Meetings Significa

Heather Mason points the way on industry issues and trends that affect your career—and your life

Why 'Doing It All' Gets Women Nowhere

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I want to talk about the “I can do it all” mindset that many women have. I think the event management process provides the perfect microcosm in which to dissect this illusion.

As a lifestyle philosophy, the belief that “doing it all” is possible places women in a mental state of delusion that keeps us from reaching our full potential. 

Why am I addressing women? Because men don’t seem to have this philosophy. In fact they organize their lives around the idea of “not doing it all.” They embrace the concept of delegation. They seem to view power as a simple scenario: the more people you command, the more power you have. 

This ideology has helped men succeed and also created the organizational structure that has run our world for thousands of years. Monarchs, prime ministers, and presidents have always governed by delegating to ministries or departments. Generals have always had officers, sergeants, and corporals manage their troops. And corporations also operate through a delegating hierarchy. Take a look at the mostly men (unfortunately) who run companies with vast human resources at their disposal. A CEO has a lot of meetings to get the 35,000-foot view, gives his department heads their marching orders, and doesn’t bother with the day-to-day stuff. A company head that is involved in the minutia is seen as weak. 

But some women, for a variety of reasons, seem to view delegation and outsourcing as a sign of “not being able to do it all.” As though delegating is an inherent negative judgment on ability: that it is weakness. This proclivity seems especially true when it comes to events.  

If I had a dime for every time I heard a female prospective client say, “Yes we are looking at outsourcing events, but I could do it if I just had the time” -- I’d be rich indeed. The thing that stands out to me is that I’ve never, ever heard a man say that same thing. No man has ever tried to prove to me that the only reason he is interviewing event management companies is because he doesn’t have time but, lest I forget, he does have the ability!  

It is my theory that the reason men don’t say this is because they don't see any loss of power in delegating or outsourcing. In fact, I bet if we asked them they would say that if they didn’t have people to outsource or delegate to, it would actually mean they had less power and authority. 

The reason this has occurred to me lately is that in every single planning meeting we have with clients, ALL of attendees are women. The only time a man is involved is when we need direction on strategy. But the items on the list of logistics are being done by women. Although each of the clients finds this fact oddly interesting, I see it from the outside as simply business as usual. 

The men are the ‘idea people’, the women execute. But isn’t it time we started wondering about this model? Isn’t it time that we, as women, start questioning where our philosophy of power came from?  

To me, the philosophy that women only gain power and respect from ‘doing it all’ is a flawed one indeed. It means that we will work the most, and try to accomplish things outside our skill set, all the while trying to prove (without success) that we are extremely adept at each and everything we attempt. For what?  Is there a prize at the end of this?  

Whereas, I observe men and think they have it rightly figured out. True power is about leadership of human resources and delegation to the best of those resources. Now I do know that people (men & women) misuse power all the time, but for now let’s assume that those who come to power know how to manage it. 

Leadership is the ability to find and inspire those who are the best at what they do. This allows you to get people mobilized to do more work than you could ever imagine doing on your own. 

This principle applies not only to our work but to our home life too. Once we change our philosophy of power to one which embraces outsourcing and delegating, we actually become more secure in our position, not less. There is no need to prove our ability, because we should assume it is already a given. How we execute the project efficiently, that is the true judgment of our skills, not whether we do it alone. 

The one thing I tell every woman who works for me (and at this point it is only women) is that the weakest thing she can say is “I can do it all.”  I want them to see that as a sad and disillusioned statement, spoken only by those who intend on an early grave chasing something that can never exist. They should instead focus on discovering their strengths, and determining their weaknesses so they know who to hire on a project, and who to surround themselves with. 

We were not intended to do it all. Who told us we should?  We were intended to be the best of who we are –and then to delegate, and outsource to those who are excellent at what they do. That is true power, and with that we can create anything – events, conferences or even social change…  

An event requires plenty of players, diverse abilities, and skilled expertise, so delegation is truly our greatest asset. We should see it as such. May we never say again, “I can do it all” and smile, because it is an unnecessary phrase from a fruitless struggle long past.

Gratitude: The Simple Secret to Getting Things Done

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One of the bad parts about being an event manager is that no matter what you’re doing, you’re always an event manager. It’s not exactly like being a doctor at a party and having everyone tell you what aches, but there are some similarities. For instance, I’m sure when you attend a gathering or event that you have nothing to do with those in your circle ask for help, advice, or critiques.

