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Tax Breaks for Job Hunters

November 30, 2007

By Dawn Penefold

Looking for a job is a taxing experience on a number of levels. But there is some good news in one very unlikely area — there are actually tax breaks for those conducting a job search. Expenses are deductible if you itemize - to the extent that they exceed 2 percent of your adjusted gross income - and only when you are looking for working the same field as your prior job. Covered expenses include resume printing, postage, search related phone calls, airfare, car rentals, gas and lodging if you have to travel out of town on your search.

Remember, expenses are deductible even if you don't get the job. Talk to your accountant about deducting internet costs. The jury is still out on this one.

How To Reply To A Job

November 30, 2007

By Dawn Penefold

An email came across my desk yesterday from a hiring official who had posted a job up on our job board. She asked if the ad could be taken down since they had filled the position and she realized it was on the board since a candidate stopped by in person to her office with a resume. Knowing that this was quite odd I inquired to learn more.  Not only did the candidate stop by, but she had her mother with her.

When responding to a job, respond only according to the directions in the ad.  Never drop it off in person or call (unless you have a very close business relationship with the hiring official - and even then, it can be deemed unprofessional).  I know that many of you are trying to stand out from the others in this tough job market, but make sure you stand out in a professional manner, not one that marks you as too forward, unprofessional or desperate!

If you must stop by (but please don't), never, never bring your mother along.

Holiday Job Hunting

November 29, 2007

By Dawn Penefold

This can be the slowest time of year for those looking for a new opportunity. Companies usually don't hire at the end of the year due to budgets and time off issues.  For those of you in a job search, use this time of year to plan your strategy for 2008. Create your job search business plan so that you can start the year off with a systematic approach to your next career step. This plan should include, your objectives, criteria for a new position, target audience and knowing what may stop you from succeeding.

Also use this time of year to build your network. A simple holiday card or call (not a job solicitation call), can keep your name in the forefront.

Continue reading "Holiday Job Hunting" »

Designing a Tablescape

November 23, 2007

By Kelly Rush

Let’s face it: sometimes it’s harder than you think to transform a relatively…bland meeting room into a space that looks like a vision.  Let me say that I am not Martha Stewart; I’m just a guy who wants the table to look pretty.  And by doing so, make the room look…well, not necessarily like a feeding trough.  I’ve tried to list below nine simple rules to remember when designing a tablescape.

Rule #1 – The ideal number of guests at a 60” banquet round is 8; a 72” round is 10.

Rule #2 – A 60” banquet round will hold 10 people maximum; a 72” round maxes at 12. 
That’s it, no more.  Please don’t even ask. 

Rule #3 – There is a finite amount of space on the tabletop, so don’t over do it. 
Keep in mind that a basic table setting for a 3 course meal with white and red wines includes 10 pieces of serviceware (7 pieces of flatware, 1 B&B plate, 2 wine glasses) along with leaving room for the plate itself.  At the capacities listed above, the place setting can be set out to 3 courses at according to Rule #1, 4 courses for Rule #2.. 

Rule #4 – Limit the amount of paper at the table.
At the most, include one menu per table setting and one program or agenda placed on the chair.  Anything more makes the tabletop look crowded and messy.  Besides, there’s really not much room for these items once the meal gets started, anyway.

Rule #5 – Don’t go overboard on the centerpiece
Maximum width should be no greater than six inches; maximum height should be ten inches—most would say 12, but I’m an advocate for the vertically challenged.  What many don’t realize is that there is a need for space between the centerpiece and the top of the place setting.   If you force us to minimize that space for a large centerpiece, we struggle to keep the table looking good while we set salt and pepper, butter plates, bread plates, table numbers, and votive candles.  And we don’t want those centerpieces to go up in flames because the candles were forced under the foliage, do we?

Rule #6 – Napkin folding takes time.
I mention this one because several times, we’ve had no indication of how the group contact would like to have the napkin folded, assign the task, fished the room for three hundred, then had the planner say, “I don’t like it, can you do something else?” half an hour before the function is scheduled to begin. 

