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Learning by doing

How do nonprofessional meeting planners — the veteran who organizes his military reunion or the hobbyist who plans a convention for others who share her interest — learn to plan?

Seminars, books, online tutorials? Not so much. On-the-job experience? Absolutely.

Fred Spaulding and Lisa Schulz are two volunteer planners who have learned through doing.

Spaulding is a retired Army colonel who began planning reunions for the Ripcord Association in the mid-1990s. His knack for planning has led several other military groups to enlist him to help with their reunions.

Schulz is president of the National Button Society. As a leader at the society’s national and state levels, the Madison, Wisconsin, resident has been planning conventions since 1997.

Both say planning boils down to being observant, asking questions and, most importantly, understanding and focusing on meeting participants’ needs.

Successful military reunions, Spaulding says, hinge on two factors: affordability and accessibility.

His attendees are veterans who watch their wallets. Attendance drops precipitously when room rates exceed $90 a night.

So Spaulding negotiates rates under $85 a night and often convinces hotels to include a free breakfast.

He realizes, though, that for hotels to want his business, they have to make money. So he points out the two revenue generators his reunions offer: The Ripcord Association always has several banquets and open bars at the hotel.

And because he plans reunions for several military groups, Spaulding sometimes brings a property more than one piece of business.

Spaulding has also achieved accessibility and affordability by using second-tier and smaller cities. That stems partly from his own frustrations when he has attended reunions in big cities.

“I would drive to those cities and all you could see was the top of the building you are trying to get to, but because of the one-way streets, you can’t get to it. By the time you check in, you are ready to check out and go home.”

Now his group meets in mid-size towns like Springfield, Missouri: centrally located, affordable and easy to navigate. Many attendees drive to the reunions.

“You have to know where all your people live,” he said. “You can’t pick a reunion location when no one lives within 200 miles of it.”

As a button collector and dealer, Schulz attends 14 trade shows around the country each year. She observes how other shows are planned and often sees problems. “I’m often thinking, ‘We’ll never do it that way,’” she said. One example is the time at a trade show when she and other button collectors and dealer exhibitors had to position their 24-inch display cases on 18-inch tables.

Schulz does make it a point to talk to other planners. “I find out the good things they did and ask them ‘What would you do differently?’ A lot of planning is networking to find out what works for them.”

Schulz and Spaulding both advise inexperienced planners to make good use of convention and visitors bureaus. CVBs have helped them find hotels that fit their criteria, and most also offer a substantial list of free services, from registration assistance to name badges to goody bags. Schulz has also attended a free seminar for meeting planners offered by an area CVB.

“Let the CVB do a lot of the footwork for you, rather than going to the city and knocking yourself out looking at eight different properties,” Schulz said.


Vickie Mitchell is the former editor of Small Market Meetings. If you have ideas for future columns, contact her at