The Long and Winding Road

Children grow up wanting to be lots of things: firemen, ballerinas, movie stars. But how many little boys and girls drift to sleep at night dreaming of building a lifelong career in meeting planning? Survey says: very few. Ask most meeting planners how they came to their careers and you won't hear stories of childhood hopes and dreams. More likely, you'll hear tales of chance encounters, coincidences, and circumstances.

"Like 90 percent of my colleagues in this industry, I fell into it," says Janet Sperstad. "I had a degree in criminal justice, but I needed a job and I knew someone who needed registration help in an association. It turned into a full-time position, and I realized that I really, really enjoyed it." That was 19 years ago. Sperstad has since held a variety of planning positions, and now she teaches meeting planning at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin.

"It was completely by accident," Susan R. Arts says of the development of her career. "I was just out of college, and I answered an ad in The New York Times looking for a graduate who knew the two hottest computer programs at the time: Lotus and WordPerfect." The position was with a medical marketing company that assisted pharmaceutical firms in planning meetings and symposiums. "I completely fell into it, and in love with it, right then." That was more than 15 years ago; Arts is now the manager of corporate meeting planning and travel for Racine, WI-based SC Johnson & Son.

"I was a business-card entry," says Julia Rutherford Silvers. "In other words, all I needed was a business card to call myself a meeting planner." That was in the 1980s, when the then-actress began managing an arts and crafts fair. Today, Silvers is an adjunct faculty member at the Tourism and Convention Administration department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an author with a 20-year resume full of event-planning experience. She also heads up the Event Management Body of Knowledge (EMBOK) Program, an effort to establish global process standards in the industry.

In short, says Bruce Harris, president of Twinsburg, OH-based Conferon Global Services, "The vast majority of people in our industry were doing some other job, and then someone needed a meeting planner, and they said 'Okay.' "

But the days of such haphazard career development are numbered. Today, efforts from within the industry and from academia are combining to create a much clearer path for those considering a career in meeting planning.

Historically, the profession of meeting planning has been rather ill-defined. "Planners have been all over the place," says Dawn Penfold, president of New York City-based placement firm The Meeting Candidate Network, Inc. "There are the people who are happy in the logistics world of meetings and who just enjoy that aspect of the planning of conferences, events, and meetings. Then there are others, who are more interested in the management side, overseeing staffs and teams and being more strategic in nature." Penfold says that this emerging strategic role has been particularly difficult to achieve, due to the lack of an established career path. "That has been the hardest role in the past five to 10 years," she says. "Those planners have really been forging new territory, in developing ROI, ROO, strategic thinking, and even procurement initiatives." But there is cause for optimism, because the same was true of the logistical side of planning little more than a decade ago. "Today, when you say to somebody, 'I'm a meeting professional,' they understand it more, where as 15 years ago if I said that, they looked at me like I had two heads," says Penfold.

Indeed, meeting planning has come so far that industry efforts to promote it are "no longer about elevating the industry, but about establishing a profession," according to Marsha Flanagan, vice president of professional development at Dallas, TX-based Meeting Professionals International (MPI). "The state of the profession right now is much like where human resources was a few years ago, when it was known as personnel. Or purchasing, which is now recognized as procurement." To build on this progress, MPI is introducing Career Pathways. The program, which MPI considers the first objective of its larger strategic plan, Pathways to Excellence, seeks to define core competencies critical to meeting planning as a means toward establishing clearly defined career paths for those in the industry. "The goal is to set standards but not to standardize," Flanagan continues. "We want to introduce consistency across the skill set."

Career Pathways will define five levels of professional planning: student, novice, intermediate, senior, and executive. Planners at each level will be able to access a personalized Web site that will offer skill assessments and career development advice. "The program is centered around the notion of how to help an individual in his or her advancement personally and professionally," says Don Dea, co-founder of Webster, NY-based Fusion Productions, who is developing the technological framework of the personalized Web sites. "People will be able to find out what paths they can take to do their jobs better, whether it be in their current position or in their advancement to higher positions." This way, MPI hopes, if a planner wants a promotion, or even to transfer from corporate to association planning, for example, the site will offer a sort of road map of how to achieve those goals.

In addition to the five levels of professional planners, Career Pathways will also seek to establish job-title standards. "We will show certain job descriptions matched to certain job titles," Dea explains. Planners consider this a critical component of career development. "There are endless titles across the many disciplines of our industry. If we can establish what experience and competency level is associated with each job title, we'll be able to figure out where we are in the scheme of things," adds EMBOK's Silvers.