Rule #7 – Always order extra linens..
Far too often, planners and conference services staff forget to order extra linens.  Cocktail rounds and buffet tables need love, too.

Rule #8 – Buffet tables should always have the following elements: elevation, texture and color.
Adding elevation alone makes the buffet display interesting.  Add the other two and you can’t really do wrong.

Rule #9 – Don’t be afraid and HAVE FUN!!!
Seriously, the final “rule” is that you really can’t go wrong if you have fun and keep in mind the “rules” above.

Food & Beverage Planning

November 21, 2007

By Kelly Rush

Over the last several years in the online meeting communities, I’ve found that planners are intimidated by food & beverage.  Luckily for me, I love food and have had a chance to see a lot of different presentations.  I’ve outlined below practical advice about food and beverage programming.

Hors d’oeuvres – I think that planning a cocktail reception is one of the most difficult tasks for new planners.  My advice is to limit the selection to three to five, with a maximum of six.  Be sure to specify the number of pieces, at least in percentage form, of each selection.  Choose two to three traditional crowd favorites, and several more “exotic” hors d’oeuvres for the slightly more adventurous.  Also include a vegetarian item.  The highest number of pieces should be concentrated on those items that the majority of the crowd will focus on, for example
Crowd Favorites:  Cocktail Franks in Puff Pastry with Mustard
   Mini Crab Cake with Spicy Remoulade
   Fresh Mozzarella, Heirloom Tomato and Micro Basil on Foccaccia    Crisp
Exotic:   Smoked Duck Breast on Wonton Crisp with Wasabi Aoili
   Gorgonzola and Walnut Encrusted White Grape Truffle
# of Pieces:   1000 total, 700 crowd favorites, 300 “exotic”
Lastly, make sure that the appetizers are bite-size pieces, preferably without a stick or anything else that would have to be held onto until the server collecting trash comes around (i.e. put the shrimp cocktail on a station!).
Vegetarian Entrees – I once had an attendee ask on the third night of her program if she could have something other than the baked, stuffed Vidalia onion she had seen twice before.  A vegetarian friend of mine told me this summer after going to a wedding: “If I get one more plate of grilled veggies and someone says, ‘That looks so good!’  I’m going to flip out.”  In other words, these poor folks tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to menu planning.  As Joan Eisenstodt would say: “We can do better!”  So, three suggestions:
1. Keep in mind that these entrees should still have the three basic part of a meal—protein, vegetable, and starch. 
2. While it may seem unusual, many vegetarians are used to untraditional meals.  So if you’re having a first course salad, perhaps the entrée could be a beautifully presented soup like a Butternut Squash Soup with Cinnamon and Nutmeg Aioli served in a bread bowl or, better yet, a small, carved pumpkin or other gourd. 
3. Never let an event order state “Chef’s Choice” because not all food functions are prepared by the same chefs and you’ll be in danger of serving the exact same entrée at all of them.  Instead, request a specific entrée for each meal function and,
4. Invest in Mollie’s Katzen’s cookbooks, at least one or two of them, for your bookshelf.  Recipes featured are from the Moosewood Diner in upstate New York and are either vegetarian or completely Vegan.  Personally, I’m taken with The Enchanted Broccoli Forest simply because of the title.

Stations – Stations are one of my favorite concepts for, well, just about anything that is either casual or relates to networking.  They are easy to “theme,”: if needed, and encourage staying active and getting people talking.  A couple of notes:
1. Hors d’oeuvres– Try not to station hot hors d’oeuvres if you’re having a straight out cocktail reception.  Most of the time, there are issues involved with food quality: crispy items don’t stay crispy, for example, and it starts to look unattractive.  Good ideas for stationary items are Mediterranean items, cheese displays, antipasti stations, crudites, etc.  The other important recommendation for stationary hors d’oeuvres displays is this: don’t order for everyone; this is one of the rare times that it’s allowable to underguarantee since it’s not up everyone’s alley (and the accountants will appreciate the cost savings).. 
2. Décor  – Cut food costs, but put a little more money into décor for a more elegant feel.  You’d be surprised how much better the stations look for just the price of two dozen flowers and some greenery. 
3. Food Selection – The options really are limitless, but stations are exceptional when you want to showcase a variety of regional and ethnic foods. 

