Even for planners at the top of their game, the current meeting climate has created new levels of stress—the result of severe hotel booking compression, high turnover in supplier staff, and short meeting lead times. In retrospect, planning was relatively smooth before the pandemic, says Koleen Roach, director, meetings & conference management at Securian Financial Group.
“One of the key differences between 2019 and today is that in 2019, there was so much consistency year over year, and so much trust that had been built between ourselves and our key stakeholders as well the hotels and DMCs we regularly engaged with. Post pandemic, a lot of faces have changed; a lot of meetings have changed. We have new internal stakeholders. And while we didn't really have to spend so much time proving ourselves before, we’re spending a lot of time proving ourselves now to new internal clients.”
This new dynamic was the topic of a standing-room-only session at the Financial and Insurance Conference Planners conference, held at the Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport November 13-16. Roach led the discussion with two co-presenters: a meeting professional and a meeting stakeholder. Jeff Calmus, principal at Jeff Calmus & Associates, brought his experience as both a consultant and former vice president, global event management at MetLife Inc., while Vicki Lester, vice president and head of intermediary marketing at Columbia Threadneedle Investments, shared her perspective as an executive who signs off on meeting decisions.
The session explored two substantial challenges: First, how planners can gain the respect and trust of stakeholders; and second, how to educate stakeholders on the specific challenges planners face today, in ways they can digest and react to in a timely manner.
The panelists agreed that one of the quickest ways to gain respect from executives is to understand both the priorities of the company and the big-picture goals of the meeting. “I really see event planners as strategic partners, but in order to be a strategic partner you really need to understand the business,” said Lester. Not the details of the balance sheet, she notes, but “the key priorities of the business and your stakeholders within the business.” Understanding the challenges of the macro environment can help planners understand how event strategy relates to the company’s goals.
To that end, Roach recommended that session attendees take advantage of their organizations’ quarterly earnings calls and other educational opportunities, even when they feel swamped. “I really urge you to take that time. You don't have to understand how they got the numbers; you just need to understand why they're doing what they're doing at a very high level. I think it just makes us all better at our jobs.” Lester agreed: “When you start with that baseline understanding, you can be a lot more effective and creative, a lot more thoughtful.”
Moving from order-taker to strategic partner also requires a mindset change, says Calmus. Reflecting on his former role at MetLife Inc. he commented, “I used to say, ‘It's not about them. It's about us. We're in charge,’” His analogy was the company’s legal team. “When executives call them, they don't feel like order takers. They're experts in what they do.” And planners need a similar attitude, he said. “We are the experts. We have to ask the probing questions. We have to come in being professional, being prepared in the business.”
Lester commented that this consultative role was particularly valuable now. “Especially for events that you have done in the past, probe the stakeholders about why they're doing it again now, and what they're hoping to get out of it. When you think about the fact that more people are working remotely, in-person events take on a different quality and potentially a different objective that might not even be articulated,” Lester said.
The New Environment
Even with lines of communication open, many stakeholders aren’t up to speed on the post-pandemic meeting market. For example, why do contracts that they used to have two or three months to consider now need to be signed within weeks? And on top of that, their business units face their own unknowns. “There's volatility in the markets; there's volatility in company earnings; there's inflation in labor costs. I think all those things are making budgets trickier across the board and probably slowing down the process” of making decisions around meeting and incentive spending, Lester said. “When it gets close to the event, stakeholders realize their decisions are important because events are very visible. But in the planning phase it’s hard to get their attention.”
So how do planners engage stakeholders to communicate the pressures they are under and why it's important to make decisions quickly? The panel had three overarching directives:
• Be transparent, upfront, and repetitive about the key deadlines.
• Explain the tradeoffs if you don't hit your deadlines.
• Provide options rather than asking open-ended questions.
Clarifying the last point, Calmus said, “It hurts your credibility when you start transferring the problem to your stakeholders without an alternative. Right away, your value sinks. [Executives are] looking for you to provide an alternative or several alternatives that they can choose from.” He also reminded planners not to drag stakeholders into the minutiae. “Make sure that the decisions you’re asking them to make are the most important ones. We're being paid to make those other decisions.”
Calmus also noted that it’s important not to provide information to your stakeholders in piecemeal fashion, and to spell out consequences of inaction, not just monetarily but also in terms of the program. “Literally hand them a package of information,” Calmus said, “and tell the stakeholder you’ll check in on certain dates because decisions need to be made or else we will be out a certain deposit, or miss out on a great venue, or a speaker will take another gig, or we won’t get our first choice of DMC or hotel block.”
And one more bit of advice: Make sure the person you’re speaking to about the meeting is, in fact, the stakeholder. Given all the internal changes at companies right now, Calmus suggests one simple question to ask before presenting to executives: “Is there anyone else who should be in this meeting?” Not only might that reveal a decision-maker who should be at the table, it could also and save the planner a lot of valuable time.