by Lynn McCullough | August 08, 2016

Communication and partnership are keys to success when it comes to developing successful relationships between meeting planners and event service professionals. That was one of the major conclusions made during a recent webinar hosted by the Event Service Professionals Association (ESPA). Titled "Hear it from the Best! CSMs of the Year -- How Do They Do It?" the discussion, moderated by Successful Meetings editor-in-chief Vincent Alonzo, brought together three convention service professionals (CSM) to discuss their best practices for delivering award-winning service.

Successful Meetings and ESPA partner each year to host the Convention Services Manager of the Year Awards. (See the most recent award winners here; head here to nominate a CSM for this year's awards.) Meeting planners from across North America nominate those CSMs whom they believe have gone above and beyond in partnering together to execute events of all types and sizes. Three of these award-winning ESPA members joined Alonzo on July 21 to discuss what above-and-beyond service means to them and the service lessons they have learned throughout their careers.

The panelists were:

Jamie Huckleberry, director of event services, David L. Lawrence Convention Center - Convention Center CSM of the Year 2016

Joe O'Donnell, CMP, associate director of event management, Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort - Hotel CSM of the Year 2015

Vikki Valencia Kelly, CMP, convention services director, Visit Denver - Convention and Visitors Bureau CSM of the Year 2015

Below are highlights from their conversation. 

Successful Meetings: What are your three consistent habits for success?

O'Donnell: Over-planning, tenacity, and flexibility. Over-planning means you think through any possible problems and find solutions before they happen. Along with over-planning, having a tenacious spirit means you push through any solutions necessary for the event planner. I've been accused of showing up at your office after sending an email to make sure the person is going to read it -- that's tenacity. Once you're on site and you've done the over-planning, you need to be flexible because we all know there is change coming and the ability to be flexible allows us all to succeed.

Kelly: I respond and I respond quickly. In order to do that, you need to remain organized and have your tasks and to-do list together. You'll have time to deal with that email and those phone calls to get back to people in the way they expect you to with honest and open communication. I learned many years ago, even if it's something that's not good, you need to remain open and honest with everybody. Otherwise it's going to come back and get you if you don't.

Huckleberry: I make myself available. I like to make sure our clients know that if they need me they can call me at any time. That availability includes getting back to them within a 24-hour period, anything beyond that is not right. I read through all the specs that are given and I understand the event as a whole, not just my part. I'm not in my office; I'm on the floor all the time checking the rooms constantly, making sure the client sees me and knows I am there for them.

Successful Meetings: What qualities have you refined in your career that have helped you to rise to the next level?

Kelly: I'm a perfectionist and for many years it was difficult for me to be flexible. I can be pretty impatient, so I've really had to learn to remain flexible and to always have that can-do attitude no matter what the request is, no matter how ridiculous or difficult it is and that I'm happy to do it and I'm going to make it happen. I get to know my customers and build an honest and sincere relationship. I love operations, so client relationship-building has been difficult for me to learn. Listening is key and I try to understand what is going on and then read between the lines. Also, I like to do the unexpected and exceed expectations to surprise and delight my customers. We always make sure we provide a little bit of surprise and delight.

Huckleberry: I always make sure I ask a lot of questions and press for information, not just with the client, but also with the service providers that are being brought in. I like to go to the websites of the different associations or conventions and cross-reference so I can understand the event as a whole. I also like to know when to have a second event manager on a show, that way the attention is where it needs to be, and everyone is getting what they need without being spread too thin. The third thing is I listen to the staff radio. Nothing drives me crazier than when the show manager is calling into our service providers and we don't hear it on the first call. I like to make sure we answer on that first call and if it's not my department I'll relay the information on the internal communication. 

O'Donnell: I like to get an early understanding of the goals of the convention and get on board to make those goals a reality. Establishing that partnership early shows the event planner we are a team. Also, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your property and marrying that with the goals of the convention leads to a much better event. Keeping a cool head in a difficult situation usually leads to finding better solutions and helps the planner remain calm and feel relaxed.

Successful Meetings: What are three things you do as part of servicing your clients that you would consider out-of-the-box?

Huckleberry: I like to go and pick up items for clients. I can go out and get the things they need, something that isn't very easy to do if the planner doesn't know the city. I like to act sometimes as the floor manager when there are certain shows that don't warrant having a service provider and the clients aren't familiar with the unions or the jurisdiction. It's being up on the floor to oversee the work being done to make sure things are moving forward. One of my favorite things to do is use our admin team if we need to move a mass of people; it's pulling our admin team out of offices and having them act as human arrows. We have a lot of open space and a lot of windows, so we also find a lot of alternative event locations to keep attendees in our building.

O'Donnell: My strength is keeping things tidy inside the box. I also do what we can to keep the event on-site with creative uses of non-traditional spaces. We also like to provide nice touches when we can like warm hand towels, foot massage machines or espresso machines and moments of surprise and delight. We also like to connect on a personal level, especially if there are any family members (with the event attendees), it always helps to make family members feel special and that drives a deeper connection with the planner. 

Kelly: Small things do matter and I'm always challenging myself and my team to figure out what that is for a particular client. We go above and beyond with a request and offer to help take things off a planner's plate. In the CVB world, we are always dealing with construction or a road shut down, so we try to be proactive. Instead of the client finding out about a construction or road delay from the hotel, we let the transportation vendor know that they may have an issue with a street so there aren't any issues later. 

Successful Meetings: What are some things you all get consistent feedback on from planners that have had a positive impact on your planner relationships or events?

O'Donnell: For me, it's remaining calm. I hear that almost too often, because there are always going to be unexpected challenges and being calm is key to getting through those challenges. The other feedback I hear about is recognizing the partnership with the planner I strive to create, establishing it as early as I can and throughout the lifecycle of the event. A lot of that relationship is based upon open communication and working together to find solutions.

Kelly: I hear how quickly I respond and how proactive I am, and that I truly try to take care of them and their team while they are here. I have honest and open communication with no surprises and I'm there in a support role, dependable and organized if they need anything. Even if it's not my responsibility, I'll get them an answer. Efficient and seamless communication with hotels, convention centers, and venue partners is also key. Otherwise, the event falls down. 

Huckleberry: I am detail-oriented and leave nothing untouched. I am professional, logical, and I work through problems and don't let them sit so it still works the way they want it to work. I am always ready and willing to help with anything.

Successful Meetings: What feedback would you give to planners for things they could do to make events and the planner-supplier relationship smoother?

Kelly: We all know planners are busy and overwhelmed and many times have very limited staff, so we can all agree that the communication can be limited and they will go off the grid. Communication both ways and providing information we need is critical. Being honest and transparent with information is critical for us to be successful. It goes both ways.

Huckleberry: It's all about communication. Our request would be to get the specs a little bit earlier with communications back and forth so we can work through any challenges that may be there. It takes time to go through all that and if you're up on the floor it's hard to meet the turnaround times they're asking for.

O'Donnell: Open communication goes both ways, so letting us know where their problems are, rather than holding onto the problem. That way, we can work together toward a solution in the spirit of partnership.

To listen to the full webinar and learn more about ESPA, visit Successful Meetings and ESPA are currently accepting nominations for CSMs of the Year. Nominate someone special you've worked with at

Lynn McCullough is executive director of Event Services Professionals Association (ESPA). With nearly 500 members, the Event Service Professionals Association (ESPA) is dedicated to elevating the event and convention services profession and to preparing members, through education and networking, for their pivotal role in innovative and successful event execution. For more information, visit