Reducing Food and Beverage Costs – With gas prices rising, fire, early frost, drought and all the rest, rising food and beverage pricing raises concerns for many planners, especially considering the F&B can comprise up to 60% of the cost of a meeting or event.  Several ideas to keep in mind when you have a lean budget, but still want to have an impress with your F&B program include:
1. First and foremost, be honest with your sales person, conference services manager, and culinary staff.  Once the contract is signed, they have a vested interest in making things happen.
2. Buy locally.  It connects your program with the community and is good for the environment.
3. If the filet is out of your price range, but you love the elegance of the presentation, ask if you can substitute a less expensive cut but keep the presentation. 
4. Choose a less expensive three-course meal and inquire about the cost of adding an intermezzo.  There’s always something elegant, refined, and impressive about adding a palate-cleanser.  Some options include sorbet (lavender and lemon sorbet is a nice choice), or a lovely, refined cheese. 
5. Ask the banquet staff to butler serve certain items: rolls, dressings and sauces can all be served once the food is placed and, again, adds a sense of refinement to the event, particularly for an awards banquet.  It may require extra staff, but the cost could be much cheaper than spending an extra $10++ per person. 

I hope that some of these suggestions help frame your thinking for your next event!

Alcohol Service from Front Line Experience

November 19, 2007

By Kelly Rush

In preparation for both my previous appearances on the MiGuru site, I asked many colleagues what food and beverage operations topics they’d like to hear about.  Both times I was asked to write about alcohol liability issues; both times I skipped the subject.  Because the request has come up again, I’ve decided to discuss alcohol service from a background of front line experience while avoiding a full-scale discussion of liquor liability law.  So, first off, two pieces of advice:

1.Every state has differing statutes about liquor liability training and involved legal questions should always be addressed with legal counsel and,
2.The observations that follow are based upon front line experience and in no way reflect the opinions or policies endorsed by employers (current or former) or the management of media in which they appear.   

Let’s start with the three most important rules to front line alcohol servers:
--It is illegal to serve anyone less than 21 years of age, whether a parent is “supervising” the minor or not.
--While varying exactly from state to state, the legal blood alcohol limit tends to be around .08
--In order to stay under this limit, the average person can drink no more than 1-1.5 drinks per hour.

The reality of the situation is this: front line workers make every possible effort to adhere to the first rule listed above.  It is often the application of the second two which cause the most difficulty.  Particularly at events like incentive trips and weddings, the idea of moderation of alcohol seems to go by the wayside (interestingly enough, when Harvard Medical School researching drinking habits in the college setting, they define “binge drinking” as having 4 or more drinks in one setting).  If we think about the fact that most meeting and hotel professionals will estimate 2.5 drinks per person for a food and beverage event, the conundrum becomes immediately clear: when was the last time you saw the majority of your attendees pace themselves in a manner that keeps them under these limits?  So, then, to be legal, we abdicate the responsibility to the front line server.  Yet, this also leaves them in a quandary. 

The December 18, 2006 issue of Meeting News reported that, of 463 meeting professionals surveyed, a whopping 66.5% stated that “quality of service provided by staff” was “extremely important” when selecting a meeting venue or property.  As I’ve discussed previously, the evaluation of service is almost entirely subjective in most cases.  But if wine glasses stay empty and service workers refuse to serve beverages in order to abide by alcohol restrictions, how do planners think attendees will evaluate the service they received?  I’m going to guess that the results won’t be positive.

What, then, is a planner or property to do?  Act with due diligence, really, and hope for the best.  Understanding that reality and the letter of the law are sometimes very far apart, here are some recommendations:

1.Try to curb the amount of programming that highlights alcohol and new, fun ways to drink (e.g. ice luges and other stunts); if you must, then please remember to include interesting, non-alcoholic variations for those who don’t, or can’t, drink.

2.Remember to encourage personal responsibility in your organization, review company policy on alcohol consumption and professional behavior; include this information as a reminder in program correspondence.  If needed, provide beverage tickets per person, which has the side benefit of controlling costs. 

