May 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Do the Right Thing May 1999 Current Issue
May 1999

Where Have All the Planners Gone?

By Sarah J.F. Braley

Wanted: Meeting planner with three to five years’ experience and strong negotiation and on-site management skills. Candidate must be detail-oriented, have excellent communication and interpersonal skills, be a team player and be flexible. Candidate must be computer literate. Travel required (including many weekends).”

Employees fitting the above description are becoming scarce, now that anyone in the United States who wants a job probably can get one. Last year’s unemployment rate averaged 4.5 percent, dropping to 4.3 percent in December 1998 and January 1999, according to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. And Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan predicts the unemployment rate will remain steady through year’s end.

Still, for meeting planners across the country seeking qualified staff from a dwindling labor pool, employment experts offer a number of ways to find the right person for the position. There are steps that can be taken, they say, although the effort may be arduous.

For companies in isolated locations, small populations and low unemployment combine to create particularly thorny staffing problems. “We make hiring decisions based on whether, when we put a mirror under their noses, there is fog on the mirror,” jokes Kathy Smith, CMP, meeting operations manager for the American Association of Electrodiagnostic Medicine in Rochester, Minn., where the unemployment rate was 1.8 percent in January.

Some predictions about the next 10 years in the business world paint a bleak picture, in which marginal workforce growth fails to mitigate the impact of baby boomers retiring en masse. “The labor force grew 1.1 percent from 1997 to 1998, and that’s the rate we project for each year until 2006,” says Howard N. Fullerton Jr., a demographic statistician with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “After that, with the slower population growth, the increase in the labor force will slow down.”

Hiring trends at many U.S. companies are not helping the situation. Because the economy is so healthy, many corporations have plans to fatten, not trim, their staffs. According to the Employment Outlook Survey for April to June 1999, conducted by Milwaukee-based Manpower Inc., one of the world’s largest staffing-services firms, 29 percent of the 16,000 U.S. companies queried plan staff increases, while only 6 percent expect to announce layoffs.

Planners who recently have tried to fill an empty seat in their departments, like Carol Muldoon of KPMG in Montvale, N.J., have felt the squeeze already. In March, Muldoon finally welcomed a new meeting planner to her office after interviewing more than 25 candidates since the search began last November.

“It was a struggle to find the right person,” says the director of meeting services for the professional services firm. “Our group does 1,600 meetings a year between 11 planners, so to be short one person is a real nightmare.”

It has not taken four months yet for Michelle Moore of Kaiser Permanente’s Northern California events unit in Oakland to find an events coordinator, but the process is taking longer than she would like. “Coming from a human resources background, I’m mortified at how long this is taking,” says Moore of the two months she has spent thus far searching for the person who will be her peer.

The lack of skilled planners in the industry today stems in part from the rampant downsizing so prevalent in the early ’90s. Meeting planning, in those recessionary times, was not a profession whose future looked bright, and many young adults chose to pursue other careers. The result is a dearth of people with five to seven years’ experience under their belts, says industry employment specialist Dawn Penfold, CMP, president of the Meeting Candidate Network Inc., a New York City-based national search firm.

Where to find them
So how can a meeting manager find a qualified employee in these difficult times? The most important step planners must take in the hiring process is to define the job clearly, identifying its duties as well as the characteristics, skills and knowledge of the person who will fit that position. “Many people don’t do this one well,” says Wayne Outlaw, employee recruitment and retention consultant and author of Smart Staffing (Upstart Publishing Co., Chicago, $19.95). “They run an ad and start looking at candidates without stopping and deciding what they need.”

The next step in the hiring process is to get the word out in the appropriate places. Meeting managers should be sure their department is represented at chapter meetings of industry associations, where a chance conversation over a cocktail may lead to a promising interview. Basically, determine where potential candidates are hanging out, and send someone there to investigate the prospects.

Another trick, according to Joan Brannick, Ph.D., president of Tampa, Fla.-based Brannick Human Resource Connections, is to use the best and brightest among your staff as recruiters. “Your current star performers are probably your best place to go for referrals,” she says. Brannick also suggests setting up a bonus program tied to recruiting, where current employees are rewarded if their referral is hired; as an added incentive, she recommends rewarding the employee again a year later if the new hire is still on the company’s payroll.

The Internet is the happening spot to list job openings, at such sites as (, where hiring officials pay a minimum of $600 a month to post up to 20 positions; (, which charges $225 to post a single ad for 60 days; CareerMosaic (, where each listing costs $160; and America’s Job Bank (, which is free for both employers and job seekers.

But planners probably will have more success at meetings industry-focused sites. Kaiser Permanente’s Moore placed a listing on the free Internet job board of the Northern California Chapter of Meeting Professionals International ( “I felt we would get very qualified candidates that way and we wouldn’t get résumés from people who ‘thought’ they were planners,” she says. “The newspaper is not planners’ first resource for finding jobs.”

