Elizabeth Zielinski Working With Third-Party Planners

Strategic Meetings Management -- What Is It, Exactly?

May 25, 2007

By Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM, CMP

I do a lot of speaking and consulting on this topic, and I can tell you from first-person experience that a lot of misunderstanding exists in the meetings industry about what, exactly, a “strategic meetings management program” involves.  The best explanation I have encountered to date comes from my respected colleague Sharon Marsh, who says:  “Many people believe that a strategic meetings management program is when you manage a meeting strategically.  It isn’t.  It’s when you take a strategic approach to managing all of your meetings.”  It is a collective process, not one that is applied on a case-by-case basis.

The confusion probably lies in the jargon.  What is now “strategic meetings management” (SMM) was once referred to as meetings consolidation.  At the same time, the concept of meeting managers as strategists was also entering the landscape of our profession.  Somehow, the two lines got crossed and a generalized understanding of the subtle differences got lost.

Implementing a full-scale SMM program is a major undertaking.  It involves measuring and leveraging costs, an increased awareness of ROI, and implementing processes and procedures that may initially seem extraneous but are part of leading to a greater payoff down the road.  The sheer size of a complete SMM program should not, however, deter you from taking any steps in that direction.  Simply knowing the scope of your meetings spend is a great first step.

The bottom line is that in a true strategic meetings management program, the value of yourself, your meetings, your department, your function, etc. is determined through process – not through any one event or meeting.

For those of you who may want to know more, I recommend starting by reading some of the materials available from the National Business Travel Association (NBTA) and Meeting Professionals International’s (MPI) white papers on SMM.   Discuss your challenges on the MiForum discussion boards, and talk to your colleagues at industry events.  This topic will be part of the landscape for a long time to come, and becoming comfortable with what it means (and what it doesn’t) will position you for greater success in the future.

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

May 23, 2007

by Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM, CMP

You can’t be successful as a third party unless you establish yourself as an expert.  You can’t be an expert without credibility, and you aren’t credible if you claim to be the best there is at everything.  It’s simply not possible for that to be true, and so claiming otherwise will come across as hollow at best and damaging to your personal brand at it’s worst.

And yet, there is a fine line between the “I can do that” spirit which is required of an entrepreneur, and identifying a key niche where you can truly claim an area of expertise.  I recommend asking yourself the following questions to assist you in walking that line:

1.  What are you really selling?

Chances are, there is a difference between what you think you are selling and what your clients want to buy.  You may know you provide a well-managed meeting with provable ROI, but your clients really just want to know that their meeting will happen on time, the way they requested it.  This is where it is most important to know your benefits vs. your features – features are the characteristics of your services, while benefits tell your clients what they’ll get because of those features.  Focus on the benefits you provide when considering your niche market.

2. Who wants to buy what you want to sell?

It’s always easier to fill a need than to create one.  For example, if your potential clients are not yet focused on the strategic elements of meetings, then perhaps being too strategic about how you market your management of those meetings is not speaking a language they will understand.  Stake your claim in a niche where there are already buyers for the services you will be selling.

3. Why will people want to buy from you?

Refer back to my comment above about credibility.  People want to do business with those that they trust and see as having specific expertise.  Building that trust requires taking some risks.  I would rather turn down business that I know is not right for me than take something that requires me to provide sub-par services, because doing so would damage my credibility.

The answers to these questions will help you evolve your core message, or niche.  And that will lead you toward becoming a master of your trade.

Strategy vs. Tactics for Third Parties

May 21, 2007

By Elizabeth Zielinski, CMP, CMM

We often hear that the path to success in the meetings industry, particularly for third parties, is to become more strategic.  There are courses, certifications, books, degree programs, etc – all focused on “strategy” as the great white hope for planners that want to ensure they will have work beyond the next blip of the economy.  Is the future really that dire for the coffee cup-counters out there?

First, let me point out that there is nothing wrong with aspiring to be a tactical planner – in spite of what much of the available industry documentation would have us believe.  I know many people who love and are successful at their work because they are so good at making events happen smoothly and professionally.  They don’t have aspirations to occupy the CEO’s office one day, and they are already acknowledged – even rewarded – for their skills as a tactical planner.  And, it’s fair to wonder how any event will come to pass if everyone is looking at the bigger strategic picture and not paying the closest attention to organizing and planning.

Many third parties have found an effective niche by selling tactical planning services to teams that want to focus on business strategies.  And yet, there is definitely cause for concern for those who choose to remain tactical in their focus.  Simply stated, it’s proving your value to your client.

My recommendation to those of you who prefer being tactical is to understand why you are good at those tactics, and then know how being good affects your client’s bottom line.  Why did you count those coffee cups?  Certainly, it was because you didn’t want your client to pay for something that wasn’t used.  Translate that to actual dollars, apply the same method to the many other things you do well with their meetings, and then tally up the money your client saved by utilizing such a talented “cup counter”.  Negotiating solid room rates by itself will likely amount to thousands of dollars, and many times a client has never calculated the actual business cost of non-negotiated rates.

Whether you realize it or not, when you do this one thing you have been strategic about your tactics.  And although strategy can go much further, it can also be as simple as I just described.

Trust, But Verify

June 02, 2006

by Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM, CMP

This title quote is most often attributed to Ronald Reagan, when in fact Reagan was quoting Vladimir Lenin, who said “Doveryay, no proveryay.”  But what does it mean?  It means that trust without accountability is blind faith, and accountability without trust defeats the purpose of a true partnership.

Often, third party companies are quick to describe themselves as “an extension of staff.” By that, they mean that they are augmenting your own goals and objectives seamlessly enough that they could be considered one of your own. But those who have hired third parties also know that even the best companies still have goals and objectives of their own, aside from the client’s. This is neither good nor bad, it’s just a fact of life.

