September 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions - Plan of Action - September 2000

Current Issue
September 2000
Sherry Richert

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

  Within 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 Blueprint".

Plowing ahead
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 place."

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, 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 line."

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 implementation.

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 November.

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 meetings."

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 Plan
Jane ApplegateMany 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 lead.

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, 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 companies.

Before you sit down to write either type of business plan, here are some important questions to answer.

  1. What is the core product or service?
  2. What sets this product or service apart from the competition? Describe what your expertise brings to the table.
  3. . 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?
  4. 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 services.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 (
  7. What are your personal strengths and weaknesses as a business owner? Are you a better planner than manager? A better manager than planner?
  8. 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 (, 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.
  9. 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 your employees.
  10. 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.
  11. What are your sources of capital? Personal savings? Company profits? Bank loan? Credit line?
  12. Is there money for emergencies?
Once you answer 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, an online network for entrepreneurs.

Although business plans will vary greatly, most should include these key elements.

Executive summary: A three- to four-page overview of your business or department and your primary goals and objectives

Market overview: An informed look at the market you serve, including a sense of whether it is growing or shrinking

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 accountant.

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.


The following offer guidance on crafting a business plan.

Business Plan Pro by Eugene, Ore.-based Palo Alto Software, $89.95 (

The Successful Business Plan: Secrets and Strategies, by Rhonda Abrams (Running R Media, Palo Alto, Calif.; $27.95)

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, Calif.; $19.99).

American Express ( has advice for small-business owners, including help with business-plan writing.

CCH Business Owner's Toolkit ( offers helpful sample plans that can be downloaded.

SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives; is a volunteer-based, free consulting program run by the Small Business Administration.


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