June 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Do the Right Thing May 1999 Current Issue
May 1999
"I didn't get my room gift"

Where Have All the Planners Gone?

Desperately seeking someone: Few good résumés cross the desk of Kathy Smith, an association planner in Rochester, Minn., where the unemployment rate is 1.8 percent.

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 HotJobs.com (www.hotjobs.com), where hiring officials pay a minimum of $600 a month to post up to 20 positions; Monster.com (www.monster.com), which charges $225 to post a single ad for 60 days; CareerMosaic (www.careermosaic.com), where each listing costs $160; and America’s Job Bank (www.ajb.dni.us), 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 (www. nccmpi.org). “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 (www.mpiweb.org) at a cost of $50 for members and $100 for nonmembers; the Professional Convention Management Association site (www.pcma.org), free to members, $75 for nonmembers; the American Society of Association Executives’ site (www.asaenet.org), $200 for members, $250 for nonmembers; and the Meetings Industry Mall (www.mim.com), $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 rules for keeping cool

It is not always easy to maintain grace under pressure. Hilka Klinkenberg, a New York City-based business-etiquette expert, and Cindy Novotny, a Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.-based customer-service expert, offer the following tips to help planners keep their cool when they are in the hot seat.

1) The first time: Even if you’ve heard the same complaint from 50 attendees, treat the problem as if it is the first time you ever have encountered it.

2) Listen: Always let the attendee voice the complaint without interruption. In many cases, he or she knows full well that the planner cannot do anything about the problem; the attendee just needs to vent.

3) Do not pass the buck: Never put the blame on anyone else, even when you know the hotel or DMC screwed up. Deal with the guilty party later.

4) Do not snap: Resist the temptation to snap back an answer at an attendee who has just bitten your head off. Take a deep breath before you speak.

5) Avoid pat answers: Because every situation and attendee is different, there is no such thing as the perfect answer. Ask the complainer a question like “What can I do to take care of you right now?” This will defuse anger and let the attendee know you genuinely are concerned.

6) Follow up: Write down any complaint given to you. Then leave a voice mail explaining (if you can) how it will be solved. If it does get solved, make sure the solution was to the attendee’s liking.

7) Pacify: If there is nothing you can do about the situation, ask if there is anything else you can do to make amends. Be sure complainers know you did everything within your power to make them happy.


Gimme shelter
When you’re working a conference, and irate attendees are circling like sharks in a chum slick, how do you find a safe harbor in which to collect yourself?

According to Seattle-based clinical psychologist Keith Sonnanburg, Ph.D., preparation prior to the conference is as crucial as taking a breather while you are on site. “One of the most important things to do is look for solutions, not to place blame,” he says. “If people are complaining, ask them what would make them feel better.”

Here’s the doctor’s advice on what to do to prevent and control the stress that comes with being the convention’s sounding board.

With Your Head

  • Know what is within your control and what is not. All you really can control are your interpretations, evaluations, communication and behavior. This leaves out things like vendors, catering and weather.
  • Plan ahead. Preparation and prevention are much better than a cure. Focus on fallback plans rather than catastrophes.
  • Maintain a caring attitude toward attendees and yourself. If others are unreasonable, forgive them, and move on to promote your own comfort and peace.

    With Your Body

  • Slow down. Seek refuge from the onslaught whenever possible. Find a quiet place with a pleasant atmosphere to sit. Breathe slowly and evenly.
  • Cleanse yourself. Try to avoid caffeine, alcohol or other unnatural calming or energizing agents. Once you get your body on a roller coaster, there’s no settling down.
  • Stretch and move without rushing. Tense muscles and a stiff posture will take a toll and drain your energy.

    With Others

  • Savor appreciation from others and from within. Offer and receive support without revealing how crazy things are.
  • Find humor in the impossible. Do it without sarcasm or ridicule.
  • Trust. Know that others are working toward the same goal and that you are not alone.
  • A.D.T.

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