Why meeting planning has become a top career pick
By David M. Brown
$122.3 billion. That’s what businesses, small and large, spend on meetings and conventions annually. And that’s one great reason why, when choosing their careers, so many young people are choosing meeting planning.
Either as independent firms or employees, meeting planners ensure that events, from seminars and incentives to Fortune 500 annual meetings and conventions, are successful for their clients, both tactically (did it run smoothly?) and strategically (did the gathering fulfill corporate goals?). While the perception may be that this is a females-only profession, males are participating in its many facets: administrative; communications; financial; sales; hospitality; audio-visual; staging and production; and long-term visioning. “If you consider the bigger picture, the industry, there are men filling various roles,” says Katherine Christensen, CMP, president and owner of Chandler-based Katherine Christensen & Associates and PRA Destination Management–Arizona. The Certified Meeting Professional, CMP, is an industry certification earned through examination, as well as work and association experience.
“[Students] see the industry as a $120 billion business, and the thought of the myriads of detail necessary to conduct a major event, whether small or large, is challenging for their skills,” says Jim Fausel, CMP, CMM, faculty associate with the School of Community Resources and Development at Arizona State University. There, students pursue one of two elective accredited courses: Meetings and Convention Management and Special Events. Fausel also serves as the director of the Professional Meeting Managers Partnership and, as an independent meeting professional, has led Scottsdale-based The Conference Connection since 1984.
Programs at quality universities such as ASU and Northern Arizona University help students realize that this is a career they never even considered, until they learned what it was all about. “Meetings management is the sleeping giant in academia, and more and more students want to learn how to plan effective meetings,” adds Fausel.
The degree at ASU is a Bachelor of Science and Recreation, with tourism as the section in which meeting management is taught. ASU also offers adult learning courses, he notes: “We target those working in nonprofits, government, associations and corporations who are told to plan and set up a meeting, but don’t have the experience to do so.”
Dr. Gary Vallen, professor, from the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, says the appeal is that meeting planning is a “thrill-a-minute industry.” He asks, “Where else could someone take a leadership role putting on high-end conventions from such diverse topics as a National Home Builders Conference (one of the largest physical show requirements of any in the world) to the world’s largest cocktail and nightclub show?” He adds, “Or put on smaller themed events like a James Bond dinner, or a racecar/Nascar evening for various conference groups?”
His Gary Vallen Hospitality Consultants hosts casino-themed evenings for social purposes or charitable fundraisers. Vallen helped initiate the NAU program in 1988. He teaches Hotel Operations, Casino Gaming Management and Meetings and Events Management, and, during a recent semester sabbatical, developed four courses in meeting, events and expositions management: Meeting Planning; Conventions and Expositions; Festivals and Special Events; and Topics in Meetings and Conventions Management. NAU first offered these courses this spring.
A Business Convention
“Meeting planning as a career is growing more popular in part because of the increasing awareness of our industry,” explains Karla Vogtman, convention services manager for the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“Almost every organization holds some type of meeting. As long as companies meet, the demand for professionals in our industry will continue,” adds Vogtman, an ASU alum.
She, in fact, works with the CVB’s convention sales department to service groups hosting meetings in the Valley. This includes providing housing and registration assistance; developing community awareness; coordinating site inspections and venues; hosting off-site activities; supplying destination and promotional collateral; and providing marketing assistance to convention groups. “In other words, I act as the destination specialist and work as a liaison between members and meeting planners,” she says.
Her path is illustrative of the many opportunities a meeting career offers: She started in the multi-cultural affairs department, moved to the convention sales department and now works with groups in convention services. “A degree in this field requires you to focus on communication, business and a variety of other skills I utilize every day.”
While the popularity of meeting planning as a career is a national trend, tourism’s place as the second largest industry in Arizona is particularly inspiring young people here. “Arizona as a destination is very popular and our seasons are high in the fall. From January through June, when all in our industry work very hard, oftentimes without days off, we do it to serve our visitors,” Christensen notes. As a result, most meeting and convention planning is hospitality-focused in Arizona, although medical, real estate and financial concerns significantly rely on these professionals as well.
In fact, it’s becoming a necessity, she emphasizes. “It’s a profession that is finally being recognized as an industry,” After all, she points out, “People take their taxes to a CPA, as they are schooled and study in that field, or other experts in their fields like attorneys or mechanics. Why would they not have their meeting/event planning needs tended to, by a professional?”
Plan to Associate with Colleagues
Meeting planning has evolved, though, explains LoriAnn K. Harnish, CMP, CMM. “Today’s meeting planners are event and meeting extraordinaires who are far more strategic than tactical,” explains Harnish, noting that Fast Company Magazine has listed the meeting industry as one of the top 20 professions for the next decade. “Yes, they have resources at their fingertips and checklists galore to ensure every detail is not overlooked or forgotten. However, their main focus is being strategic, that is, aligning their meetings objectives with the visions of the organizations they serve.”
Hornish is president of Scottsdale-based Speaking of Meetings, which ensures that a company’s strategic objectives are the components of every meeting and event. The CMM, Certified Meetings Manager, which develops this strategic visioning, requires a five-day, in-residence course and other components.
She is also president-elect of the 460-member, Phoenix-based Arizona Sunbelt Chapter of the Dallas-based Meeting Professionals International, established in 1972. The largest association for the meetings profession, MPI includes 20,000-plus membership in 68 chapters and clubs in the United States, Canada, Europe and other countries. The chapter assists members with networking, education and vocation tools, as well as works with students for internship opportunities.
“Our state has had a chapter for more than 25 years, and that tells you how important meeting planning has been for several decades,” explains Christensen, a member since 1993 who has served in various roles, including president. “It isn’t new; it is just perceived as a necessary profession for corporations, associations and organizations to assist in their planning.”
Everyone agrees: For those planning this as a career, plan ahead. “Throughout the country, this background opens the doors to employment,” Fausel says. “Those companies and associations looking for meeting-management assistance usually turn to those individuals with the training and education in the meetings industry to be part of the team.”