There is also the tendency to jump in when you know your experience could help. It’s hard to watch people learn event management lessons that you’ve already gone through, especially when it’s second nature for us planners to solve them.  

It isn’t easy for an event manager to just blend in and simply be a guest. But when we do get involved, what really matters -- and what will keep us coming back to help time after time -- is a little thing called gratitude. 

It is a quality many of us have learned through years in the business, and to some it just comes naturally. Regardless, gratitude is an essential trait of any good event manager. And I’m not just being touchy-feely. The impact of showing gratitude has actually been studied, and proven effective. 

I was speaking with a woman who runs her own business as a community consultant for large companies. It’s a fascinating role. She worked on the Continental Airlines / United Airlines merger, and it was her job to merge the cultures and "communities" in each company to enable a smooth transition. It was no easy task, and key to her success was to identify individuals in the employee communities who could advocate and enable an atmosphere of teamwork. 

What she discovered is that the single most important trait for a person to have in order to influence others to act and come together was gratitude. It was more important than a host of other leadership qualities. She said that in the matrix of win/lose, lose/lose, and win/win, the worst place for an organization to be was in the win/win category -- but still leaving the other party feeling resentful. 

The most common reason companies fell short of win/win status was a lack of gratitude; that is, a lack of appreciation, and a lack of recognition of the effort that it took to accomplish the task. 

Isn’t this the same for event planners?  Whether we are paid or not to do a job, doesn’t gratitude make it sweeter? And wouldn’t all of us work harder for a client or boss who shows us appreciation?    

The interesting thing about the conversation I had with this woman is that it occurred when we both were up to our elbows in pasta sauce. We had just attended an event where the venue had cancelled at the last minute, and all the food had been moved to a meeting room at a nearby hotel. The producers who were in charge had given up on the event and follow-through, and we felt bad for the host who still had a concert to emcee in the "impromptu" upstairs room. 

So when the hotel staff said that the room needed to be cleared of all food, which had been brought in from another location, some of us dug in and did it. In an hour, she and I, along with two other women, had stacked the dirty dishes, dumped the alcohol, and moved the entire set-up to the outside patio in neatly stacked boxes. 

The problem? My new friend said it well – no one thanked us. And while we weren’t looking for it, it would have been a significant payment. 

After my conversation with her, I looked at my own actions and at what I tell my team. I always impart to them that every single person who helps us produce an event, from the busboy to the A/V director, should be treated the same. I’ve also said that you should always try to be nice, because it doesn’t help to spend your "chips" yelling at anyone. It only means you’ll lose any chance of assistance later on when you really need it. 

But, I don’t think I’ve ever captured the concept as well as this woman did: that gratitude is a force of social change. It is a positive currency which is in abundant supply, and one that we have at our fingertips. We are in unique positions to use this currency every day, at every event, with hotel staff, venue contacts, and doormen. Gratitude goes a long way, and has a big return. What are your stories of gratitude?

There Are Never Two Captains: More Reasons Why Roles and Responsibilities Matter

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I had a cringe-worthy conversation right before embarking on my Christmas vacation. It was one of those situations where I hung up the phone after speaking with a client and thought, "How am I going to talk them out of this in the New Year?”

We had been going through the Caspian Ten Essentials, and were up to number two — “Roles & Responsibilities.” It’s one of those steps that seems like a no-brainer. After all, every group feels very confident that each role is clearly defined, if not by title, then by assumption. 

However, what this particular conversation involved was the client saying that ‘two’ people would be in charge of the tasks at their office. Can I hear the groans out there? I felt the universe shudder as an inviolable law of project management was being cast aside. Two people in charge of the same tasks? Oh, no my friend, that simply cannot do. 

There is a reason that every ship has only one captain — that way the responsibility is firmly established. In a deadline situation, one person needs to feel the heat to finish the task. With two people on the line, there is a chance for slippery accountability. If enough moments happen where something falls through the cracks because the other person was supposed to do it, the entire project can be derailed. This doesn’t even count the in-fighting which can occur when trying to decide who is really in charge of getting something done.  

So in project management, in this case, two is bad, one is better. 

Besides using the “Roles & Responsibilities,” step to suss out who is in charge of what, we use it to determine who the ‘unseen’ participants are in the decision-making process. We start by asking questions about the role of the board, the CEO, and the marketing team, and it’s amazing what we find. 

The most common result of this inquiry process is that we discover the often undocumented layers of approval involved in each step of the pre-planning. 

