Just about everyone in the meetings industry is feeling the effects of the global recession. Many were willing to share their tales with M&C, as well as their strategies for handling hard times, from stepped-up networking and cold-calling to local charity work.
Following are first-person accounts of planners in the trenches. Their individual experiences vary, but all share a can-do attitude and a commitment to being on top of their game when the economy recovers.
Association/conference manager, KCA – Public Relations, Meeting Planning & Association Management
We do public relations and special events for meetings and associations. My main job is to serve the executive director of one of our clients, Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association International. We plan two conferences annually for them, one in North America and one internationally.
This year's event was booked for September in Orlando, but now we're contemplating moving it to spring 2010, or possibly negotiating a cancellation.
Back in December, we made a decision to stand firm and make an investment in the conferences, even if we suffered a loss, because we want to provide value to our members. Our next move is to poll our entire membership. We'll try to determine the perceived attendance in spring 2010 and ask them what other things we can do to provide value, such as regional events and webcasts. Our main objective is to determine what our members want, and the cost of that.
In the end, we believe there is nothing like face-to-face meetings. Their networking value cannot be replaced. People pay for that, in addition to education. We're hoping to reschedule, which will mean we're still compensated for our work. We may need to make money off of other activities, but we've just barely scratched the surface with that. We have to research the options, figure out how much staff is needed and determine cost.
So far, there have been no layoffs. That and salary cuts are the last things we want to do -- once we have business again, we'd have to start over with a new team. We're saying, "Let's see how long we can hold tight."
President and executive producer, MPA Events/Manhattan Performing Arts Co.
New York City
When I started MPA Events back in 1983, it was more of an entertainment company, but as things evolved we became more of a full-service event company. Our clientele has become much more corporate. I've worked with Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, HSBC, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank.
Even going into the 2008 holiday season, things were not bad. But this year I see a big difference -- people and companies are really scaling back. And that affects everyone who works with me, because this is a freelance business.
I'm trying to be positive. Even though we are a small, boutique office, it feels good to have a team, to feel like we're all in this together. I'm realizing I have to do a lot more hustling and cold-calling, rather than relying on past contacts. I'm also trying to be inventive with what I offer, and to adjust my pricing.
I've also been thinking a lot about who is still doing events. Is it, for example, alumni groups? The insurance industry? Robust companies like Walmart? We have to expand, but it's difficult. For a couple of years I felt like, "Oh, this is great, I have my clients and it's set" -- but then this happens. Now I really have to reinvent.
Owner, Perfect Planning
I've been in the industry for 10 years. When I moved to Florida four years ago, I started Perfect Planning. About 85 percent of my business is corporate; I put together incentives, golf meetings and vendor appreciation events. But we also do weddings and private parties, too.
I've been able to minimize costs because it's always been just me at the company. I handle all the logistics. Working from home cuts back on costs, too. I have an entirely freelance staff, which I use on location, but I would love to have a larger staff and an office in the next year or two.
I am a two-time cancer survivor, so there have been many personal challenges for me this year. The last event on my books was in November, but I've been able to stay afloat due to money saved from my previous career in automatic data processing. Plus, I still do freelance work for three other companies.
In the meantime, I've been taking this time to open new doors and put myself out there. I'm a part of some networking groups, including Business Networking International and our chamber of commerce in Jacksonville. I attend county meetings and social events. I'm looking into joining Women Business Owners.
Here's a trick I use to make connections: At hotel events, I look at the board to see what groups are there and if they use a third party. If you don't ask, you won't know. You have to get out there.
LESLEY KYLE, CMP
Senior event manager, Society of Plastics Engineers
I am responsible for event management and education for all of my association's meetings, which could draw anywhere from 15 to 3,500 people. For some of our events, attendance has waned. I plan 75 seminars a year for 10 to 25 people, and recently I've had to reschedule five of them for June, when we hope the economy will pick up. I've also lost one person from my department.
We're facing a similar problem with our membership. To help fix that, we've been spending a lot of time marketing through social media, such as Facebook and LinkedIn. We've set up a group on Facebook for our annual event. Staff members go in and populate the site with updates. It's growing exponentially and is very exciting to watch. We gain a couple hundred new members every month. It's a great way to spread the word about us -- at no cost. Pretty soon we'll be working with Twitter as well.
One way we've been able to make some money is through on-site training programs. Rather than having staff travel for a conference, some firms are opting to hire instructors to conduct training on-site. This is a real paradigm shift we have noticed. We've received a handful of requests a month, and now we're getting many more.
It's tough to find balance in this job, but our business is cyclical; there will be an end to this downturn. I've tried to keep a social life going -- and a sense of humor.
Also, it's very important for planners to keep up their skills, especially if they can't travel. Stay active with free webinars on topics like F&B and attrition. They're all over the web.