to keep from
only working my business instead of growing my business."
There is no getting around the fact that you
have to write the road map for your own business. Many
entrepreneurs hire consultants to polish their plans, but they have
to draft something for the consultant to work with in the first
place. The most compelling reason to write a plan is to keep your
business from operating in a vacuum. Successful companies must know
where they stand in their industry in order to maintain their
The following insights are based in part on
personal experience. We recently completed a 25-page business plan
for our global small-business video Web site, www.SBTV.com. Although my husband, Joe,
and I wrote the plan using a software program, we relied on outside
help from Andrea Tobias, a former venture capitalist. Tobias'
experience included reviewing more than 500 plans from other
companies and participating in the appropriation of millions of
dollars in funding, so she was the perfect person to manage the
editing and presentation of our new plan. Here are some of the main
points we learned along the way.
"Keep it as succinct as possible," says Tobias.
"Focus on the content, but cut down on the verbiage." Also
critical: "Really understand your business so you can make it clear
to others who may not know anything about it," she says. "You have
to understand the competition and be able to explain your company's
key advantages." Tobias adds that a good business plan has a
clear-cut, three- to five-year plan, including specific goals.
Make sure your business plan is spell-checked
and well-written. "If I see a plan full of misspellings, it doesn't
give me a lot of confidence as a potential investor," says Tobias.
"Finally, the most important thing to an investor is the management
team. Without good management, your plan is worth very little."
Small-business owners might be surprised to
learn there are two types of business plans: focusing plans and
financing plans. The focusing plan is the one you write when your
business is in its infancy or in need of a change of direction.
Writing the business plan forces you to do all your homework:
researching the market, compiling a detailed review of your
competition and getting answers concerning the types of jobs you
will need to fill and how much money you will need to get started.
A focusing plan also helps to revive and clarify the direction of
an existing business, no matter how small it may be.
The second type of plan, the financing-oriented
business plan, is designed for outside investors. It must feature
all the basic sections on the market, the structure of your
business and its direction, but it should also include
comprehensive spreadsheets (the business' current financial
health), details on the use of funding (how you will spend the
money you raise), projected profits and losses, etc. It should
emphasize the strength of your management team, because venture
capitalists and "angels" tend to invest in people, not
Before you sit down to write either type of
business plan, here are some important questions to answer.
Once you answer
- What is the core product or service?
- What sets this product or service apart from the competition?
Describe what your expertise brings to the table.
- . How big is the market for the product or service? Are you
looking for corporate or association clients? Do you want to
specialize in a particular niche? If associations are your target,
how many are based in your area?
- Is your market growing or shrinking? For instance, if you are
working with corporations, are they moving into your area? If they
are leaving, maybe you need to rethink the target area for your
- What are competitors doing to capture market share? Networking
is key here: Talk with potential clients to see how they have been
approached, and ask suppliers and other independent planners how
they get the word out.
- How can you reach more clients? Explore the marketing
strategies of other independents and get help from places like the
small-business area at American Express’ Web site (www.americanexpress.com).
- What are your personal strengths and weaknesses as a business
owner? Are you a better planner than manager? A better manager than
- What kind of people should you hire to help you achieve your
goals? Research articles on hiring staff in such libraries as the
Small Business Administration's (www.sbaonline.sba.gov), then
determine what skills your employees will need, how many people you
will need to complete the work you anticipate and how much they
should be paid.
- How much money do you need to keep the business going before
you see any profits? Again, research is key. Factor in the number
of meetings you expect to do and how much you expect to be paid for
them, balanced by your overhead costs and salaries to yourself and
- What are your plans for expansion and growth? Are you just at
the beginning stage, or are you a few years into the business and
eyeing opportunities? Again, the Small Business Administration's Web site can
help -- it has a section on expanding a business.
- What are your sources of capital? Personal savings? Company
profits? Bank loan? Credit line?
- Is there money for emergencies?
these questions in detail, you are
ready to start writing your plan. You'll need to get away from the
phones and take a full day off from your normal duties to get a
draft completed. Don't worry about the style, just get something
down on paper -- or better yet, on the computer.
Expect to make changes. Consider your business
plan "an ever-changing work in progress," says Outsources' Toups,
who arranges 10 to 12 meetings a year for several nonprofit
organizations. "It was about a year before we focused on where we
wanted to go, so we had to tweak our plan."
Jane Applegate is a syndicated
columnist based in Pelham, N.Y., author of 201 Great Ideas for Your
Small Business and executive producer of www.SBTV.com, an online network for
entrepreneurs.BASIC BLUEPRINTAlthough business
will vary greatly, most should include these key
Executive summary: A three- to four-page
overview of your business or department and your primary goals and
Market overview: An informed look at the market
you serve, including a sense of whether it is growing or
Competition: A summary of what your closest
competitors are doing -- and how you can do a better job
Management team: Who you expect to hire to help
you run the company or department, and/or who is helming it now
Financial projections: Where your money is
coming from, plus future revenue projections. Independents will
need detailed spreadsheets, which should be done by an
Board of advisers: A list of people you will
rely on for advice and inspiration. Your advisers should also be
involved in reviewing and revising your plan.
Table of contents: This organizes the plan.
Also include an appendix featuring your résumé, brochures, news
clippings and other relevant materials.
Good connections. If bankers or investors need
to see the plan once it is completed, give it to a trusted adviser
to pass along to appropriate investors or partners. You should
never send a business plan out on an unsolicited basis. A plan sent
over the transom will most likely be tossed out or read by a very
low-level staff person. You want your plan to be welcomed by the
appropriate person, not to sit in a pile on the floor.
guidance on crafting a business plan.
Business Plan Pro by Eugene, Ore.-based Palo Alto
Software, $89.95 (www.paloaltosoftware.com)
The Successful Business Plan: Secrets and
Strategies, by Rhonda Abrams (Running R Media, Palo Alto,
The Complete Book of Business Plans: Simple
Steps to Writing a Powerful Business Plan, by Joseph
Covello (Sourcebooks Trade, Naperville, Ill.; $19.95)
Business Plans for Dummies, by Paul
Tiffany and Steven Peterson (IDG Books Worldwide, Foster City,
American Express (www.americanexpress.com) has
advice for small-business owners, including help with business-plan
CCH Business Owner's Toolkit (www.toolkit.cch.com) offers
helpful sample plans that can be downloaded.
SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives; www.score.org) is a
volunteer-based, free consulting program run by the Small Business
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