Usually the CEO has more of a say in certain event elements than we would have guessed. Let’s say they prefer a beautiful stage (which will blow our budget immediately) or they want to impress the guests with food (another budget buster). Or perhaps it is the board which requires special treatment (say hello to luxury transportation and extra guests). Regardless, knowing who needs to be considered in the planning process, and what is important to them, dramatically affects the event and cannot be understated. 

Another discovery we usually make is that we are able to determine where the role of the marketing department begins and ends with relation to the event and its logistics. 

Now as someone who used to work in marketing, I understand how vital that department is to the success of any event. However, I also know that without very clear roles, the value that both the event team and the marketing team bring to the table can be compromised. 

The event will involve a certain look and feel, incorporate the official branding of the company and hopefully embody the very values of the company through every client interaction from the save-the-date to the evaluation. Now those things certainly sound like the role of marketing. But the event logistics team needs to execute all of those steps. So how do you balance and accommodate both? 

We have found that by outlining clear roles, the event logistics team can consciously involve the marketing team, before execution takes place. This ensures we don’t plan a stage design that is at odds with marketing guidelines, or launch a registration site that doesn’t leverage survey questions which could help inform a product launch. The other benefit? The marketing department becomes an ally and a valued part of the event team rather than a thorn in our side throughout the process. 

Besides the “Success Metrics,” I find “Roles & Responsibilities” to be the only other essential which is absolutely vital to creating a cohesive event team. With clear roles and defined responsibilities, each given to a single person, an event can move efficiently to a successful end. 

Do you have any good stories when you’ve had multiple captains? 

Free Is Never Ever Free

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If I were to pick one of the most misunderstood phrases uttered during an event by a client, it would be “We got something for free.” For those in the industry, I wish I could see you smiling.  

I wanted to analyze why I cringe when I hear that phrase, and my staff attempted to help me figure it out. We were confronted -- I like that word because of how accurate it is -- during an event recently with a a tale of a couple of ‘free’ items the client was able to secure. But as we all now, free never, ever, ever means free. It usually just means a different currency is being used; sometimes that currency is labor, sometimes stress, sometimes kowtowing. One thing is for certain, is that it -- whatever "it" ends up being -- will cost.  

The particular free element we were gifted with was an outdoor screen. We also received free food for the receptions. Of course, implementing both free items increased our labor fivefold, coordinating arrivals, staffing, dishes and napkins, permits, A/V, etc. And here is where my staff helped me unwind how we could communicate in the future to our clients about the misleading "free" label. 

The problem with "free" is that it's a catch-all word, when it shouldn't be. I am now advocating that we adopt these two separate nuanced terms: "comprehensively free" and "gift with cost." Going forward, we will be reviewing a term sheet describing these phrases with our clients so that we can have a streamlined way of communicating around this issue.  

An example under our new nomenclature of something comprehensively free is getting not only the food for a reception for free, but everything else that would go along with full paid catering, i.e. staffing, cutlery and china, napkins, clean-up, and a plan to deliver and pick up all materials at normally expected hours. 

However, if something free doesn’t come with all the accouterments of a paid vendor, then it is likely not comprehensively free but rather a gift with cost. This phrase opens up the opportunity to have a conversation with our client around what those costs might be.  

In essence, we can now measure how "free" the gift is based on the cost of actually activating it onsite. So if the cost to get it delivered to the venue, or make it function onsite, outweighs the actual value of the gift then this equation could actually end up being a losing proposition. The gift may come with a significant labor cost or an outrageous delivery time, or maybe the amount of emotional kowtowing required throughout is simply too great to bear. At that time it is "cheaper to pay."

This will be the next phrase introduced to our client, and one which follows gift with cost to show their supervisors why a "free" item was turned down. In fact, I cannot WAIT to turn down a free item and getting giddy at the mere thought. 

Cheaper to pay will simply show the ROI of a free item because there is an investment incurred and benefit expected. At that point, even the beancounters should be satisfied, though perhaps befuddled if "freebies" start to look expensive. 

And of course, in the cheaper to pay column is my favorite item of all -– labor. Labor is the one thing that we as event producers know is the least appreciated, but most important facet of any event. When a client assumes that our trained and experienced event staff is substitutionary with their own staff regardless of internal role, it is not only an insult, but actually a costly liability. 

Cheaper to pay, for labor, will be our way of showing the "cost" of using internal staff for roles best left to trained, hired, and insured event staff. This comes down to illustrating the most "expensive" moments at a conference, such as understanding how to use the registration equipment, problem solving back-stage, understanding A/V and tech lingo enough to make on-the-spot decisions, and taking the time and energy to understand security and first aid procedures which could protect a client in an emergency situation.  

