It was the fall of 2009, and Megan Buzzetta was preparing to shut down the meeting planning company she had spent the last nine years building. In 2008 Global Planners employed 47 people in an office in Bordentown. By the end of the recession year, it was just Megan and six employees working out of Buzzetta’s apartment.
What seemed like the final nail in Global Planners coffin was hammered in when Buzzetta realized she wasn’t going to be able to pay her own rent much longer, much less the salaries of the company’s employees. The next year’s schedule of events was depressingly empty. She sent out an E-mail saying the company would close in December after the current meeting season ended.
Jennifer Jacobs, who was then a part-time meeting planner, remembers how she felt getting that message. She wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. She and the other employees told Buzzetta they would take pay cuts if it meant the company could stay alive one more season. “We were willing to do whatever it took,” she says.
Carolyn Devenney was also a part-timer when the layoffs hit. “That time period in general was really scary for everyone working in the industry,” Devenney recalls. “Events were getting canceled left and right, and other meeting planning firms were closing their doors. We knew we didn’t want that to be our fate. We are passionate about what we do, and that’s why we went to Megan and said, ‘We can’t be like these firms that are shutting their doors. What can we do?’”
One by one, the workers went into Buzzetta’s office and pleaded with her not to shut the company down. Some workers cut their hours and others cut their pay. Buzzetta agreed and kept the doors open while cutting her own pay to zero. She found work by contracting with a larger meeting planning company. The downsized company was able to make it through the recession. Today Global Planners employs 27 people at 3525 Quakerbridge Road, in the Ibis building. Jacobs now has the title of marketing director, and the other workers who stuck with the company during lean times have gotten management jobs.
The key to Global Planners’ survival was a software application, Buzz Tech Suite, that automates registration and sign-ins at big meetings and conventions. The software, which debuted in 2011, is managed by a subsidiary company called Buzz Registration. This year, Buzz added a host of new features.
Buzzetta credits her team with sticking with the company through hard times. “Every single one of them sacrificed,” she says.
Global Planners has survived by changing as well as sacrificing.
Many companies have event planning departments for when they have to organize gatherings more complex than just “get some donuts and be in the conference room at 10.” Global Planners is among a number of companies that offer third-party meeting planning services, taking the hassle of renting hotel space, setting up schedules, and taking attendance out of the hands of companies who don’t have the resources to deal with such details. It regularly organizes conferences with hundreds of attendees to keep happy, keep fed, and keep track of.
“It’s amazing what goes into planning a successful event,” Buzzetta says. “It really needs to be handled by someone who is experienced. It starts with finding a location, asking the client the right questions so that the right space is booked, and thinking of every single detail. Once a location is found, it’s going to the location and making sure the place is set up right. There can’t be a gigantic chandelier in the middle of a room that blocks audio-visual equipment. Then, you have contract negotiations.” After that, it’s organizing arrival and departure times, coordinating with speakers, and putting printed materials together.
Buzzetta got into the field almost by accident. A Hamilton native and graduate of Nottingham High School, Buzzetta was raised by a receptionist mother and a manufacturing worker father. She got her first job out of school working for a major financial company as an administrative assistant. About five years into her career, in 1998, she had a chance to plan a meeting and discovered she was good at it. Around the same time, her company was downsizing. Buzzetta took a voluntary layoff and vowed to use her six months of severance pay to see if she could get her own meeting planning business off the ground.
She borrowed $3,000 from a friend to buy a fax and a copier to set up in a spare bedroom in her house. Buzzetta proved to be a canny businesswoman and leveraged her relationships from her previous job to grow her business. Within two years, she had hired five employees and moved into a real office. The company was going strong when the recession hit.
The meeting planning industry was especially devastated by the economic downturn, as administrators working for companies became reluctant to outsource any work to third parties. Buzzetta says clients and former clients told her they couldn’t risk farming out any work, the logic being that if they outsourced their own jobs, cost-cutting managers would decide to eliminate their departments entirely.