3.Evaluate the logistics of your program along with venue managers.  I worked at one summer resort where we would evaluate how many guests in the group were staying on property.  From a conference services perspective, if the majority of attendees were off-property, I would suggest a shuttle service for food and beverage events.  From a banquet staff perspective, we would apply the rules more stringently when the majority of wedding guests were not staying at the hotel or the property located next door. 

4.Evaluate the training of servers, bartenders, and operations managers to ensure compliance with the statues of the state.  Many states and properties require their service employees to take some kind of training course, whether a state mandated program such as Responsible Vendor training in Florida and Rhode Island or voluntary programs such as TIPS on Premise Certification.  Research which states require this kind of training, and ask the property to provide information regarding their compliance with state law.  If the state does not require training, ask property managers whether or not they voluntarily provide this training and ask for proof of training; many liability insurers require a certain percentage of hotel staff be trained on alcohol service and intervention with the reward of a discount on liability insurance for fulfilling certain benchmarks.

5.Look into the cost of such training for yourself and your event staff, so the burden doesn’t rest solely upon the venue’s staff; there’s nothing more difficult for a service worker to know that the person causing problems is the person that has the power to rebook the program.

Archeological evidence is firm that humans have been drinking since the advent of society.  The revels of the Bacchanalia have been documented; during an alumni event at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, one of my college professors discussed his research into brewing beer in pre-dynastic Egypt; the Miracle of Cana involves Jesus’ conversion of water into wine for wedding guests.  We often joke that the events industry is one of the oldest professions in the world, and we’re not addressing anything new in terms of concerns regarding alcohol.  There’s nothing groundbreaking in the above, but these are the guidelines that I follow, and hope they offer you some perspective and assurance that, in the end, we do the best that we can.

Tomorrow: Practical Tips on Food & Beverage Planning for the Non-Foodie

Single Facility RFP

November 16, 2007

By Rob Wilson

This article is centered on the Single Facility RFP  - the first module of the APEX Standards that hoteliers are now seeing on a daily basis.

Single Facility RFP
In short, the Single Facility RFP is the tool a planner uses to find a hotel. During this process many things happen:
1.        The planner gathers meeting requirements.
2.        The planner delivers the meeting requirements to hotels (online, e-mail, fax, telephone, etc).
3.        Hotels respond back in multiple formats (online, e-mail, fax, telephone, etc).
4.        Planner gathers all this data in whatever format they can
5.        Planner decides where to have site inspection
6.        A property is decided upon after site inspection
7.        Contract negotiations begins
8.        Contract is signed

Short and sweet, right?

Well not exactly. Behind all of this are a lot of man hours to filter, edit and manage the data on both sides (planner and hotel).

The goal of APEX is to make this process easier by using standards and technology. A panel of our peers defined the best practices for the Single Facility RFP regarding content. In the TAC, we developed the technology using XML, SOAP and web services to make the transfer of this information standardized.

Today, Meeting Sites Resource is the first company in the industry to be APEX compliant and is sending out all of their leads in the APEX recommended standard format for content and technology. This format has four different sections that outline each area of the RFP. The huge benefit to hoteliers is the information about the RFP will be in the same place every time. Currently, hoteliers get 20-30 different leads a day with each lead having the needed information in 20 - 30 different places. This is very inefficient and has a learning curve that never ends.

Sample APEX recommended standard format (short form)

- There are two different forms (short form and long form). The short form was the first to be put into production. The long form will follow.

Within the next six months the vision of APEX will begin to be fulfilled - systems will be talking to systems without the need for human intervention. When the meeting specs are sent out, they will go directly into the hotel system and the hotelier will be able to check availability and respond to the lead all within their own computer system. Today, hoteliers have to go to multiple places to get the specs, check availability and then respond.

This is a huge step forward in realizing the efficiencies that technology can bring to the hotel industry.

What does this mean on the Hotel Side?

