It’s been an intense few years for U.S. workplaces. Organizations faced pandemic-driven layoffs and most had to adapt to the necessity of remote collaboration. Then, as Covid vaccinations promised relief, the Great Resignation saw people leave their jobs in unprecedented numbers. In fact, in March 2022—one year ago—a record 4.5 million workers quit their jobs for reasons other than retirement, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meeting and convention departments powered through these macro workplace trends. They often managed with reduced headcount even while reimagining many meetings as virtual events and working with hotels, where staffing shortages have been most acute. And now that the demand for in-person events has recovered nicely since mid-2022, planning departments have had to scramble to meet the demand.
While 2022 was a year for rebuilding teams, job openings were not evenly distributed across the event-planning field, says Dawn Penfold, president of MeetingJobs, a Cadre company. “I found a lot of organizations leaned toward [working with] independent contractors. Where I saw [the most] permanent hiring was in the medical education and pharmaceutical industries as well as at third-party planning companies. Third parties were getting a lot of work because companies were gun-shy about hiring permanent staffers. As one hiring official put it to me, ‘I had to lay off 20 people. I don’t want to go through that again.’”
As the workplace recovery continues in 2023, corporate and association meeting departments are likely to pick up the pace of recruiting—especially if the economic outlook is strong. But what will they find when they do? MeetingsNet talked to industry executives who have observed the changes and the challenges of rebuilding meeting teams over the past year.
Wading into a Shallow Pool
One of the most consistent observations of executives we spoke with is that the pool of qualified candidates is smaller than it was before the pandemic.
“I would say that we are finding good candidates. It’s just taking longer,” says David Litteken, senior vice president, event solutions group at BI WORLDWIDE. “There are good candidates out there, but I think some people in our industry moved to other industries during the pandemic.”
Melissa Van Dyke, senior vice president, global customer experience & insights at Creative Group, seconds that opinion. She thinks about the workforce on a bell curve, with people just entering the industry on one end, people with five to 25 years of experience in the middle, and late-career workers on the other end. During the pandemic, she says, “a lot of people on the young end looked at our industry and said, ‘If this is what this industry is, no thanks.’” At the same time, many of the late-career employees who had been through 9/11, the financial crisis, and other downturns decided it was time to exit the industry. “[Business] came back very fast, and everyone was hiring. But organizations had lost a portion of the ready-to-go workforce.”
As business picked up last year, “a lot of hiring officials really wanted that person with two to three years of experience” but that demographic wasn’t there, says Penfold. “Three years ago, the industry went ‘kaboom’ and nobody hired for close to a year and a half, so a candidate with two to three years of experience is almost nonexistent.”
Penfold believes work-life factors have also chipped away at the candidate pool for planning professionals. “People rethought their priorities. Before [the pandemic], it was nothing to work 10- or 12-hour days. It was nothing to travel 60 to 70 percent of the time. It was nothing to commute an hour and a half into a major city to go to work.” The pandemic jump-started a conversation about work choices, she says. “People started reprioritizing their lives. It might be that they stayed in our industry, but maybe not. It might be that they decided to become an independent planner, or to set different parameters with the companies that they worked with, or to leave planning completely.”
Barbara Ward, executive vice president, travel & events at One10, also saw those industry departures—and a silver lining. “Covid changed a lot of us. People are taking more time to find a balance between their personal interests and their jobs. And the pandemic really made a lot of people stop and question if they still want to be in this industry. I think it’s healthy for people to do some self-reflection and make sure that they are on the right track. While it’s a very exciting industry, you have to be able to pivot, be flexible, and kind of embrace the chaos. I think we had some people leave the industry who realized it was not their path.” If there was any benefit of Covid, she says, “it was a great time for the world to stop, look, and reassess in order to figure out what it is that’s important to them.”
Applicants’ New Requirements
As work-life considerations trimmed the pool of planners, they also became a more prominent part of the job-interview conversation.
For Ward at One10, it’s a topic that hiring executives are careful to discuss with potential employees. “Event planning can be a high-stress job at times. But I think it’s become more of an open conversation to make sure a candidate knows what they’re signing up for. We try to be very transparent” about things like business travel, long hours toward the end of projects, and perhaps having to adjust hours if a client is in a different time zone.
Not surprisingly, the dominant work-life issue for candidates is the option to work remotely. In Penfold’s experience, 90 percent of meeting planning applicants want that flexibility. For hiring executives, the challenge is to balance the benefits to workers with the loss of face-to-face interaction.
When One10 surveyed its employees last year, an “an extremely high percentage” said they preferred to be fully remote, even people who live close to an office. “As a company, we embraced that,” Ward says. “We decided that we probably could get the best talent that way, and it has worked really well for us.” In interviews with new candidates, “Can I work remotely?” is the number-one question, Ward says, and “The answer right now is “yes.” However, there are tradeoffs. “We’re in the people business. I think [with remote teams] you lose a little bit of the creativity and collaboration that you get in an office working with people. The benefit to us has been opening [the pool of potential] employees to include those nowhere near our offices. You can look for truly the best candidate when you remove that [location] barrier.”
At Creative Group, it’s a similar story. “I would say there is a strong pull for as much at-home time as the company is comfortable with,” Van Dyke says, noting that if employees live close to an office, the company asks them to come in two days a week. “But we have always been and will always be really interested in tapping into talent wherever they live.”
