February 01, 2003
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio February 2003 Current Issue
February 2003 Independent LifePLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:


BY Martha Cooke

How to hang on to precious repeat business in a down market

With an increasing number of corporations and associations paring their outsourcing budgets, independent planners are feeling the squeeze. Never mind soliciting new clients; many are now faced with the daunting task of selling themselves to long-established customers all over again.

M&C sought advice from two seasoned independents: Robin Dickson, CMP, president of Atlanta-based Orchestrated Events, and Paul Furlo, president and CEO of Morley Companies, based in Saginaw, Mich.

In these lean times, become your own marketing department and public-relations cheerleader. Pitch your skills, and remember: It’s not what you have done, but what you can do that justifies your rate.

Emphasize value instead of costs. Be able to demonstrate the return on investment from previous events to assure worried clients that hiring you is money well spent. For those clients who might be inclined to do it themselves, stress the importance of having a pro on hand to negotiate with hotels and other suppliers, wade through contract verbiage and keep the meeting running smoothly on-site.

Learn a new skill. Brush up on your technical knowledge so you can offer to coordinate phone- or video-based meetings, rather than having to farm out the technical aspects to another contractor. Develop contacts and expertise with these services, and consider learning how to host online meetings. Encourage clients to think of you as one-stop shopping for their networking needs, even if these projects fall outside the realm of traditional meetings.

If a client is adamant about not holding a meeting, suggest a tele- or videoconference instead. Explain how virtual events can help clients avoid falling “out of sight, out of mind.” Note that a successful virtual gathering sends a message of solidarity and visibility, and that in tough times, it is more important than ever to give members the chance to interact and reconnect. Point out that an electronically managed meeting also can serve as a marketing plug for the next face-to-face event.

While coordinating a virtual meeting is a considerably smaller piece of business than a physical event, it keeps you involved with the group and ups the odds that the client will hire you again when finances improve.

If a client is considering bringing the meeting planning function in-house, keep on top of developments as they unfold, and take appropriate action.

If the hesitating client is an association, consider trying to set up a meeting with the board of directors or president, along with your regular contact. If the customer is a corporation, forge ties not only with your primary contact but with his boss as well.

Sometimes those higher up are more receptive to big-picture strategizing, including the use of meetings as a tool to learn, motivate and network. Don’t forget to emphasize your expertise and how keeping you on will help avoid problems later.

Another way to stay on the radar screen is to position yourself as a source of industry information. Some savvy independents call clients when bargain room rates or airfares become available through cancellation or special promotions.

Likewise, make an effort to provide clients with updates about construction at hotels in destinations where they hold meetings. Pick up the phone and advise them when airlift to one of their main meeting cities undergoes a drastic change.

A phone call is always preferable to e-mail, insiders advise. In the current business climate, personal interaction goes a long way.

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