Hotels understand the huge benefit that standardized RFP's will bring to them. Hotels, with representatives on the TAC, are moving to accept a message in the XML Format and then process it within their own computer systems. This could happen in one of two ways:
1.        The hotel works with their IT department to build the interface capability based on the APEX technology standards.
2.        The hotels work with their software vendors and their software vendors create this capability.

Through either path, the hotel will be able to accept the RFP information, process it, and send back a response without the need for human intervention.

Other Resources

2006 APEX Annual Report
APEX Presentation

If you are interested in becoming involved in APEX, please contact EJ Siwek or Rich Hunter.

I hope you have enjoyed these articles and please feel free to call or email me with any questions that you may have.

Have a great day!

The Work of the APEX Technology Advisory Council

November 14, 2007

By Rob Wilson

This article focuses on the APEX Technology Advisory Council (TAC) and the work of this council to facilitate systems talking to systems that will bring the vision of APEX to reality.

The APEX (TAC) is made up of experts from the commercial software development community, hotels and other suppliers to define the technical standards needed to implement the business standards defined in the seven practice areas. This group is making great strides in defining the data schema, message types and standards. The TAC is creating tools that enable low-tech and high-tech users to benefit from using the accepted practices.

The beauty of the work of the TAC is that the data specifications are not software dependent. In time a planner may be able to use the APEX Toolbox™ Microsoft Word template and the hotel could use its property management system (mapped to the forthcoming APEX data schema) and electronic data exchange occurs.

APEX TAC is aligning itself with related standards organizations to ensure consistency of technology standards in the future, particularly:
OTA (Open Travel Alliance) focuses on the individual and group traveler
HTNG (Hotel Technology Next Generation) focuses on the hotel sector

The following function areas are being worked on by members of the TAC. The Single Facility RFP has gotten the most focus because it is step one in the process of using automation to realize the efficiencies that technology can bring to the meetings industry.

Single Facility RFP
The Single Facility RFP is the process of gathering the meeting specs ( meeting dates, room block, meeting space information, location, etc ). Typically this information is coming via email to the hotels in many different formats (online, word, pdf, excel,etc).

Some of the companies involved in this module include:
Meeting Sites Resource
Meeting Matrix
LA INC. The Convention and Visitors Bureau

Rooming List
Once the facility has been determined for the meeting, registration is the next step. The rooming list is what is generated from the registration process.

Some of the companies involved in this module include:

Event Specifications Guide
The ESG replaces the Resume and BEO and is the industry’s tool to use in preparing and sharing complete instructions and details for events.

Some of the companies involved in this module include:
Certain Software
Ungerboeck Systems

The end goal of APEX is to have the information being passed from system to system and eliminate the manual entry of data multiple times for the same meeting. This is done by first defining the data schema, then defining the messaging standards, and lastly building tools to translate the messages to and from existing legacy applications.

In the last article I will be focusing on the Single Facility RFP. The Single Facility RFP is step one in the process of making all the other steps automated.

An Introduction to APEX

November 12, 2007

By Rob Wilson

APEX is an initiative of the Convention Industry Council (CIC). The Convention Industry Council's 32 member organizations represent more than 103,500 individuals, as well as, 17,300 firms and properties involved in the meetings, conventions and exhibitions industries. Formed in 1949 to provide a forum for member organizations seeking to enhance the industry, the CIC facilitates the exchange of information and develops programs to promote professionalism with the industry and educates the public on its profound economic impact. In addition to the APEX Initiative, CIC is also responsible for the Hall of Leaders Program as well as the Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) Program.

The stated vision and mission of APEX are as follows:

The industry will operate at the highest level of efficiency and professionalism through the use of collaborative accepted practices.

To spearhead an industry-wide initiative that brings together all stakeholders in the development and implementation of industry-wide accepted practices which create and enhance efficiencies throughout the meetings, conventions and exhibitions industry.

So what does this mean for you?

As accepted practices are adopted and implemented across the industry, a few of the benefits include:

--Seamless transfer of data between computer systems, which reduces duplication of efforts, increases --efficiencies of operations, and results in cost-savings.
--Streamlined systems and processes that result in time and resource savings.
--Enhanced quality of service provided to customers, including event attendees.
--Acknowledged measures of comparison and evaluation for improved decision-making.
--Consistent employee training resulting in increased professionalism industry-wide.

