Meeting planners an industry on a roll
Only a few years ago, professional meeting planners in Arizona were struggling through a post-9/ll slump in business. Those days are now history. But don’t get the impression meeting planners are breathing a sigh of relief. Members of the Arizona Sunbelt Chapter of Meeting Professionals International are much too busy for that. The number of meetings and events in Arizona is in a sharp rebound as the state’s economy hums along again and planners who once had nothing but time on their hands, can’t get enough of it today.
“It’s such a turnaround from three years ago,” says Bonnie Brant, national sales manager for Doubletree Guest Suites Phoenix near Sky Harbor International Airport. “We’re so busy and it’s a nice kind of busy. People are traveling again, rooms are filled, planners have a broader selection of events and venues. It’s great.” Brant, a chapter board member and 2006 Mentor of the Year, says the Doubletree steadily booked meetings and events all summer.
Michael Barnhart, CMP, a chapter member and national sales manager for Pointe South Mountain Resort in south Phoenix, is happy to be scrambling again. “The economy is definitely back and it’s nice to have demand again. I like being busy. It beats the alternative.” Planners say that business from associations remained steady during the lean years while corporate meetings nosedived. Now corporate business is back and planners are helping with incentive meetings for top producers, sales meetings, new product launches, board retreats and departmental brainstorm sessions. Because of its proximity to the airport, the Doubletree’s weekends are devoted primarily to military reunions for veterans who served in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Gulf War.
Some resorts and hotels are funneling money back into their properties to attract more visitors. For example, Brant says the Doubletree refurbished all public areas in 2004 and also enhanced its meeting space, installing new lighting and soundproofing and softening the colors. “Repeat business is key and if you’re not providing renovations and high-tech features and good service, you are not going to be one of the ballplayers,” she says. But the good times also bring challenges. Planners are coming to grips with a time crunch they call compression. Clients struggle with their own lack of time and that trickles down to planners who now have a substantially tighter turnaround to do their jobs compared to previous years. “Usually, what we planned a year out, we are now planning 90 days out,” says Katherine Christensen, CMP, president and owner of Katherine Christensen & Associates and PRA Destination Management in Chandler. Sometimes, there is virtually no lead time, says Christensen, a past chapter president. “They call on Tuesday, asking me to plan an event for Friday.”
Planners who book hotel rooms are bumping up against higher rates as fewer rooms are available and the law of supply and demand flexes its muscle. Christensen sees it as a seller’s market in which booking terms are less negotiable. Part of the problem is that three major Valley resorts–Marriott Mountain Shadows, Doubletree La Posada and Radisson Scottsdale–closed in 2004 and 2005, Barnhart says. “Supply has dipped,” he notes. “With the economy coming back, we’ve got that pent-up demand from corporate America. Their national and regional meetings are in full force. Rates have gone up as much as 10 percent for February through March. Rates are just now getting back to where they were before 9/11.” Meeting planners at one Scottsdale corporation face the same problems with rates and space availability as they organize 60 to 80 events a year for their company. Courtney Aguilar and Shannon Urfer, each a marketing manager of events at eFunds Corporation and chapter member, say their greatest challenge is getting executives to understand that rates are higher and that space is hard to come by. Urfer, who serves on the chapter’s membership, fund-raising and holiday party committees, says from her experience, rates have climbed 20 to 30 percent over the past few years. “When we started looking for the 2007 location for our annual global sales kickoff, almost all the properties we looked at were sold out,” Aguilar says. “We booked both our 2007 and 2008 kickoffs in February of this year.”
Christensen has noticed a significant change in the kind of corporate people her company works with. Increasingly, she works more with procurement departments and less with internal event planners. The bottom line has become more important than the relationship, she says. “The deliverability of our services has not changed,” Christensen says. “What has changed is how we prepare our proposals and that is becoming more line-itemed. That’s fine, but as they pick apart the event to save money, they pick apart the ambience. We will do all that. Just don’t come back to me and say this is not what I originally described in my proposal.”
But since it’s better to be busy than not, planners are taking it all in stride. Christensen attended a MPI retreat over the summer and the busy times was a topic of discussion. “No one really has an answer as to how they are doing it; they’re just doing it,” she says. “We are all glad to see the business.”
Urfer sees meeting and event planners taking on an increasingly important role in the years ahead. “Meeting planners will become more integral and valued as people look to them not as order takers, but as someone who can provide direction,” she says. Brant believes the profession will have a bright future in metropolitan Phoenix. “We’ve got a new convention center coming in. Light rail is coming in. We will have the Super Bowl in 2008. It’s just a great place to be a meeting and event planner.”
Established in 1972, Meeting Professionals International (MPI) is the largest association for the meetings profession with more than 20,000 members in 68 chapters and clubs across the USA, Canada, Europe and other countries throughout the world. As the global authority and resource for the $122.3 billion meetings and events industry, MPI empowers meeting professionals to increase their strategic organizational value through education and networking opportunities. Its strategic plan, Pathways to Excellence, is designed to elevate the role of meetings in business via: creating professional development levels to evolve member careers to positions of strategic understanding and influence; influencing executives about the value of meetings; and ensuring MPI is the premier marketplace for planners and suppliers. More information can be found by going to www.mpiweb.org. Active since 1979, the Arizona Sunbelt Chapter is MPI’s 15th largest chapter in the world. The organization is comprised of over 460 members throughout the state of Arizona, representing a mix of corporate, association and independent planners as well as suppliers who provide a variety of products and/or services to the meeting and hospitality industry.The local chapter offers its members educational, networking, community volunteer, industry certification and professional growth opportunities throughout the year. For more information, contact Executive Director, Joanne Winter, at (602) 277-1494 or visit the chapter website at www.azmpi.org for up-to-date information on events and programs.