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Tips From Meeting Pros

One of the best things about rubbing elbows with our peers is learning that we all share the same challenges. We’re especially lucky when we have the chance to talk to those more experienced than we are, who have learned how to handle the problems we have or will face.

This month, I asked members of the Senior Planners Industry Network (SPIN) ( and SPIN founder Shawna Suckow to share their tips and solutions to common problems meeting planners face. SPIN members have been full-time meeting planners at least 10 years, with the average among its members closer to 20.


Writing Better Contracts

“Somewhere along the line,” promised planner Tracey Smith, “there will be a breach of a contract.

“It’s nearly impossible to anticipate everything that might come up between a supplier and a planner, so it is best to be knowledgeable of the clauses you will need and spell them out as much as possible.

“Most hotels have a standard contract, but planners should also develop their must-have clauses. Those clauses differ for each organization but typically address a general topic like cancellation, always a biggie.

“Hotels will have a schedule for the cancellation that mentions a certain number of days prior to the event. I prefer to have actual cutoff dates so there’s no question as to what ‘30 days’ means.

“I also spell out the exact dollar amount that I’m on the line for if the meeting cancels, plus any possible remedies we’d be able to exercise [rebooking the meeting, room nights sold, etc.]. I get detailed about attrition clauses, too, using exact numbers instead of percentages or some other nebulous measurement.”


Keep Calm and Carry On

“Eventually,” said SPIN founder Shawna Suckow, “every planner will face some sort of catastrophe or what seems like one at the time.

“For me, it was the time a rigger tripped the sprinkler system in my ballroom, and it rained putrid-smelling water for 10 minutes during setup, about 18 hours before 1,500 people were to show up.

“Do your best to anticipate every risk, but know that there always will be others you can never predict.

“A planner’s true mettle shows not only in planning the details, but in reacting and acting when things don’t work out as planned. Stay calm, put it into perspective, and realize that everyone is looking to you to be the leader and problem solver. Leverage your team — including your supplier partners — to brainstorm solutions.”


Don’t Play a Guessing Game

“How can you plan and evaluate a meeting when you don’t know what the purpose and objectives are at the outset?” asked Carolyn Browning. “Ask questions. Show your value by asking the why so that you can figure out the how and what of the meeting. Asking questions shows your willingness/eagerness to learn, to excel and to meet expectations. Make it about them: Is there anything I should know about the goals for the meeting? What do you want to achieve? What can I do to make your job easier?

“When you ask about expected outcomes, it shows you are thinking ahead and trying to figure out how all the meeting elements can be tied back to the objectives.

“The earlier the planner can be brought in, the better. Their expertise allows them to uncover potential roadblocks and lend creativity.”


Keep Your Meeting on Track

“What do you do when your carefully crafted time line gets thrown askew as your speaker goes overtime?” asked Therese “Terry” M. Lombardo.

“For starters, watch the clock. And never take anything for granted, like assuming the speaker you booked six months ago remembers that she has a 45-minute presentation. Details should be repeated to everyone involved in keeping your agenda on track and enforced.

“When possible, place a room monitor in each session. Have them review all elements of the presentation with speakers and banquet captains. One speaker who runs over can cause problems: preset meals go cold, attendees leave, Q-and-A sessions get cut.

“Keep speakers on target by having your audiovisual company set up a countdown clock facing the stage. You can also use musical or light cues, or have a room monitor give hand signals or hold up signs with time limits.”