In short, it will make the industry more efficient and productive.

The APEX initiative started 6 years ago and to date has involved over 6,000 volunteers and resulted in a series of documents outlining the standards in seven different practice areas:

--Creating 4,000 word industry glossary
--Defining the Event Specifications Guide
--Post Event Report
--Housing & Registration Practices

--Contract Accepted Practices
--Request For Proposals
--Meeting and Site Profile

In order to implement the standards the CIC has moved on a three pronged approach.  The first is to make the standards available for free on their website and encourage their use.  The second is to develop software that incorporates the standards, encouraging planners to use the software and for venues and other suppliers to be able to accept the output of the standard.  The third is to encourage commercial software developers to embed the standards within their software on the planner side and the supplier side

This article brings you up to speed as to who is behind APEX, the vision and mission of APEX and what is already available to help the hotel industry put Accepted Practices in place in their own work environment.

In the next article, I will be highlighting the APEX Technology Advisory Council (TAC) and the different modules that are being worked on to facilitate systems talking to systems to bring these efficiencies to reality.

From the road: Observations about facilities, meetings and travel

November 07, 2007

By Joan Eisenstodt

Observations: Meetings
Meetings happen.  Meeting planners are becoming savvier about program design and content, integrating the two with the space that can be used at the facility.  Facilities have been housing meetings for a long time and surely along the way, those who work in facilities - sales, convention services, set up staff, audio visual personnel - and speakers who provide some content for our meetings - have noticed there that there has been a change in how meetings are configured.

Is it possible that while we were honing our adult learning skills, working with training or program or sales departments to ensure that content was delivered successfully, facilities forgot to keep up? Is it possible that while we worked harder to provide a greater educational return on investment, facilities just kept setting meetings the same way?  Is it possible that AV personnel, who know the equipment is far superior to the old overheads and 35mm slide projectors, forgot that we don't need lights out in a room for an effective presentation?  Could speakers (professional and subject matter experts - SMEs - didn't realize that good adult learning, in many cases, involves interaction and using space differently?

Recently at meetings at which I was a learning facilitator (a term I prefer to 'speaker' or 'trainer'), it was interesting to see that although crescent rounds were used for all sessions, they were set in rows so that there was one neat aisle down the middle.  In almost every case, when AV was tested, the AV techs turned out the lights before it was strongly recommended that the presentation on the screen was also in the handout and it was okay if the screen were a bit washed out; that the visual learners would still be able to see and grasp the information; and that any slides on the screen that were not in the handouts would be easily seen.

Lessons Learned/Actions Possible and Taken:
I've integrated some of the actions possible and taken in the section on observations. Since we have a long way to go, I offer more:
Facilities, AV folks, and speakers: c'mon - brush up on good adult learning models.  The Foundation of Meeting Professionals International (MPI - www.mpiweb.org) long ago did studies on what makes meetings work and why people attend association annual meetings.  The information gleaned in these studies, available on the web site, still hold true and will provide insights into what meeting participants want at meetings.  The Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA - www.pcma.org) has published a textbook with good learning models.  Look at web sites for the TED conference, read what Jeffrey Cufaude has written, google adult learning and see what is written.
Observe how people congregate in your facility.  Do they use the lobby and the lounge areas to meet others and have conversations?  At a group's refreshment breaks, are people hungry for more than food? Do they meet with others and talk about what they are learning or what they want to learn?  Do you provide soft or other seating in those places to enhance those experiences?

Have you talked with the fire department to see what is possible for room sets that may not be what you've always done?  Are there conversations among sales, convention services, banquet set up, revenue managers to see how to provide more space when it might enhance the learning atmosphere?
It's not one sided. There are still planners who are not familiar with good education models, preferring to set all rooms the same, not taking advantage of smaller group settings or alternative spaces.
My observations from the road, as a learning facilitator and meeting participant, tell me that we can 'get there' if we work harder.  Are you willing to join me to make the changes?

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