Those moments might never happen, but if they should it would definitely be cheaper to pay than to get gift with cost labor that might be untrained and inexperienced.  

Who knows if our new cost savings terms will work, but we’re anxious to try it out and would love your suggestions as well. How do you get clients to understand that free is actually not free for you?

- Heather Mason

Bridging Cultural Differences

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I often write about how multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary our jobs are as event managers, and navigating cultural differences is just one more instance. When working overseas, it is not enough to know our job, we must also know the culture and be able to navigate up and down the ladder of influence, from the lowest staff member on the rung to the owner of a hotel or conference center at the top.  At any point, an inability to negotiate culture or diplomatic norms could place the execution of the event in jeopardy.

I’d love to hear about your experiences in this realm, and here are just a couple of mine.  

We plan a large conference in England each year, and I still remember vividly March of 2005 when I arrived at the conference center, eager to start planning. I began by saying ‘I want…’ and ‘I need…’ and somehow got the impression throughout the day that what I was doing wasn’t going over very well.  

Thankfully a very kind soul decided to tutor me in the art of being politely British. What that included was unlearning the demanding phrases like “I want” and “I need” and instead framing requests with kinder words. “Perhaps,” he said, would go a long way to gaining cooperation and ensure that I would not be seen as a rude American. I had a lot of learning to do.  

I spent the next seven years learning the culture in the UK and became an anglophile along the way. I’ve switched from coffee to tea, and think scones with clotted cream is one of the best confections to be invented. I’ve also learned to bring gifts on arrival as a gesture of goodwill -- best not to show up emptyhanded to greet those who will be helping you. But my most valuable takeaway has been that each location has a culture, and not just overseas!

Our newest client event hosts an outdoor festival in a downtown area. The success of this event then is less dependent upon excellent logistics than the diplomatic efforts needed to win hearts and minds, as it were, in a downtown merchant association.  

This is where those English lessons come in handy. We have set up meetings with the local restaurants and offered VIP status to those who own the parking lots we need to use. Our goal is to be on a first name basis with the city officials who issue permits, and the local police we will need for security. Add diplomacy to the list of requirements for a successful project. 

Our next event is located in Africa. The first item on my task list? Find a culture guide, now that I know how important it is. How do we win friends and influence vendors? What are the pitfalls of culture that could cause an American to unknowingly offend? I’m sure there are many we couldn’t foresee. 

Regardless, I can guarantee you I will not be telling anyone what I want, or what I need, and you can better believe there will be gifts in our hands when we go to greet our potential partners.

- Heather Mason

Don't Call Me A Planner, I'm a Change Architect

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I just attended the SPINCON conference in Telluride, Colorado. It was both a breath of fresh air being in the mountains and a breath of fresh air to be with an entire group of people who have been in the meetings industry for over a decade. There is something pretty fantastic about being in a room where everyone understands what it’s like to be in our industry. I can see now why group therapy is so, well, therapeutic.  


The sessions were well programmed. One session in particular resonated with me, “Inspired Meetings.”  It was led by Meredith Martini from Performance Inspired, Inc, who is an expert in engagement. She talked about how events can change people by influencing their behaviors, and asked us to recall an event we attended where we were affected to the point where we actually did something.  


I mentioned one conference where I spoke with the founder of, Premal Shah.  He’s been to several of our events, but this is the first time I’d had a chance to chat with him about his hugely successful microlending enterprise. The event was near Mother’s Day and when I got back, I ordered a Kiva gift card for my mom to use.  She can now loan money to women in developing countries, and will get the money back with interest, so that she can do it again.  


My life was changed, and I passed it on to my mother. She’s in turn told people in her neighborhood, and it’s gone on from there.  Events can create those kinds of moments that change people much more than all the online banners I’ve seen advertising Kiva over the years. 


And this is what we do as event producers.  In essence, we are the architects of change. When I hear someone say we are in the business of logistics it’s like saying surgeons are in the business of cutting.  Sure it’s something that we do, but the real description is far more intricate and involved. 


When events are architected correctly there are more moments of ‘Kiva’ like engagement. And it’s not just the one-on-one meeting that we can have a hand in crafting, the larger main stage events can have just as much impact.  


I’ve never known someone who didn’t want his or her soul to be touched in some way when partaking in an experience.  Whenever I hire someone at our company I tell them that we work with organizations that change the world. I’ve never had someone say, “No, I don’t want to do that.”  Now, they might not want the smaller financial compensation that working with non-profits sometimes comes with, but the idea of doing something important is consistently appealing.  


