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The 2024 Event Services Professional of the Year: DeShawn Fitzpatrick, CMP, Visit Houston

A Look at Planners’ Powerful Partners: CSMs

The newest award-winning convention services manager dishes on all the things CSMs can do for planners: “We’re like Siri for the destination.”

It’s tough to imagine a meeting that might run more smoothly than the Event Services Professionals Association’s annual conference, the most recent edition of which took place in late January in Indianapolis. In addition to the event’s planning team, the several hundred convention services managers who attend the conference surely would not allow a bump, glitch, or hiccup in the proceedings to last for more than a few minutes—they’d fix it themselves if need be.

Reflecting that spirit, ESPA uses its conference to honor one of its members with the Event Services Professional of the Year award for exemplary service to meeting clients. For 2024, the award went to DeShawn Fitzpatrick, CMP, senior client services manager for Visit Houston.

Nominated by several planners who brought mid-sized or large events to Houston over the previous year, Fitzpatrick says that “I am grateful that clients feel strongly enough about what I do to recommend me. I’m very honored.”

A hospitality lifer, Fitzpatrick started at a Marriott call center in Omaha, Neb., in the early 1990s before moving to Houston in 1998. There, she worked on property before jumping over to the planning side for 10 years, which shaped her approach to assisting meeting clients when she joined the convention services team for Visit Houston nine years ago.

Just Ask Siri
Fitzpatrick notes that “it’s a CSM’s job to connect planners with the right partners and resources in the city for their specific needs. Some planners try to do things on their own, but we have the relationships with venues and vendors so that we can get answers more quickly. And if I am not very familiar with a certain venue or vendor, someone else on our team will be. I tell planners that we are like Siri for the destination; you can ask us anything and we will get an answer.”

In the post-pandemic meetings environment, the most common “ask” from planners is about creating unique experiences for attendees that will make them remember the meeting by remembering the destination. Whether at the host hotel, the convention center, or an off-site venue, “we have incorporated local flavor into events by getting the cheerleaders for the Houston Texans or the Houston Rockets to do a performance at an opening session. We’ve also gotten a drumline or chorus from a performing and visual arts high school to perform the national anthem plus a few other songs to start or end the day. A lot of planners don’t know these experiences can happen in their meeting.”

Other efforts might include getting the mayor or another high-ranking city official to speak at a business event and deliver a proclamation welcoming the group to town. “The bureau has its own government-affairs department, so we have direct contacts to get those requests approved and coordinated,” Fitzpatrick says.

Above and Beyond
That degree of coordination hardly scratches the surface of what’s possible from a CSM, though. For the decisionmakers of more than one group over the past year, Fitzpatrick has coordinated multi-day itineraries to see dozens of hotels to make sure they are right for a convention’s room block.

One was for planners of a 2027 association event requiring 9,000 rooms on peak across nearly 50 hotels. “They had signed the contract with the convention center but did not have a lot of their hotel contracts finalized. So I was charged with reaching out to the hotels and getting them to submit room-block bids. And once we had that, I had to set things up for those three planners to come in and see the hotels back-to-back for three straight days. We had just 15 minutes to be in and out of each property; they wanted to see a standard guest room and move on, except for a few larger hotels where they had to see the meeting space.”

For the National Education Association, Fitzpatrick had to coordinate a similar experience—except the hotel-vetting team was no fewer than 50 people, which required a full-sized bus to get around the city and stay on schedule.

“That group brings in a representative from every state, and I had to take them to every hotel that was being considered,” she recalls. “Among all the other coordination duties, I was also acting as a crossing guard for when they got off the bus in front of many of the hotels. But that’s part of a CSM’s responsibility for her meeting clients.”

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