There’s not much difference between a meeting planner and a babysitter in the mind of Billie J. Ruff, CTC, CTE, ACC, president of Travel Café in Billings, Mont. Both roles require flexibility, attention to detail, and patience – along with an occasional intervention.
“There’s a fine line between being a babysitter and a meeting planner,” said Ruff. “Like when we’ve had to get people down from dancing on tables and bars – to prevent them from hurting themselves either physically or professionally.”
Meetings bring in significant revenues for Ruff’s agency – and they require both people management and logistics planning skills. Ruff has been designing and servicing meetings and incentive programs since she joined the industry - first in 1983 as an outside agent and then a leisure agent. She launched Travel Café in 1999, and meeting planning was included in the full-service agency’s repertoire from the start.
Travel Café’s headquarters storefront location is in Billings, and another storefront office is in Bozeman. Home-based employees and contractors among the agency’s 17 full-time staff, one part-time agent and 12 support staff, are located in Missoula and Great Falls.
Additional planning support for Travel Café’s client programs comes from Acclaim Meetings and TRAVELSAVERS (sister companies of Travel Market Report), both consortia of worldwide independent meeting planners and travel agencies.
A fast-growing business
“Meeting planning has grown substantially for us,” said Ruff, “In fact, it is one of the fastest growing areas of our business. The range we do is wide – from business meetings for corporate clients to incentive/reward trips for sales people. We also do meetings and events designed to encourage employee retention, and they are sometimes led by local radio personalities and other pied pipers.”
Meetings amount to about 20% of Travel Café’s revenue and the rest is split between corporate at 50% and leisure at 30%, she said. Meetings marketing to local businesses and existing corporate and leisure clients is ongoing, but Ruff said she doesn’t plans to change the agency’s revenue mix.
Meetings are not only profitable, they are also personally satisfying, Ruff said.
“Some of our best responses come from our meetings clients,” she said. “Meetings give us the opportunity to spend quality time with clients onsite. We take advantage of that time to build relationships, even while we are working to make sure everything comes off without a hitch.”
Meeting planning is very time-consuming and detailed. A manager must be wary about the time spent on projects to ensure the agency is getting good return on investments, Ruff warns. “We have had to become more efficient than we were when we first started,” she said.
Agents who are detail-oriented are best at planning meetings, she added. They are often involved in meetings planning from beginning to end, even to going onsite.
“Being hands-on makes us different from our larger competitors because they have large divisions for various functions and customers end up talking to several people. Our customers like it that we are so hands-on,” she explained.
An internal agency meetings manager handles air and hotel arrangements for groups. Ruff often accompanies a group and if it is as large as 50 people, she takes along an agent to Hawaii, Arizona, Seattle, and California where many Travel Café meetings programs occur.
As for getting people off tables and bars, Ruff said those interventions certainly require finesse.
“You must be able to read people, because you can overdo, baby them too much. Assign agents to people handling who have the patience. Some are good at managing the logistics and don’t like to interact with people. Others are great at interacting with people. Know the difference.”