5 Ways to Rocket to the Top

(Originally published April 02, 2002 - Successful Meetings)

Okay, you've got a job -- now what? Unbelievably, few people ever ask themselves that question. Most just focus on the day-to-day details of their jobs and put their career strategies on autopilot. That's a sure way to never get anywhere. How can you make sure that your employers know just how much you bring to the table? It's simple. Manage your career the same way you manage the details of your job.

Whatever your current station in the work force, there are opportunities for you to invest in yourself and improve your chances getting a promotion and perhaps a boost in salary as well. We've found five steps you can take to single yourself out as a true meetings professional.

#1 Hit the Books
Whether you've been at this thing called planning since the earth cooled, or you're still struggling to get your feet wet in the industry, a couple of classes or even a degree could become your ticket to that big promotion or elusive first job. And while it's certainly possible to excel as a meeting planner without a stitch of classroom training -- after all, we are talking about an industry driven by "trial by fire" experiences -- could it hurt to crack a book?

Planner Jennifer Lindsey doesn't think so. "When I was interviewing for my first job, I felt like my bachelor's degree in meetings and destination management [from Northeastern State University in Oklahoma] really gave me an edge over the other applicants." It turns out Lindsey, now the conference manager at PennWell Corporation, a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based media company, was right. "That degree jumped off the page at me," says Randa Reeder-Briggs, Lindsey's first boss at the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in Tulsa. "I knew she'd have a clue, a basic knowledge, about the industry."

Maria Aseron, special programs coordinator at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions in Alexandria, Virginia, figured her comprehensive educational background would make her stand out in a crowd, but she was surprised by the boost in confidence it gave her. "It's great to be able to say, 'I achieved a master's degree in tourism administration [from The George Washington University in Washington D.C.]' during a job interview." That sense of pride even helped her secure a bigger paycheck for herself. "I used my degree as leverage, pointing out my value to my employer."

While a master's degree was just the shot in the arm Aseron needed ("I'm thinking of pursuing another one"), not everyone can make that kind of time and financial investment. Luckily for ambitious planners -- those bent on improving themselves and their station in life -- dozens of colleges and universities offer not only undergraduate and graduate degrees in planner-related fields, but continuing education certificate programs that require much less money and far fewer hours in study hall. --Michelle Gillan Fisher

#2 Find the Right Job
Where do you want your career as a planner to take you? This is an important question to ask yourself before pursuing or accepting a position. Once you have a good idea of the answer, you'll be better equipped to decide if a particular job is right for you.

"I think it is extremely important for anybody who is looking for a job to do as much research in advance as they can about the company," says Sheryl Sookman, CMP, president of The MeetingConnection in Novato, California. One reason is a simple fact of job security in an uncertain economy. "People want to have a sense of, 'Am I going into a company that isn't going to fold six weeks from now?' " she explains. Another reason is to go into an interview prepared. "You'll have an understanding of how that company operates, and if it's compatible with your own background."

San Francisco-based Loretta Lowe, CMP, has been a contract meeting professional for five years, and she's had first-hand experience with the wide range of salaries and levels of respect for planners. "In some companies they are no more than glorified [administrative assistants]," says Lowe. "In a few companies the planner was at vice presidential level and made key decisions that affected the future of the company."

If it's management responsibilities that you want, you'll need to figure out where planners fit into a company's business model. "Income level might be one way to determine the respect or decision-making authority. Support for professional development is another key indicator," says Lowe. Sookman adds that you should find where planners report up the chain. If they are reporting to human resources or the finance department, this might raise a red flag, "because it's not getting the level of attention and respect for the work that it should be," she says. This might be difficult information to locate prior to meeting with the company face-to-face, admits Sookman. "But you may be able to see what department [planning] filters through if you look at the executive profiles in a Web site."

Sookman also recommends local business journals. "These have articles that are written about different companies and what's going on with them," she says. "In a lot of those articles they'll talk about the strategic focus of the company." Finally, Sookman prescribes business publications such as President & CEO and CFO Magazine. "You can hear from the top echelon of the company about what their goals are . . . And you can hopefully read within that what they may be looking at doing in terms of meetings." --Cynthia K. Sullivan

#3 Get That Seal of Approval
Shirley Mertz believes obtaining the Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) designation brought attention to her supervisors that she had the knowledge and credentials to manage Nationwide Insurance's planning department in Columbus, Ohio. Now, she's urging planners in her department to strive for the CMP. She doesn't require the designation for employment, but it will be considered as part of their learning and growth appraisals during their annual reviews.

Shari Westmoreland, an independent planner with the Georgia chapter of Meeting Professionals International, says she's beginning to see more job advertisements from companies seeking planners with CMP designations. "To me, as an independent, it's extremely important," she says. "It's instant validation when people are considering me for work." Westmoreland believes the designation will allow her to charge more for her services.

Dawn Penfold, CMP, president of the Meeting Candidate Network, a national search firm, says if two candidates are equal, having the CMP or CMM (Certification in Meeting Management) designations will probably give the planner the edge. "It gives you an opportunity when weighed against another candidate," Penfold says. "Especially if the hiring official has a designation."

She believes the CMP and CMM are also beneficial to planners who don't have a college degree. The industry's acceptance of the designations makes it a selling point. About 7,460 individuals nationwide have the CMP designation, and 204 have the CMM.

Penfold says the CMP also allows planners who don't have a specific experience, like exhibit management, to say they believe they're capable of the job since they studied exhibit management for their CMP designation.