So maybe you work for an association, or a corporation.  Maybe there is not a larger mission other than to grow the group, or the company in ways that don’t readily lend themselves to some sort of life-changing moment. But I would challenge you to find a way to add that element in, to really look at the meeting, the event, and see where the theme can rise above the goals into something truly transformative.  Can you architect the meeting to create engagement, feeling, and a sense of positive change?  Even if it’s just inspiring people to do better? 


We have a power that I would argue no other person in an entire organization has, except maybe the CEO.  We can have a hand in creating spontaneous moments between people, encouraging conversations, and imparting a sense of inspiration. We are lucky, and when I describe myself besides saying producer, I will now be saying, "change architect." 


- Heather Mason

What's A Dinner With George Clooney Worth?

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 recently spoke at the HSMAI Conference in Anaheim on strategic methodology for conferences. This term, strategic methodology, was really just a fancy way of asking, "how do you boil down large vague goals into tactics, outcomes and measurements that can be met using a conference?" The purpose of my talk was to discuss what conferences are naturally good at doing and why the measurements associated with them need to be long-term in nature.  

This is why I started talking about value first. My initial question to the audience was to ask who had $1,000 to give me on the spot. Of course, no one did. But as soon as I started to talk about things that were valuable, a dinner with George Clooney, a brand new Mercedes, a new house, all of a sudden there were a lot of people in the room eager to part with $1,000.  

My purpose was to show that monetary figures without the context of value are relatively meaningless. In a sense, this is what I was talking about in last month’s blog post on the GSA. The fact that the government just limited total spend on those types of conferences to a $500k number is nonsensical. There is no context of value, and this is where we, as event managers, need to change the conversation.  

I was initially excited when I saw the event industry really focusing on ROI. But now, I’m beginning to feel we’ve only gone halfway in paving the trail towards value. The conversation is predominantly about numbers first: cost per attendee, cost savings year over year, or the shared benefits of travel bundling. While it’s always good to not spend frivolously, it should not take our eyes off the prize.  

The entire reason for doing a conference is because of the value it generates for a company. We do not embark on a conference with an end goal of saving money, otherwise the ultimate goal would be to drive closer and closer towards zero, and we all know that’s not the point.  So what is the point?  It’s the value.  If you can have dinner with George Clooney, it might be worth $1,000 (men put in your version here, I apologize for being sexist). If you can get X results at a conference than what is that worth?  What is X worth to the company. That’s the point.  That IS the ROI.  

With this framework, we can shift from cost per attendee being associated with a successful conference. It may be a beneficial metric to know as a benchmark, and there is nothing wrong with that. But we all know, a lower cost per attendee could just as easily be associated with an unsuccessful conference as a successful one. It’s not a consistently comparative measure.   

Now, there may be some conferences out there whose end goals can be achieved immediately on the spot. Normally those are conferences whose focus is to make a lot of money on attendee fees and sponsorships. There needs to be a net profit, and a large one at that, in order to be successful -- and this can be measured immediately. These are events where the conference IS the product.   

However, for those conferences or meetings which are not in and of themselves products of the company, but rather marketing vehicles with goals such as loyalty, prospect conversation, education, etc, on-site metrics rarely make much sense. The end return on these goals is rarely captured on-site. It’s a bit like putting up a billboard on Sunset Boulevard and expecting it to pay for itself on the day it goes up. No one would hold a marketing campaign to that standard, and no one should hold an event to it either. The value is reached over a certain time horizon.  

A perfect example of this was brought up by one of the attendees in the session. She was getting pressure from the top about the cost per attendee price having gone up at a recent meeting.  But she was trying to point out to management that the two prospects who she recommended inviting both converted to customers following the conference. Those two prospects are worth over a million dollars a year to the company. A half million dollar conference then, has returned double that in revenue in the first year, nevermind what will be brought in over the lifetime of those customers.  

The other terms being used currently to talk about event value, ROE (return on event) and ROO (return on objective) seem to both get to value at an end result. Ultimately we are answering the questions – "Why are we doing what we’re doing?,"  "Why are we hosting a conference or a meeting?," and  "How long will it take to see the results of what we’re creating?" So let’s get to the question of value first, before we talk about any of the Rs at all.    

Executives have always understood marketing to have a time horizon for return, and it is time they see events the same way. Our value is being undersold otherwise.