Buzzetta says she had to re-think the services her company offered. If companies didn’t need someone to plan their entire meeting, were there still things she could do? It turns out one of the tasks that clients had a hard time doing themselves was registration.
“Back in the day, people were registering through fax,” Buzzetta explained. “Now technology has changed, and online registration is really what you do. If you are doing fax registration, you are really behind the times. If you want off-the-shelf software, there is a huge learning curve and education that needs to happen. Meeting planners are busy, traveling, and working on multiple programs.”
Registration is a deceptively complex issue when dealing with professional conferences and the like. For instance, medical conferences offer seminars that provide continuing education credits for the people who attend. In order to receive the credits towards professional credentials, the attendees often have to show a signature proving they were at the meeting.
Dealing with hundreds or thousands of signatures is the kind of headache that most people would rather avoid, and it’s one of the niches that Buzz Registration has become especially good at filling. Several years ago it hired a software developer to create custom registration software to make the process as painless as possible.
With Buzz Tech Suite, people who attend meetings have name badges with QR codes — printed patterns that can be scanned by smartphone cameras. They can check in to meetings simply by scanning their badges and signing on a tablet computer. The meeting planner then gets an automatically generated list of who was at the meeting. No fax machine required. Buzz Registration also builds a meeting website where it’s all organized and uses industry standard software for the actual registration piece of it.
The latest addition to Buzz Tech Suite is the incorporation of RFID technology into the name badges as an option to replace QR codes. With tiny radio chips, attendees will have their badge scanned even more quickly.
“We’re always trying to think big,” Buzzetta says.
Beyond the changing technology, the expectations about conferences are changing. Charity activities are becoming more popular. For example, a meeting might have a room where attendees can help stuff backpacks full of school supplies for needy kids. Other clients set up donation sites at the meeting or give people the option of donating when they register. Healthy food is also a big trend, with more people demanding nutritious eating options.
When Global Planners got started, it mostly handled financial industry conferences. Now, Buzz Registration has a diverse range of clients, including scientific, education, medical, pharmaceutical, financial, video game, and technology companies.
The success of Global Planners has allowed Buzzetta to settle down with her husband, Robert, a Trenton firefighter who also has his own company, Buzzetta’s Festival Foods. Megan is expecting her first child.
The company is more stable now than it was during the early days. Buzzetta says she learned a lot of hard lessons in the early years. “I started my business as a meeting planner. Once the business grew, I was suddenly thrown into the position of management, and leadership was not where my experience was. I was humbled quickly about the skills I needed to pick up in order to be successful. In the beginning, we went through a lot of turnover,” she says.
Despite that early turnover, the staff who stuck it out during the hard times have stayed on board. As it happens, all six of those loyalists are women. To this day, the only man who normally sets foot in the Global Planners office is the UPS guy, and the IT guy who, Buzzetta says, loves to visit. “I don’t know why, it just worked out that way,” Buzzetta says. Whatever the reason for it, the all-woman nature of the company has created a unique workplace.
One of the tricks Buzzetta picked up along the way was branding. Global Planners has a distinctive look about it, with all the employees donning red shirts.
“I love working with all women,” Buzzetta says. “They are very focused and team-oriented. One of my favorite things is when I’m sitting in my office late at night and the girls are starting to leave — if someone’s still behind, everyone will offer to stay and help them finish before they go — and it’s constantly reciprocated.”
Jacobs agrees that the team is uniquely tight-knit, especially those who were with Global Planners in 2009. “She’s the owner but she makes us all feel like we are owners with her,” Jacobs says. “We just have the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s not just her baby, it’s our baby too, and we wanted to see the company succeed.”
The company is still growing. The owner of Ibis Plaza, recently knocked down walls in the building so Global Planners could have more space.
Devenney, who went from being a meeting planner to being in charge of the Buzz Registration project, says she has never seen a company quite like Global Partners. “We’re all very supportive of each other, and we’re all working towards the same goal.”
Global Planners Inc., 3525 Quakerbridge Road, Suite 909, Mercerville 08619; 609-689-0001; fax, 609-689-0069. Megan Buzzetta, president. www.globalplanners.com.