At BIW, most people work in the office three days a week. While employees’ preference has been for more remote work, Litteken is seeing a shift. “Twelve months ago, nine months ago, we found that those in higher-level positions, in general, really wanted to stay working from home 100 percent. For many companies in our industry, that is the model. That is not the BIW model. We are a company of collaboration,” he says, and coming to the office Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, at a minimum, facilitates that. While remote work was “a huge priority” a year ago, Litteken has noted that since last fall more people are open to working in an office environment. “Humans were designed to interact with each other. I think some people are missing that connection.”
Meeting professionals’ increased focus on work-life balance also extends to personal values.
“I would say there is a distinct shift in our applicants articulating how important who we are is to them—in addition to what we do and what their job is,” says Van Dyke. “We hear that continuously from those who we’ve hired.” And applicants, she says, do their homework. “They research it. They want to know what our values are. They want to know what we stand for.” The pandemic, she says, “made a lot of individuals question not just what they do, but why they’re doing it and who they’re doing it for, and yeah, it absolutely weighs into why they say yes [to our job offers].”
While this is an applicant trend that started some years ago, Penfold emphasizes that the pandemic accelerated it. “Candidates want to work for a company that they can feel good about. They’re asking, ‘Is this a good fit for me in terms of my belief structure and in my work ethic?’”
Tough Jobs to Fill
There were a couple other clear challenges to hiring experienced planners in the past year. For one, the applicant pool is jittery, says Litteken. “We have been able to attract talent for higher positions where we’re looking to grow, but it’s difficult because people are still nervous about moving. They don’t want to find themselves in a last-one-in, first-one-out situation” in the event of a layoff. “I think it’s like a Covid version of PTSD.”
Another roadblock has been the experienced planners’ salary demands. In early 2022, Ward says, it was a good time for job hunters. “When we found candidates with a strong background, the salaries that they were asking for were high in comparison to the past averages. I think the market was very skewed. Finding the right individual, with the right skills, and within the right salary range, was tough. But by fall 2022, we saw a change, with more qualified individuals applying for jobs, and salary requirements moderating. We were very happy to see that equalize.”
For Van Dyke, one especially tough job to fill right now is group-air specialists who analyze the lift between destinations, reserve group blocks, get participants booked, ensure extensions or early arrivals are within parameters, and handle emergency support if a person needs to leave an event early. “Their skill set is highly specialized and becoming harder and harder to find,” Van Dyke says. “Changes in the airlines, with groups, and with technologies all compounded to make the job even more challenging as we rebuilt last year, and many decided to opt out. There haven’t been as many new entrants to offset those who have left and the ramp-up time to learn such a technical job is not short.”
Where Are the Entry-Level Candidates?
As difficult as finding experienced planners has been, it’s the pipeline of entry-level applicants that worries some planning executives.
“We aren’t seeing as many applicants just coming out of schools,” says Litteken. “This is a change since the pandemic.”
BI recently hired a number of full-time trip directors, a job that in the past would have generated hundreds and hundreds of applicants, Litteken says. That didn’t happen. “We’re thrilled with the people we selected; the quality was there,” he says. But in the past, the huge applicant pool for trip directors tended to unearth hires for other roles in the company, too. “It was a great way to recruit.”
While incentive travel remains a top motivator, Litteken wonders if societal changes—increased personal travel, decreased appeal of flights—have made business travel less of a draw for job applicants.
He also wonders if hiring executives need to be more open to non-traditional candidates. “By nature, event professionals are detail oriented, they are risk averse. [Hiring managers] tend to look for people with perfect experience. They’re looking to put a square peg in a square hole, but I encourage my leaders to take risks on people.” He says candidates who show good effort and have experience in a field that deals with people and requires a detail-oriented mindset can probably be successful.
Similarly, Van Dyke says that for more entry-level positions, “we’ve had to work a bit harder to find the right candidates.” As an industry, she says that “we really need to think about how we’re bringing up that next generation.” And she agrees that non-traditional candidates should be strongly considered, especially those with a level-headed hospitality mindset.
“We hire not just for what we call ‘the 49 percent,’ which are the hard skills that you need to know, but we also lean heavily into what we call ‘the 51 percent,’ which some would call the soft skills. They’re about collaboration, customer service, and how you deal with change,” Van Dyke says. “I think all of us in the industry want new applicants, want new blood, new types of candidates. But that 51 percent is so crucial—we can train to the 49 percent.”
Ward, too, sees growing and nurturing entry-level employees as the next step in the recovery. “Coming out of the pandemic, we focused on hires with depth and maturity. The challenge now is how we keep growing the team and fostering a learning environment. I think the entry-level employees are next to be brought back to third-party suppliers, so we’re coaching and nurturing people to move up in the ranks. In 2023, if you’re asking about what we’re looking for, it’s keeping our current employees engaged and growing our base of entry-level people coming in to create a stronger funnel.”
Similar Jobs, New Environment
& insights. This is an idea that “we as an industry and as an organization have to be really clear on,” Van Dyke emphasizes. “Suppliers who we’ve been working with for years might have completely different contacts, and those people are learning their jobs. The airlift, which had been the same forever, might be all new and is constantly changing.” As a result, planning systems and practices need to be renewed. “All of the base patterns that we established to run the train—those tracks are being rebuilt. And/or that track is being manned by individuals who are fatigued, tired, and overworked. So, it is a similar job, but a new environment. “We expected [the industry] to come back, but it feels different,” she says.