When times are tight, executives who don't understand what it takes to arrange an effective meeting might well look to the planning department as a place to cut costs -- and personnel. Now is the time to strategize how to maximize your value to your company. In fact, 75 percent of planners polled in a recent M&C survey said they report their worth to higher-ups (see "Meetings on the Line").
In March alone, the number of jobless Americans increased by 694,000 to 13.2 million, and the unemployment rate rose to 8.5 percent. In our industry, it's unclear if the worst is over. Dawn Penfold, president of Meetingjobs.com, has seen hiring by third-party companies pick up since February, but competition for open positions is fierce: "I've been working on a position that pays $55,000-$65,000," she says. "I have about 600 resumes to go through."
As instructive examples, following are the stories of four planners whose creative approaches to their careers have so far built for them a bulwark against the dreaded pink slip. (Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, three of them, at high-profile firms, asked not to be identified; their disguised names bear an asterisk.)
Kathleen Zwart's work life at BlueCross BlueShield of Florida is a blueprint of flexibility. Now meetings and events manager for the insurance giant, Zwart, a certified meeting professional, joined BCBS 10 years ago, planning smaller management events. But in the intervening years, many of those meetings were either eliminated, drastically cut back or brought on-site.
"A lot of my expertise was not being used," says Zwart, who works in BCBS's Jacksonville, Fla., headquarters. "Knowing I needed to ensure my worth to the company, I realized I had to look for other areas of responsibility."
So she found a weak spot: Most of the meetings being held throughout the state were being planned by administrative assistants. "I recognized that none of them had been trained on negotiating or understanding the importance of the room setup or the types of A/V equipment or dealing with the staff at a venue. With the blessing of the right people, I set up classes and marketed them internally to our employees."
Eventually, Zwart began to consolidate all of the organization's events through her department of one. "About two years ago, I really kicked it into high gear to bring on board a policy change that would require our meetings to be more centralized," Zwart says.
Zwart wrote the new meetings policy and at the same time rewrote her own job description. Last September, she officially took on her new role, moving from human resources into the corporate services group. This coincided with the opening of a 14,000-square-foot conference center on the company's Jacksonville campus -- opening up even more opportunity for savings.
"We instituted a communications program to let the employees know that all meetings have to be booked in a BCBS facility," says Zwart. Some events, mostly customer-oriented, still are held off-site, but anyone who wants to reserve space at an outside venue has to get a form approved by three vice presidents.
Zwart now is gathering statistics to show how much money the recent changes are saving. "My goal is to present some type of ROI on this," she says, "so my executives can say, 'Oh, yes, we need to keep her.' " She adds, "I think I have created a position that's vital to the company. Every day my badge is swiped and the gate opens is a good day."
• Explore ways to be more valuable to your organization.
• Evaluate how meetings are being planned to determine if this is the right time to centralize or outsource.
• Rewrite your job description to include new responsibilities.
Jump on the opportunity
Patricia* is a glass-half-full person. As a senior planner for a top energy company, she has used the downturn as the perfect time to shore up plans to centralize the company's meetings and institute a strategic meetings management policy. "I've actually gotten more support from leadership lately," she says.
What catapulted the push to centralize? Patricia and her planner colleagues noticed that company programs were being canceled, contrary to contractual terms, and calls for help were coming in from the far reaches of the firm as properties tried to get the company to uphold its agreements. "We went to leadership to show that people were signing contracts they shouldn't have signed," says Patricia. "We argued that in tough times, administrative assistants should call us more often. We've been able to replace some of those cancellations with new business."
Before the economy crashed, Patricia was having a tough time getting support for the strategic plan -- but that was then. "This has helped us get a seat at the table," she says of the downturn's effect. "We're going to formalize the plan by this summer, and my division already has set out a mandate that all external meetings must go through our planner. But we're a large, worldwide company, so to get a mandate like that U.S.-wide, let alone globally, takes time."
Meanwhile, Patricia feels as secure in her job as ever. "I work for a large company, and we still do a lot of events," she says. "And we have not released any planners. Last year, I would say we were overworked; now we're just busy."
Patricia's advice to her peers: "Everything that you do that saves the company risk, dollars and reputation should be compiled on a weekly or monthly basis and sent back to your boss. I consider that among the top things I do here."
• Use the downturn to define why your skills are more necessary than ever.
• Compile statistics on ways you save the company risk and dollars, and how you preserve its reputation.
Do you know what challenges your company is facing? If not, find out, suggests Debi Scholar, CMP, CMM, CTE, an advisory director for New York City's PricewaterhouseCoopers. "Almost all companies are trying to find ways to reduce travel, meetings and events," says Scholar, who focuses her consulting services on managing travel, meetings and entertainment expenses.
"If we know that's the foundation of what the organization is facing, it behooves a planner to give suggestions on ways to reduce the length of meetings or other ways to reduce costs. It's so important to know what's going on in your industry and at your company, to help you have those conversations with executives."
And don't be surprised if your company decides to outsource some meetings services. "Many companies today are streamlining their operations to include only services that fall in their industry," Scholar says.
She adds that planners should be proactive and flexible: "Ask questions or propose solutions." Scholar suggests, for example, saying, "During this time of reduced meetings, I propose that we work on strengthening our contract templates, adding virtual meetings to our scope of services, tightening our T&E policies and streamlining our processes so that when meetings increase, we'll be able to save even more money."