Government Issues

Spotlight on SGMP



SGMP executive director
Carl Thompson

In 1981, a coterie of 32 meeting planners, lacking a professional organization devoted to their specialty and eager to find common ground, decided to start their own group. Today, as it approaches the quarter-century mark, the Society of Government Meeting Professionals has grown to 3,500 members, with chapters in 26 states, and is a model for offering members ways to enhance their jobs and careers.
    Today, SGMP has a professionally staffed office of seven headed by an executive director. Its annual educational conference, which offers more than 33 sessions, draws thousands of attendees, and its trade shows are sold out months in advance to suppliers eager to get members’ attention.
    Perhaps an even more significant sign of this association’s maturity, and a personal goal finally realized for Carl Thompson, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based association, is an internally created meeting planner designation Certified Government Meeting Professional which will be offered in 2005 through the online government graduate program.
    “We finally have our own,” says Thompson, a founding member of SGMP. “Members love the idea that it acknowledges and recognizes the specialty of what they do, day in and day out.”

The long road to success
From its early days to as recently as 1996, when SGMP changed the “P” in its name from Planners to Professionals to include its supplier members and third-party contractors, the association’s survival from year to year was capricious. Volunteers ran the organization, information was slow to get out and money was tight. To grow and survive, SGMP needed members. But with no official title of meeting planner existing in the government’s job bank, the association had no real conduit for recruiting.
    Instead, SGMP was forced to rely on word of mouth among planners as well as help from loyal supplier members, who pored through hotel records and provided the names of government clients. Those were the days, says Thompson, when photocopies of the association’s flyer were mailed out by the hundreds to prospective members, and cold calling to encourage people to join the group was routine.
    Growth came, but slowly. Over the years, as word of the association spread, interest grew outside the Beltway. With members unable to attend the monthly meetings in the Washington, D.C., area, chapters sprung up around the country and shaped their role to mirror that of the national board. They elected their own boards of directors, held monthly meetings and social events with guest speakers, and some even began publishing their own newsletters. But SGMP soon learned that acquiring members was only half the battle; retaining them proved to be just as difficult.
    “Most government planners pay their own dues and travel to the annual educational conference on their own time and money,” notes Donna Carey, president of SGMP and California statewide travel program administrator for the Sacramento, Calif.-based Department of General Services. In fact, many planners use their vacation time to attend conferences, Carey adds. “And they don’t have the luxury of getting reimbursed. Their bosses don’t even understand what it is they do.” Given such hurdles, it’s not surprising that many who joined SGMP in its formative years elected not to stay.
    Finally, in 2003, the association’s board decided it was time to tackle member attrition, and a Membership Retention Committee was established. The committee took a lesson from SGMP’s grassroots days and made telephone calls to people who had let their memberships lapse. They asked why and what could be done to encourage them to reconsider. To show that the organization valued their participation and understood their financial predicament, SGMP reduced its annual membership fees for two years, cutting planner dues  dramatically from $75 to $25 and reducing third-party contract planners dues by half, to $75. The efforts paid off. “The committee got an 84 percent membership retention rate,” says Carey, who notes that, in 2005, dues will return to their original levels.

May 18-22, 2005
Sheraton Grand Hotel, Sacramento, Calif.

May 24-28, 2006
Hyatt Denver Convention Center Hotel

May 2-5, 2007
Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel

Contact: SGMP, (703) 549-0892;

How an association helps
The typical government planner is a lot like Melody Kebe, CMP, whose title chief, acquisition and business management, for the Falls Church, Va.-based Defense Information Systems Agency gives no inkling of her meeting planning responsibilities. She learned about SGMP in 1992 through a supplier and attended her first conference in Phoenix later that year.
    “My first conference was amazing,” says Kebe. “I met so many people and learned so much.”
    Kebe was inspired to become a volunteer for the association, starting out by taking the minutes at the Washington, D.C.’s national chapter monthly meetings and eventually becoming the chapter’s president for two terms. Today she serves as a national board liaison, working with the presidents and vice presidents of all 26 chapters.
    “I love SGMP. It helps me, regardless of my bosses and supervisors who do not understand how to put on meetings,” says Kebe, who pays her own way to conferences and was one of the association’s first planners to achieve a Certified Meeting Professional designation. One of her goals now is to convince her agency to create a centralized meetings department.
    “Someone here collects information on the numbers of conferences held and what we spend, but there is no upfront coordination of meetings,” Kebe notes. “It works for corporations and saves them time and money. Why not us?”
    Brett Sterenson says that without SGMP, his job would be impossible. As Washington, D.C.-based sales manager/federal agent for Kimpton Boutique Hotels, Sterenson joined the association in 1999. Last year, when the San Francisco-based hotel chain announced it would focus more effort on mining the government market, Sterenson says he was well poised to make that a reality because of his inside contacts through the association.
    “The government market is an entirely different animal,” says Sterenson. “It is tricky, complicated and full of nuances, but SGMP does a tremendous job of educating its supplier members.”
    Sterenson points out that when salespeople want to contact a planner at a corporation, they need only dial the firm’s headquarters number and ask for the meeting planner or the corporate travel department. Not so with the government.
    “You can’t call up the Department of Agriculture, which is four city blocks long, and ask to speak to the meeting planner,” says Sterenson. “They don’t exist. They have nebulous titles, like budget analyst. And the only way to get to them is through word of mouth from other planners.”
    For supplier members, like himself, adds Sterenson, SGMP “opens a thousand doors that lead to government planners.” The association also provides valuable education on the rules and regulations that suppliers must follow when working with government meetings.
    At a recent chapter meeting, Sterenson says he got an eye-opener when he learned what the term “proposal” means to the government. “If you respond to a request for proposal from a government agency, you’re on the line for it, even if they don’t call for eight or nine months,” says Sterenson. “Because making a proposal to the government is like saying, ‘Yes, we will do exactly this for you.’”

Next step: recognition
With Carl Thompson installed as executive director, 26 chapters across the country humming and another, in Boston, about to be chartered, SGMP finally is poised to become a government force to be reckoned with. The only thing missing, says Thompson, is official government acknowledgment that the association exists and provides a valuable service. That may well change in the near future, as Thompson has, as he puts it, “taken the cause to the Hill” in a bid for recognition.
    “We are saving the government millions of dollars a year by educating meeting planners on how to do their jobs,” says Thompson. “Errors can be costly. We want recognition that we are doing a pretty damn good job training their own people.”
    Thompson has spent the better part of this year getting to know the staff at Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton’s office and helping them to understand SGMP’s mission. He says he hopes to have several staffers attend one of the national chapter’s monthly meetings, “so they can really see what it is that we do and what we are about.”
    Melody Kebe also has been busy finding, encouraging and nurturing the next round of SGMP leaders. She created a program at the national level to identify those supplier and planner members who have voiced interest in becoming involved in the association in a leadership role. And she has requested that each chapter do the same.
    “We have to be open to helping others come up the association’s ranks,” says Kebe. “Members have to have someone to look to in terms of mentoring, and to get direction and advice.”
    For Donna Carey, who will pass the baton of her office to a new president in May 2005 at the annual conference to be held in Sacramento, Calif., the years of being charged with direction and leadership have been both overwhelming and rewarding. While she still maintains her personal vision that SGMP will someday have a chapter in every state (“After all, there are government planners planning meetings in all 50 states, every day of the year,” she notes), she is comfortable knowing the organization is well on its path.
    “We have become a real association since those early years of fumbling,” says Carey with evident pride in her voice. “Now our members keep coming back, because they are so committed to what they do, and this is the only place they can go to get the tools they need to get their jobs done.”