Jeff Rasco, CMP, is a multi-honored, veteran meeting professional with over 25 years of experience. Currently, Jeff is the president of Attendee Management Inc., which provides online registration solutions and housing, as well as travel and e-marketing services. As an educator and speaker on how technology impacts meetings and benefits those who plan and support them, Jeff’s goal is to increase the quality of meetings, and elevate the strategic value of meeting professionals through the intelligent use of technology. This month, I peered into his background and industry insights.
How did you get started in meeting planning?
Growing up, my parents had their own business, a public relations firm. So, I always wanted to be in PR and advertising; that was what I studied in school. For a time, I owned my own advertising firm, and worked for several others. I always considered myself an entrepreneur in public relations. Then, I was hired as the advertising manager for a large real estate firm in Austin in the early ’80s. But, that job didn’t last long because the real estate market was tanking. So, I moved my family to Houston (my children were young at the time) [to] be closer to where my parents lived. It was there that I was offered the job of associate coordinator of conference services at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. I never had considered meeting planning as a career, so I took the job thinking it would just be temporary until something else came along. I started just a couple weeks before the largest conference and research symposium they’d ever put on. I just hit the ground running, and I loved it. I got to use all of my advertising and PR skills, plus I learned new skills in management and hospitality. I ended up working there for 15 years, and eventually became the director of the department, which had grown significantly. Several other responsibilities had been added to the department; besides planning the conferences, we handled classroom scheduling, audio/visual, medical graphics and medical photography. I left MD Anderson in 1997 and started consulting in meetings technology. I eventually moved to Wimberley, Texas, and after working with several clients, and building an established reputation, I started Attendee Management Inc. in 2002.
What was it like starting a business? What services does Attendee Management Inc. provide, and who are your target clients?
Like most businesses, I started by working out of my home office, and my first full-time employee was my daughter, Christina. She was just out of college, looking for a real job, and I needed help. So I suggested she work for me while waiting for the real job, and well, she never left. We always thought our clients would be independent planners or smaller corporate planning departments or associations. Basically, we targeted smaller meetings that weren’t really being served by larger registration software companies. The concept was to get smaller clients and aggregate them so we could negotiate with the larger software companies on lower rates, so that the planners/companies wouldn’t be paying any more than if they were licensing the product themselves, thus making us more of a service company instead of a technology company. We are not another software company trying to sell a program. We are providing a service to our clients so that they can take advantage of the best technology out there without having to pay full price in not only fixed costs, but opportunity costs, which comes from time spent in learning and managing the products. That was the concept and what brought the majority of our clients in the beginning. Eventually, we grew our staff and moved into office space. The main reason for the growth stemmed from our discovery that large companies wanted our services, too. We started doing service work for large corporations who had already purchased software, but needed an extra set of hands to manage it. We also added a call center to provide support to our clients. We provide a personal service. What we do from beginning to end is work on the design of the conference Web site and construct it for the planners. We build all of the forms that support the registration and organize and design the event reports the clients need. We also offer credit card processing, financial processing, Web site housing support, confirmation templates, any conference updates and reminders, as well as webinars. Every client has different needs. We take on the tactical piece of the meetings puzzle for them, which frees them to take on the more strategic side of the event.
What is your favorite thing about the meetings and events industry?
Definitely, it’s the people. There is a spirit in the meetings industry – from the day you step into the field you’re told this is a relationship business. And, it’s true. A huge percentage of my friends are in this industry. Something just draws people to hospitality. I guess it’s, I don’t know, hospitality! People really work hard to make the relationships good. Everyone in this business is just NICE. Other businesses are not like that. There are some absolutely stellar people in this industry. I think we are one of those “best-kept secrets.” Oh, and it’s fun.
When did you earn your CMP, and why would you recommend that other planners pursue this accreditation?
I earned the CMP (Certified Meeting Professional) in 1986. Back then, MPI (Meeting Professional International) was very behind this certification, so it was almost considered an MPI thing. Remember, at the time I was working in a medical and scientific environment (MD Anderson is one of the Top 3 cancer researchers in the world), so many in that industry were nutty about having letters after their names. The people I was dealing with at that time, the conference chairs, were all MDs, PHDs, etc. I wanted to show these people that I knew what I was talking about. I needed credibility with them. Having CMP after my name shows I have earned certification in meetings management; and it helped me gain the respect I was seeking. It does help give you a little more panache in the industry. It says “this person took the extra time it takes to demonstrate his/her skills.” It’s perfectly fine not to have it; but a lot of meeting professionals find themselves wanting to get that proverbial seat at the table. This helps them attain it. There are so many specialized certifications out there. I consider these to be the PHDs of the meetings industry. They’re all good. They all take a little different approach, depending on the specialty. But, all of them help raise the profession to something other than the misconceived “party planner.” I think it demands a great deal of respect. I highly recommend it.
You’ve won many awards in the meeting planning industry. Tell us about those honors.
Early on in my career, I got involved in he Houston chapter of MPI. At that time, I didn’t even know there was an organization like this that supported my career. It started with a hotelier buying my membership. I went to a couple of meetings and before too long, I was on the program and education committee. Then I became the vice president, which then led to me becoming the president of the Houston chapter and their Meeting Planner of the Year in 1987. I served on multiple local boards and international boards for MPI. In 1994, I won Chapter Leader of the Year in their international awards. I took a great deal of pride in my involvement in my chapter. This award was a very humbling experience. In 1996, they awarded me with Planner of the Year. Again, that was quite overwhelming. And, much to my surprise, in 2005, the Texas Hill Country MPI chapter awarded me Supplier of the Year. I was totally surprised! I didn’t even know I was nominated. The recognition is heartwarming.
What advice can you share with other meeting professionals?
Work hard. Treat people well. Have integrity. Put the limelight on someone else. And, get involved. There are so many opportunities in this industry. Write, submit columns, blog, tweet, post on Facebook, join committees or get on editorial boards, This industry needs good thinkers and proactive people. Everybody can do it. Get active in MPI or PCMA chapters. Get involved in speaking and educating.
That’s great advice, Jeff. Thank you for sharing. How can planners get in touch with you?
Well, if you’re in the San Antonio area, you should definitely come to my educational session at the PYM LIVE Event on May 20. Also, e-mail me at email@example.com, call 512-847-1122, or connect with me on Twitter and Facebook.