Job openings in the meetings industry also can be placed on MPI’s main site ( at a cost of $50 for members and $100 for nonmembers; the Professional Convention Management Association site (, free to members, $75 for nonmembers; the American Society of Association Executives’ site (, $200 for members, $250 for nonmembers; and the Meetings Industry Mall (, $75.

Matchmaker, matchmaker
Because sifting through résumés and weeding through the first set of candidates can be so time-consuming, many managers turn to recruiters to do the initial dirty work. This adds another step in the process, however, so it is especially important to communicate the job’s key requirements and to characterize in detail the ideal candidate. Be sure to give recruiters feedback on every applicant they propose; it will enable them to narrow the search.

“You should make sure the recruiters know your needs and that they treat candidates the way you would treat them,” says human resources expert Brannick. “You want them to ensure that every applicant has a positive experience during the process, no matter whether they were right for the job at that time.”

Generally speaking, recruiters fall into two categories: retained recruiters, who are hired exclusively to find high-end executives ($75,000 salaries and up) and are paid a fee during the process, and contingency recruiters, who work with many clients on jobs of all levels and are paid only when a match is made. Recruiters are not too hard to track down. Asking fellow planners about companies they have used in the past can turn up some reputable names. (For a list of placement firms working solely with meetings-industry candidates, see “Planner’s Helpers,” below.)

Yes, compromise
As the pool of potential employees continues to shrink, managers may have to adjust their requirements a bit if the perfect candidate fails to appear in a timely fashion. “Our industry has become so niche-oriented, and that’s how people are hiring,” observes Penfold of the Meeting Candidate Network. “A financial company will ask me specifically for a road-show planner, and I ask if they will take a strong traditional planner. They will say, ‘No, I want someone who has planned road shows.’” And they will wait and wait to fill the position.

Sheryl Sookman, CMP, another placement specialist, has noticed the same trend. Companies contacting The Meeting Connection, her search firm in Novato, Calif., already have spent several months searching for the right candidate and still are not satisfied with the résumés they are seeing. “We have one person who has been looking for someone since October, and she is willing to work the extra hours to make up the gap of not having that position filled,” says Sookman.

Many hiring managers are so discriminating because they are too busy to take on untried talent. “We have 80 events on the calendar, and I do not have time to train someone,” Kaiser Permanente’s Moore says. “The new person needs to hit the ground running.” In the next few years, though, meeting managers will need to invest time in training in order to have a competent staff, experts contend.

Another argument in favor of compromise: employers risk losing an otherwise good candidate while waiting for Mr. or Ms. Perfect to show up. Penfold points out the luxury of waiting is slipping away. “By the time the hiring manager makes a decision, the original candidate is already gone,” she says.

Anne-Marie Taylor of Dr Pepper/Seven-Up has experienced this phenomenon. “Sometimes I’ll get 15 résumés that look splendid, but when it comes time to hire them, they have new jobs already, and I have no new résumés,” says the Plano, Texas-based corporate meetings manager. Taylor recently did what many directors will find themselves doing in the next few years: She hired someone from outside the meetings world, a woman who had been in the health industry. “She was very multitask-oriented,” explains Taylor. “She had a skill set I knew I could develop.”

For some planners, compromise will mean employing someone from the supplier side, specifically hotel staffers who have a number of transferable skills. Five months ago, Candi Walker, CMP, hired a conferences and meetings assistant for the Credit Union Executives Society in Madison, Wis., where the unemployment rate is about 3.5 percent. “We wanted someone who was familiar with the industry, so we hired someone from a hotel,” says Walker, who is the society’s conferences manager. She is one of several planners who say they receive plenty of résumés from hotel people looking to cross over. “We got about 50 applications; I’d say the majority of them had a hotel background in sales, convention services or the front office,” she says.

Penfold views those with hotel experience as strong candidates: “They have the people skills, the meeting skills and the computer skills. They have knowledge of contract negotiations. Hiring officials are losing a lot by not taking suppliers.”

When “young and energetic” are requirements for the job, a college campus may be the place to find the perfect employee. Many universities have programs on meetings management. Their department heads or campus recruiting offices are other places to look for the CMPs of the future. Institutions with meetings programs include Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.; George Washington University in Washington, D.C.; New York University in New York City; Roosevelt University in Chicago; the University of Houston; the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; California State University in Long Beach; and the University of California, San Diego.

