Taking a strong interest in what’s going on in the political, social and technological arenas is an essential part of being a good meeting planner.
This is the long-held viewpoint and practice of veteran planner and educator Joan Eisenstodt, who made this the central message of a recent presentation at the New Jersey Chapter of Meeting Professionals International (MPI).
“Open up your thinking. Our industry is so static,” she told attendees, adding that a tendency for planners to not be attuned to what’s going on around them is partly to blame.
“I’m always horrified by the number of people who pay no attention to news. I’m a voracious reader, both on paper and online,” said Eisenstodt, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based consultancy Eisenstodt Associates.
Something to tweet about
Eisenstodt, as anyone who is her Facebook friend or Twitter follower can attest, is also a voracious user of social media.
“I tweet a lot because I have a mission to get people to learn,” she said. “Not only are there so many issues of interest, but these issues have an impact on planners and how they do their jobs. Twitter has become the best source of news.”
While Eisenstodt added that she greatly prefers texting to phone conversations, she acknowledged that many people prefer more interaction. “I have talked to students taking online courses and they hate it. They find it dull. They want to interact with fellow students and teachers.”
Technology is not a threat
When an audience member asked if technology was not a distraction, Eisenstodt responded, “I am distracted by my own thoughts, so it doesn’t matter. However, many meetings are substituting ‘cool’ for substance.
“Hybrid meetings are where we’re going and it’s not a threat. Technology enables us to create communities before, during and after a meeting. In fact, you’re welcome to Tweet and text while I speak.”
Issues at the table
In an effort to generate discussion about issues that affect the industry, Eisenstodt had attendees at each table discuss what those issues might be.
Among those that emerged: the Sunshine Act (which monitors spending by drug and medical device companies) and the Volcker Rule (which imposes new regulation on banks) – both of which, according to attendees at one table, “will kill our industry” or at least “change our business.”
Another table came up with “generational differences” regarding texting and other forms of technological communication replacing verbal conversations.
Standing up for meetings
Eisenstodt commented on the need for the meetings industry to make its case in Washington, D.C., adding that elected officials often do not understand its value.
“It’s ironic about the Obama administration. At the same time they’re promoting travel, they are cutting meeting attendance and budgets,” she said. “We are not getting the support we need to keep meeting face to face.”
She urged the audience to write letters to elected officials to explain the importance of the meetings industry.
“We have not done a good job of putting out the message about how hard meetings are. We show all the pretty pictures of the places we meet, but not the value of what we do.”
A risky business
Eisenstodt also urged the MPI attendees to focus more on risk issues, including having a risk plan in place for each meeting.
“How many planners have a crisis management plan? I review contracts for a living and people don’t read them. They look only at rates, dates and space. We need to be smarter about protecting people. Nobody has a risk plan.”
As an example of a potential crisis, she asked audience members to consider what would happen if a meeting were held in a city where funding to the fire department had been cut.
“Will there be people to evacuate your attendees? These are the things you need to consider as a smart planner – or even a smart supplier,” she said. “Our infrastructure is falling apart while at the same time budgets are being cut.
“The world is fragile and I’m afraid for the future. That’s why we need to pay attention. Because of energy issues, I have heard of hotels charging meetings for electricity. Texas has had such a serious drought that at one point they were not sending water to hotels.”
She also noted that privacy and confidential assets are major issues to be aware of. “In the last few years, hotels have been among the most hacked entities.”
Conducting ethical business
Ethics are another major concern to Eisenstodt who serves as vice chair of the Ethics Committee for the American Society of Association Executives.
“A new code of conduct has been developed as part of the CMP certification,” she noted. “We have seen problems like people acting as planners but also acting as third party bookers who get a cut under the table. We have to talk about these things because we are often seen as takers. We need to do business differently.”
Her summary advice: “Follow the news on Twitter; sign up for Google and Bing alerts; read more; be aware of what’s going on. Be stronger, better and smarter.”