Once those titles are established, industry organizations such as MPI will "be able to go to human resource departments and say, 'Here's what it means to be a meeting planner, and here is some guidance on what to look for when you're trying to hire one,' " says Kelly Schulz, spokesperson for MPI. "Our members often feel that within their organizations, people don't understand what they do," which, of course, creates a major obstacle to career advancement. "We need to create a dialogue that explains and articulates what the profession is all about."

By and large, planners support this approach to building a career path. "If we can get people to recognize that this is a profession, and that you do have to have some specific skills and abilities to have this career and be successful in it, all the better," says SC Johnson's Arts.

Industry observers agree that the lack of a required formal educational background has hampered the industry's development. "We haven't had enough of a farm system," says Conferon's Harris. Silvers adds, "I firmly believe that until we have standards of entry—licensure, certification, or some sort of degree—the industry and the practitioners within it will never be able to be a true profession." MPI's Flanagan agrees. "College curriculum has been all over the board, between the two-year programs, the four-year programs, the technical colleges, the few master's degrees," she says. Flanagan estimates that there are some 200 educational programs in this country that in some way address meeting planning. "Standardizing the education would be a dream—that would be awesome—to make sure people are learning the same thing," she says, but is quick to add that the goal is not to limit the scope of the planner's education. "I'm not suggesting that colleges should only teach a certain thing," she says. "Instead, they should offer a core set of skills, and then do whatever they want as far as electives."

Sound familiar? It should. "There are degrees that support other professions," echoes Madison Area Technical College's Sperstad. "So we as academic institutions need to help create benchmarks and standardize curricula so that planners will know where to go to develop the specific skills they need." And everyone seems to agree that education is key to the development of career paths in meeting planning. "People who go to school to study a profession have a much bigger commitment to their career, rather than if they just learn from the school of hard knocks," says Patti Shock, professional and development chair at the Tourism and Convention Administration Department at the Harrah College of Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "That's not to say that the formally educated planners are better at their jobs, but they are often more invested in it. If you go to school for something for four years, you're less likely to look at it as something you're just doing temporarily." Furthermore, "Lifelong learning is absolutely, positively the key to progressing within the industry," Silvers says.

As the establishment of professional and educational standards progresses, planners who are currently building their careers would do well to listen to the voice of those who've gone before them. "Everybody thinks they can do meeting planning," Sperstad says. "But what's been their experience? Companies don't want trial and error in this anymore." And some industry veterans argue that the best experience to be had is on the hotel side. "Like it or not, there's no place you'll learn logistics better than as a conference services manager (CSM) on the hotel side," says Conferon's Harris, a 35-year industry veteran. "There's a frequency there that allows you to learn the facilities side of the business and develop a skill set and a breadth of experience that you can then bring to associations or corporations. And that, then, can be enhanced through the CMP and other education, to understand the strategic side of the business." Bill Briscoe, chief industry relations officer for Scottsdale, AZ-based planning firm HelmsBriscoe, agrees. Briscoe estimates that 70 to 75 percent of the company's nearly 700 associates come from a hotel sales background (with the remainder coming from a meeting planning or CVB background). "Being a CSM is a tremendous experience," says SC Johnson's Arts, "and by far the hardest job I've ever had." Still, Conferon's Harris also strongly emphasizes the importance of personal traits, such as integrity, intelligence, and responsibility. "I would not put experience above personal traits," he says. "To make salt, you need sodium and chloride. You can't make it without both, and one is not more important than the other."

In addition to gaining on-the-job experience, industry associations are key. "Get involved in the committees in the associations—MPI, PCMA, all of those. There are plenty of groups that are out there if one wants to grow one's skills, and it is significant to get on committees with one's peers," says Silvers. "Outside of academic institutions, work on relationships and on networking [in industry organizations]," suggests Sperstad. "All of my jobs I've gotten through my network. These jobs were never even listed."

Planners have always helped each other make their ways through the ranks. But now, thanks to recent industry efforts, trends in academia, and some key pop culture references (like The Apprentice), meeting planning is continually developing into an industry in which one can more easily build a long-term career. Says Penfold: "My father never understood what I did for a living. But now, even on The Sopranos, Tony Soprano's son wants to be an event planner."