And according to past salary reviews, Penfold says, CMPs are statistically paid more than non-CMPs. The same goes for individuals with the CMM, according to Michele C. Wierzgac, CMM, chair of the Global CMM Advisory Board, who conducted a recent survey of CMMs and found the majority said the certification had boosted their incomes; many received promotions, as well. --Peggy Swisher

#4 Join the In Croud
One of the best ways to advance your career is to associate with others who are successful in your field. The associations that serve the meetings industry offer great opportunities to network with other planners as well as suppliers, and give their members access to educational seminars, certification programs, and a wealth of career-building information. Here's a list of most of what's out there. --Vincent Alonzo

ACTE Association of Corporate Travel Executives, Alexandria, VA, (703) 683-5322, www.acte.org Membership: ACTE is an international organization comprised of over 2,400 corporate travel executives and suppliers. Cost: $300

ASAE American Society of Association Executives, Washington D.C., (202) 626-2723, www.asaenet.org Membership: There are 25,000 association and supplier members worldwide. Cost: Chief executive -- $250, professional staff -- $220, associate/supplier -- $350, student -- $30.

AMP Association of Meeting Professionals, Washington D.C., (202) 973-8686, www.amp sweb.org Membership: Has over 350 planner and service provider members. Cost: Planner -- $135, allied (local supplier) -- $225, associate (out-of-town supplier) -- $355, student -- $50.

IAEM International Association for Exhibition Management, Dallas, TX, (972) 458-8002, www.iaem.org Membership: IAEM has over 3,500 exhibition management and supplier members. Cost: Exhibition member -- $310 (additional members -- $245), associate member -- $385 (additional associates -- $355), student member -- $35, educator (or faculty) member -- $160, retired member -- $60.

ICPA Insurance Conference Planners Association, North Vancouver, BC, Canada, (604) 988-2054, www.icpa.com Membership: The 400-plus membership comprises meeting planners in the insurance and financial services industry. Cost: $150.

ISMP International Society of Meeting Planners, Alexandria, Minnesota, (320) 763-4919, www.iami.org/ismp.html Membership: ISMP is currently represented by 2,019 members. Cost: $165.

MPI Meeting Professionals International, Dallas, TX, (972) 702-3000, www.mpiweb.org Membership: The organization has over 19,000 planner and supplier members. (Suppliers must recruit a planner as a member within one year of joining). Cost: $350.

NCBMP National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners, Silver Spring, MD, (202) 628-3952, www.ncbmp.com Membership: Over 2,500 members who include association executives and meeting planners from numerous association, business, civil rights, church, and fraternal organizations. Cost: Association executive & meeting planner -- $125, Associate member (supplier) -- $250.

PCMA Professional Convention Management Association, Chicago, IL, (312) 423-7262, www.pcma.org Membership: The more than 5,200 members of PCMA are in the meetings, conventions, and hospitality industries. Cost: Professional membership -- $280; associate professional membership -- $105.

SCMP Society of Corporate Meeting Professionals, Atlanta, GA, (770) 457-9212, www.scmp.org Membership: SCMP has 150 planner and supplier members. Cost: $350.

SGMP Society of Government Meeting Professionals, Alexandria, VA, (703) 549-0892, www.sgmp.org Membership: SGMP currently has over 3,000 members. Cost: Government planner -- $75, contract planner -- $150, supplier -- $250, educator/student -- $25, retiree -- $25.

SITE Society of Incentive & Travel Executives, New York, NY, (212) 575-0910, www.SITE -intl.org Membership: SITE has over 2,000 members worldwide. The organization has approximately 130 corporate members. Cost: $395 (plus an initial $50 nonrefundable application fee).

#5 Stay in the Loop
Business publications, industry trade magazines, books, and newsletters are some of the most ample and readily available resources for planners to increase their knowledge.

"I spend both personal and professional time keeping current with industry trends," says Joanna Barker, a government meeting planner for the California Department of Education. "To me, the cost of not doing so is far more expensive than any time or financial investment I make on my own." Barker creatively finds time to read. "I commute to work, so that gives me about an hour each day." Once in the office, she spends her first hour scanning e-mails from a meetings-related listserve, then she dedicates some time from her lunch hour to viewing meeting-specific Web sites. "When I'm on hold with work calls, that's just one more opportunity to scan trade journals." And like many others, she packs trade journals when she travels. "Time spent at airports or in hotel rooms is a great time to catch up on reading," notes Barker.

Kim Barker, senior corporate sales manager for the Wynfrey Hotel at Riverchase Galleria in Birmingham, Alabama, also subscribes to business publications "to keep up with the corporate movement so I can better serve that company should they become a client. I can also utilize information learned in those publications to determine which corporations to target in a given year for business potential." Michelle Mobley, who handles marketing and public relations for The TCICompanies in Washington D.C., also looks to business publications. "[The information is] especially helpful in client meetings, when I can say, 'I see Forbes reported you have x percent of the market share. Is this event targeted at your existing share or a share you are trying to capture?' "

"I am also looking to see if our industry is popping up on the radar screens of corporate CEOs," says Mobley. "I know that is not who directly buys our service, but they are the ones who approve budgets. If I want a CEO to agree to pay $500,000 for an event, then they need to understand the marketing possibilities and customer loyalty that it can create. If our industry does not get in the pages of business publications that upper management reads, then budgets and jobs will keep getting cut in our industry."

Sandy Biback, owner of Imagination + Meeting Planners Inc. in Toronto, reads 15 to 20 industry magazines. "As an independent, it's very important for me to stay current with the industry and to allot time and money for professional development and involvement in related associations," says Biback. She also teaches, which makes it all the more critical for her to stay abreast of industry trends. Aside from the industry magazines, she attends seminars whenever possible. "I take seminars that will increase my knowledge or that make me a better teacher." If it sounds like a lot, she feels it is a worthwhile investment. "I look at the big picture. If I don't stay current, I can't serve my clients -- or my students -- best. If I don't serve them best, they won't come back. If they don't come back, I won't make any money and won't be able to survive." --C.K.S.