The Third Degree
When interviewing a potential job candidate, ask questions that get beyond the candidate’s résumé, ones that will give you insight into her personality and her work and life ethics. The following examples are adapted from Smart Staffing by Wayne Outlaw (Upstart Publishing Co., Chicago, $19.95).
  • How would you describe your performance at your last position?
  • What do you like most about your current or previous job?
  • What do you like least about your current or previous job?
  • Describe a typical day at work.
  • How did you gain your knowledge of the meetings industry?
  • What kind of attendee contact have you had?
  • How do you handle attendee complaints?
  • What are you looking for in your next job?
  • What do you look for in a company that you would like to work for?
  • Why should I hire you?
  • What training or qualifications do you have for this job?
  • What do you think will be the most challenging aspect of this job? How will you handle this challenge?
  • Why do you want to change jobs?
  • How will this job be different from others you have held? How will it be similar?
  • What have you been praised for in the past two years?
  • What have you been criticized for in the past two years?
  • How does a supervisor get the best out of you?
  • Give me an example of how you handled a work crisis.
  • What would you do if management made a decision you did not like?
  • How do you handle conflict with co-workers?
  • How do you set goals/manage your time?
  • Describe a situation in which you performed at an exceptionally high level.
  • How would a friend describe you?
  • How do you establish working relationships with new people?
  • Describe success.
  • Describe a successful career.
  • Whom do you admire and why?
  • How long will it take you to make a contribution here?


  • He’s Good. Will He FIT In?

    Before offering the job to the first warm-blooded biped that fulfills the requirements, hiring managers should evaluate carefully whether the candidate will thrive in the company’s work atmosphere.

    At the Oakland-based California Cable Television Association, where a new director of events just started and an opening for an events coordinator has yet to be filled, the department’s attitude is flexible and balanced. New hires have to be able to perform in a laid-back, drama-free environment.

    “We very much value balanced lives and the importance of family,” says the association’s vice president of industry affairs, C.J. Hirschfield, whose department pioneered a job-share position in the organization. Hirschfield discourages a “workaholic” lifestyle. “Some people ‘get’ the value of this sort of workplace; some don’t,” she says.

    “People don’t connect with jobs; they connect with cultures,” according to Joan Brannick, Ph.D., president of Brannick Human Resource Connections in Tampa, Fla., and co-author with Jim Harris, Ph.D., of Finding & Keeping Great Employees (Amacom, New York City, $24.95). “Those companies with great employees have one core culture, and everyone supports that purpose,” says Brannick.

    In their book, the two human-resources consultants identify four core cultures: “customer service,” where the competitive edge is fueled by a close relationship with the customer; “innovation,” where ideas and creativity are cultivated; “operational excellence,” where the company is focused on efficiency and high performance while minimizing costs; and “spirit,” defined by a community- oriented, employee-driven workplace.

    Customer-service skills top Michelle Moore’s wish list for the person who joins her as an event coordinator at Kaiser Permanente’s Northern California events unit in Oakland. “I’m looking for someone who can be very diplomatic,” she says. “My department falls under the sales and marketing umbrella, so we deal with both internal and external customers. Making people happy is a big part of our business.”

    Matching new employees to the work environment can ensure their smooth transition onto the team. Says Harris, Brannick’s writing partner, “When you align your recruiting devices to your core culture, you’ve created a secret glue for your staff.”


    Planner’s HELPERS

    The following are three recruiting companies that specialize in finding and placing meeting planners.

  • The largest is the Meeting Candidate Network Inc., a national search firm based in New York City (Dawn Penfold, 212-689-7686;, with 6,000 people in its database. Managers can work with the network in four ways: For $75, an ad goes on the Network’s Web page. For $750, the Network sends out a targeted mailing to up to 200 people in the database who meet the criteria for the position; candidates respond to the hiring official. For $2,500, a similar mailing is sent out, but all responses come to the Network for further qualification; this method is used for confidential searches, when the hiring official does not want the name of the company known or is replacing someone currently on staff. For a contingency fee, usually 20 to 30 percent of the first year’s salary, the Network handholds the client and the candidate through the entire search, interview and hiring process; clients pay only if a Network person is hired.
  • The Meeting Connection, a national placement firm based in Novato, Calif. (Sheryl Sookman, 415-892-1394;, has a database of about 250 people. For 14 to 30 percent of the first year’s salary, the company provides clients with a maximum of four candidates. The Meeting Connection calls the candidates first to see if they are interested in the position and to get their approval to forward their résumés to the client. The Meeting Connection is involved right up to the time an offer is tendered and is paid only if a match is made.
  • ESP* Meeting Minders (*Event Specialist Placement), based in San Mateo, Calif. (Ellen Sandler, 650-349-8806;, is a placement service for temporary and full-time staff that serves the Bay Area exclusively, with a database of about 150 candidates. In choosing four to six candidates for a client, the database is searched by skill set, experience in the field, geographical preference and salary, and Sandler makes some judgment calls on whether a candidate and a client will go together. The service costs a flat fee of 15 percent of the first-year’s salary when an employee is placed.
  • S.B.

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