Before starting my business as an independent meeting planner, I was the director of meetings for a large Texas state association. At the time, it never would have occurred to me to hire a third party planner because I had a staff, and we were able to handle all the demands of our meetings. Since starting my business 10 years ago, however, I have worked almost exclusively with associations, many whom have meeting planners on staff. Over the past decade, I have worked with clients in a variety of ways and have a much better grasp of how a third party can add to the success of in-house meeting managers.
There are several methodologies for working with a third party. In this article, I will address the top three, along with considerations, benefits and caveats for each.
Site selection and contract negotiation
There are many firms who specialize exclusively in the contracting phase of meeting planning. These are typically large firms with staff in offices around the country who have relationships with national sales offices of the major hotels. These firms are continually placing programs in cities and are up to date on the latest developments in hotels as well as local conditions, such as union issues, city events, construction, etc. Because these firms spend so much time on contracting, they have a great ability to negotiate on behalf of their clients. When selecting such a company, make sure to select one that takes the time to understand all of your needs as the client and completely understands the event as well. Most of these firms work on a commission basis (average commission is 10 percent), which is paid by the hotel once the meeting is concluded. It’s a good idea to prepare a document authorizing the third party to act as an agent in soliciting proposals and negotiating on your behalf, while clearly outlining that they are not authorized to sign contracts on your behalf.
Once you engage a company to begin the site selection and contracting for your meeting, you will want to make sure that you direct all inquiries regarding your meetings to them so they can deal directly with the hotels and destinations. Having someone else handle all those inquiries for you frees you up to focus on the more strategic side of meeting management. In my opinion, that in itself is one of the best reasons there is for outsourcing this portion of your job.
You will remain involved in the site selection process, however, just on a higher level. Once the third party has distributed a RFP, collected proposals and compiled them into a report for you to review, you will select certain destinations and hotels that are finalists in the process. Your third party company can then arrange these site visits for you, accompany you on the visits and join you in final negotiation conversations on-site. Often times when I am working with a client, they prefer not to be the one to ask the hard questions or be the strong negotiator, so we agree beforehand that this is my role, and I take the lead in that area. This can be particularly helpful since the client will be the one working closely with a property and wants to keep the relationship on a positive level.
Some of my clients engage my services after they have selected the hotel because they need assistance with the logistical aspect of meeting planning. As more and more meeting managers move into a strategic management role in their organization, they have less time to devote to the nuts and bolts aspects of meeting planning. Whether it’s planning all the food and beverage and on-site logistics of an event, managing speakers once the programs have been selected, managing exhibitors or handling all off-site events and guest tours, third-party planners can manage all of these duties, thereby freeing you up to work on the big-picture aspects of the event. In organizations that are experiencing downsizing, where you may be losing support staff in your area, this can be one way to offset those losses by contracting these services out.
When outsourcing logistics, make sure you set expectations for when deliverables are due, clearly delineate roles and responsibilities and define a project management process that details how the process will work. Include the outside planner in staff meetings and request regular reports from them so you are up to date at all times on what they are working on. Taking the time to think through how the process will work and who will be responsible for what aspect of the meeting at the beginning will save you headaches later.
You can expect to pay a fee directly to the meeting planner, either an hourly rate or on a per-project basis, depending on what best suits your needs.
Full service meeting management
Many of my clients contract my services to manage all aspects of a meeting, from site selection to logistics management. Even some who have planners on staff have opted to outsource one of their meetings to me because it frees them up to work on larger projects or on more strategic levels of projects. When working with a third party in this manner, you will want to thoroughly vet their background, speak with other clients they’ve had and perhaps even suppliers they’ve worked with on past events to get a clear understanding of their work style. Again, clearly delineating roles, responsibilities and deliverables is essential to ensuring a successful event.
If the planner has multiple clients, ask them what the schedule of their other events is. I try to keep my client list balanced, and will turn down work if I already have major events scheduled for that time period. It’s unrealistic to expect you will have 100 percent of a planner’s time year-round, but it’s perfectly acceptable to expect them to dedicate more time to your event as the date draws nearer.
Again, you typically will pay a planner a fee for managing your meeting, and can expect to pay an initial payment and installments throughout the planning process.
Taking the time to understand how you might benefit from utilizing third-party planners is the first step to determining when and if you should outsource some or all of your meeting needs. Once you clearly understand your needs, you should be able to decide what type of arrangement would work best for you and proceed accordingly.