If an admin has planned a couple of meetings for his boss, then he is a meeting planner. At least that’s what people across industries and organizations mistakenly think, reports professional meeting planner Joanne Joham, regional director for North America of the International Congress and Convention Association.
Certainly people can learn about meeting planning by observing colleagues and mentors, asking questions, and paying close attention to what works or what does not. Anyone who has planned a reception with one buffet table for 300 people, has left out important information in an invitation, or forgotten to bring along colleagues’ cell phone numbers when late for a meeting is unlikely to make the mistake again.
But the more direct approach is to take a class in which all critical information about meeting planning and organizational aids are taught. Joham’s students in the meeting and event planning and management certificate program at Mercer County Community College will be covering a wide range of topics, from industry standards and vocabulary to goal setting and the nitty-gritty details of location, food, and room setup. The first of 10 sessions begins on Wednesday, February 25, at 6 p.m. at MCCC’s West Windsor campus. Cost: $495. For more information, call 609-570-3311 or go to www.mccc.edu.
Joham herself learned the ropes in a series of jobs that started with the family business, teaching, and then expanded out. Joham’s father taught high school math and science and retired as principal of an elementary school in Union. He was also president of the New Jersey Retired Teachers Association. Her mother taught middle school English and music in Mountainside for 35 years. Even Joham’s 26-year-old daughter is in the business — she is a member of the Spokane Symphony and teaches music at Eastern Washington University in Spokane.
After earning a bachelor’s in German and musical performance from Goucher College and a master’s in German from Johns Hopkins University, Joham received a Fulbright fellowship in Austria and subsequently taught music and English as a foreign language full time in an Austrian high school that focused on tourism.
Her next position was public relations director for Royal Jordanian Airlines in Vienna. After a total of 11 years in Austria she moved to the United States in 1988 to run the tour development program for Austrian Airlines. She later worked as vice president of marketing and sales with Diversified Destinations International in New York City, which was on contract with European convention centers, hotels, then as managing director of international sales and vice president of business development for a Canadian management destination company. In 2004 she became regional director for the ICCA and got certified as a meeting professional.
Joham offers several tips for planning meetings and events:
Write objectives and goals. First specify the purpose of the meeting, which will control everything from marketing to the entire educational and social program to achieve that objective. A goal may be anything from increasing participation in an organization to educating people to gathering people to see a new building.
“It makes an event more memorable if you try to reinforce the theme or goal through every action that you do,” says Joham. Food, service, social events, skills taught and reinforced, and follow-up resources should all be related to the theme, if possible. “Nothing is in isolation,” she says. As an example Joham mentions a meeting with a green organic theme, held at the Liberty Science Center, where renovations had focused on environmental friendliness. All the food was organic, with each item labeled as to its source.
Develop marketing pieces. The marketing of a meeting must offer a cutting-edge reason to justify investing money or time in an event, suggests Joham. Are they going to obtain a new skill? To inform themselves about the travel industry? To listen to a world-renowned speaker who will offer insight not available elsewhere?
Make sure the event offers a return on investment. “With every meeting and event, you have an ROI, but it’s not just monetary,” says Joham. She had to decide recently whether to attend the Meeting Professionals International Conference in Atlanta. On first pass she read the materials to see if the meeting was of interest, and at that point, all she had invested was the time it took to read the material.
Once she went to the conference the costs were higher, both in terms of money spent on travel, conference, and accommodations, and the investment of her own time. For her the gains seemed to balance this investment. “I learned certain skills and information that hopefully will help me in the future — that I can apply to my work, my life, and my business,” she says.
Select an appropriate location. If people will be flying in from multiple cities, for example, a hotel at the airport may make sense. If expected attendees are largely from New Jersey and are expected to drive, a Manhattan site probably will not work as well as a Jersey site.
Match rooms to size of crowd and nature of activity. A group of 30 will be lost in a ballroom, but if that same group of 30 is learning a skill that requires a computer, the room does need to be large enough to accommodate a computer, notes, and a glass of water for each person. If a teacher is lecturing, then students would be seated two to a table, so that everyone can see the screen at the front of the room. A boardroom discussion outside of a boardroom requires a U or a square so people can see each other.
Then there are the nitty-gritty details — that the lighting is correct for a PowerPoint presentation; that there is no glare from sunlight; that an eight-hour class should not take place in a lightless room.
Make sure speakers follow your rules. “You have to be 100 percent sure that speakers and experts you are engaging will reflect the objectives set for the meeting,” says Joham. A planner needs to know exactly what a speaker is going to say, how much time it should take, what the compensation will be, and whether the person will be allowed to sell books. This must be agreed to contractually.
To ascertain what the speaker will be saying, a planner has a few choices: asking for the notes ahead of time, or for a video of a similar presentation; even going to hear the speaker at a nearby venue.
Joham mentions three different tools that help planners stay atop the myriad event details. An event specifications manual is pretty much an Excel spreadsheet with columns for date, action, who is responsible, and notes. Notes would include specifics like the number of copy fliers that must be mailed and through which mailing service. A personal binder includes every document related to the event, including contracts, agreements with speakers, menus, dietary restrictions, and Americans with Disability Acts needs of any individuals at the meeting.
Finally, an event scenario lists in time order everything that will be happening at an event — when a particular staff member is to arrive at a restaurant, her cell number, the restaurant’s address.
Joham loves her profession, but warns that is decidedly not a 9-to-5 job. “It’s a demanding profession but very rewarding,” she says. “You meet so many great people, diverse people. You can always learn from everyone and expand your horizons. And your job is never the same every day; there is no routine in it because there are so many facets that go with the job.”
It was probably her teacher parents, she says, who prepared her for the organization her work requires.