It’s possible that those separate goals and objectives can work in opposition to your own interests. An egregious example of that might be a commissionable agent who doesn’t negotiate for the lowest room rates because a lower rate means a lower commission.  I’m not saying this happens a lot – we all know that negotiating a contract can’t be reduced to room rates – it’s simply the easiest way to demonstrate my point.

Don’t hesitate to ask tough questions of your external partners about anything that might concern you, even if by doing so you might imply that you are questioning ethics and skills. Ask directly to them, but also ask other suppliers to the relationship, your industry peers, and knowledgeable mentors and leaders.  Sometimes the most interesting facts arise.

This might sound like a cynical way to manage a relationship, but in my opinion it’s not. If you never ask the questions, you also don’t hear the good answers and you won’t know how trustworthy they are. You may always wonder, or you may be left with attributing your trust to subjective feelings (which also have a role, but a different one). In other words:  if you don't test the glue, you don't know how strong a joint it makes. That way, as the relationship progresses and grows, and that third party is thrust into a serious matter where they truly do need to act as an extension of your staff, you’ll know you can trust that because of this experience of verifying that they were trustworthy in matters leading up to that point... and by doing so, you will have done your job.

Lessons from "The Apprentice"

June 01, 2006

by Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM, CMP

Planning tasks are often used as ideal testing grounds to determine the skills and savvy of job candidates on “The Apprentice”, and regular readers of the MiForum discussion group (or the MIM list before that) have thoroughly discussed that there is plenty we could teach those reality show cast members about our profession. But what can we learn from the program?  Plenty, if you consider that each of the “Apprentice” candidates is essentially a third party.  After all, they are not employed by Donald Trump or by the companies for which they are assigned tasks.  Their “16-week job interview” (as Trump regularly calls the competition) can easily be compared to the proposal and selection stages of hiring third parties.

Here is some advice for third parties that is aptly demonstrated on every episode of “The Apprentice”:

Listen to what the hiring manager is saying. On “The Apprentice”, there is always one cutaway segment in which Donald Trump discusses his one major business lesson for the episode. Inevitably, it relates to the task at hand – and the team which we do not see heed the advice he gave is usually the one that fails.  It’s only one man’s advice, and you may not agree with it. But he is the one doing the hiring, so doesn’t it make sense to pay attention?

Know the strategic goals of the host organization. What’s the first thing the (typically) winning team does before completing the task they are assigned? They meet with executives from the company hosting the task to make sure they understand exactly what the business message and objective is for what they are about to do.  And don’t forget to refer back to the first lesson:  you have to truly listen to what is being said and align your plans with it. Even great ideas flop if it’s not what the customer wanted.

Don’t try to make yourself look better by making someone else look bad.  We often see candidates try to coerce the firing of a competitor in order to save themselves. It usually backfires.  Each person, though on a team, is judged by their own performance.  An attempt to manipulate that and make the others look bad for their own purposes is completely transparent.

Finally, I will say that yes… I know this is only a reality show, and not the actual business world. But what better way is there to learn anything than through our choices of entertainment?

Weeding Through the Masses

May 31, 2006

By Elizabeth Zielinski, CMM, CMP

Yesterday I asked a colleague – a well-known and respected meeting professional – what his biggest concern is when thinking about outsourcing to third parties. His response was, “how do I know that the person I hire will really ‘get’ what I’m trying to accomplish in the same way that staff does?”

His concerns are legitimate.  In recent years, the marketplace has been flooded with individuals and companies selling aspects of planning services to meetings.  Some are highly qualified and entrepreneurial, others see it as an early career path unto itself and begin with little traditional experience, and still others are in reality between jobs and filling their time with contract work in the interim. And how do you know which is the best fit for your organization when faced with little more than slick marketing pieces and references that are pre-screened by the third party him- or herself?

The good news is that when you are seeking a third party, your research can be far less restrictive than if you were hiring a staff member.  Many former employers hesitate to give any references – either good or bad – because of the potential liability. The same is not true of providing references for service providers and contractors.  Typically, former clients can and will be much more forthcoming about the work relationship.

Continue reading "Weeding Through the Masses" »

A Party By Any Other Name

May 30, 2006

By Elizabeth Zielinski

No discussion of third-party planners can begin effectively without talking about the big pink elephant in the room – what exactly IS a third party? Most of you probably think you know, and yet if I asked 10 of you, I’d probably get 25 different answers.

Sure, it’s clear enough to answer in some ways.  The APEX glossary defines a third party as someone other than the principals.  So it’s not the meeting sponsor and not the host facility, rather, a “third party” brought into the business relationship.  And that’s where it gets murky in the meetings industry.

In this industry, a third party might be a commissionable site selection agent, an independent meeting planner, a consultant, a travel director, or a freelancer (that’s off the top of my head and not a comprehensive list). Many of these terms have some overlap in exactly what they mean.  For example, I consider myself a consultant.  And I may plan meetings for hire, so that makes me an independent meeting planner.  I might do site selection as part of my services, but not for commission.  I don’t do travel per se, but I guess you could call my work freelancing sometimes.  So which one of those labels is mine?  Heck if I know.  I know what I’d choose if it were up to me, but unfortunately, that doesn’t translate into a common industry language.

So, my first piece of advice when working with third parties is to understand exactly how the third party in question works.  Don’t assume independents are commissionable (or that they aren’t),  don’t assume their company is small (or that it isn’t), and don’t classify one based on what you know to be true about “third parties”, because there’s simply too much wiggle room within the term.

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