This February, PYM will spend a lot of time in the great state of Texas for our PYM LIVE Dallas & Austin events. I had the wonderful opportunity to speak to a veteran Austin-based planner, Paula J. Rigling, CAE, CMP. Paula is the president of Meeting Planning Professionals, and has focused her business on working with associations, educational groups and pharmaceutical companies. She earned her Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) designation in 1994, her Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation in 1996, and received the Professional Excellence Award from the Texas Society of Association Executives in 1998.
How long have you been a meeting planner, and how did you get started in this industry?
I actually had a long-term plan for myself. I knew while in college that I wanted to do meetings and events. (I have an undergraduate degree in public relations.) During my senior year, I was a student body representative working within a department that planned the inauguration of a new president at our university. I realized then that’s what I wanted to do. So, I went on and got my masters in organizational communications. After finishing in 1984, I went to work on the hotel side. My thinking was I would work for about five years on the hotel side and learn the business from that point of view, and then move over to the other side. I eventually became director of catering with the hotel chain I was working for. In 1990, the hotel closed for renovations, so I was laid off. My husband encouraged me to go into meeting planning. The long hours with the hotel industry were not conducive to running a family. So, I started putting out the word with my friends and networks, and my friend recommended me for a job at the Texas Medical Association (TMA) as the executive director for five different professional medical state associations. After five years, I was offered the position of Director of Meetings for TMA. I did that for four years, planning events that consisted of 5,000 attendees in a 200-booth trade show, with 330 speakers and 33 concurrent sessions. It was very complicated planning. I was with TMA for a total of 10 years. Then in 2000, I went to work for an event management software company. We did pre-event Web sites, onsite cyber cafes and all event technology for large corporate meetings, such as Intel, Texas Instruments and IBM. Then, after 9/11, they went out of business. So, in 2002, I went into business for myself.
I have spoken to several meeting planners who made a big career change after 9/11. How did that affect the meeting planning industry?
So many companies were downsizing after 9/11, so a lot of people lost their jobs. It really forced people to take a look at what they were doing and think, “Why can’t I do this for myself?” Again, my husband encouraged me by saying, “You always wanted to be in business for yourself.” At that time, my twins were in third grade, and he said, “See if this could work for you.” I immediately started networking. My friend connected me with an association that needed help with a meeting coming up in two months. So, I just sort of fell into having my own business. In the eight years I’ve been in business, I’ve never advertised or promoted myself. Every piece of business I’ve received has come from networking and referrals. One client leads to another client; so that’s how I maintain my business.
What do you recommend for planners who want to make it as an independent?
I think that has really come around again this past year with the economy. It has been a real struggle for a lot of independent planners and planners who have been laid off. They’re having difficulty finding work. There is a great online forum, MiForum (Meeting Industry Forum). It’s a Google group listserve. Absolutely no marketing is allowed. Several thousand meeting planners and suppliers are on the list from all walks of life, participating in information sharing. I have been watching the conversations, and a lot of it consists of conversations among people who have unfortunately gotten quite desperate with job searches. There is a lot of advice and recommendations taking place, though. It’s a wonderful resource. I have been on it since 1998. It really is quite a community. People are helping people within this forum. It’s easy to join too — just sign up.
Tell us more about your company, Meeting Planning Professionals.
I am an independent, and I do not have employees working for me. If I have the need, I will contract out for additional help. My client base is primarily associations. My largest client is an international association for professors in consumer research. Their annual conference each year is about 1,000 attendees. Then I also have some Texas-based associations, such as the Texas branch of an international association in the field of psychiatric rehabilitation. I also do some things for local colleges, such as UT. I work with their English department and coordinate group tours. This year I am branching out into managing some of the smaller associations that have approached me. A benefit of being an independent planner is the dynamic work environment and diversity of the clientele. In other words, I’m not doing the same meetings each year. I get to do meetings of all sizes, group needs and locations.
What are your favorite things about being a planner?
As a meeting planner you have the ability to create and give other people experiences. I love learning my clients’ goals and objectives, and then trying to figure out the very best way to create an experience that will feed back into that goal and help accomplish that goal. I enjoy creating an environment that is rich and dynamic and exciting for them to learn in, while looking for new ways to motivate people through the various event factors. That is the best part about meeting planning: You get to conceptualize an experience and give that experience to other people.
What are other passions of yours?
I love writing and teaching about meeting planning. I have an online bi-monthly column that I write for the American Society of Administrative Professionals. I teach meeting planning sessions for the Texas Society of Association Executives conferences. I am doing a leadership academy for them, too. I also have taught at the University of Texas continuing education center in the past. I taught sessions on meeting planning and was the course director for their advanced meeting planning courses. I am really passionate about teaching best practices to other meeting planners. I feel very strongly about giving back to the community and industry.
What advice can you give our readers?
The most important thing that I believe in very strongly is not working so much on promoting yourself, but rather on developing yourself as a meeting planner. Build your networks and relationships. It is through my development, through attending conferences, through obtaining my CMP certification and teaching that I have made networks and established relationships that have come back to me for jobs. I get three to four new referrals per year because of my networking. So, my advice is focus less on self promotion and more on self development.
How can people contact you to find out more?
I can be reached at 512-791-4701 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for all of the advice and information Paula. I look forward to seeing you at PYM LIVE Austin!
Lisa Kraus is the Director of Marketing & Audience Development and a contributing writer for Plan Your Meetings. She enjoys traveling, music, reading, and is an avid cat lover. She is currently working on writing her first book, a business guide for customer service and employee management.