In this issue, Midwest Meetings features third party independent planner Susan Arts, CMP, Director - Client Operations at M&I, a Meeting, Incentive and Association Management Company and Beckie Murdock, Program Manager at the National Justice Training Center, Fox Valley Technical College.
Susan Arts: M&I handles all aspects of program planning and event management for clients in a number of industries, including pharmaceutical, food products, consumer products and associations. My focus was on the pharmaceutical industry for many years. As the Director of Client Operations (my current position), I oversee staff training, new client implementation and process improvement.
Becky Murdock: The National Criminal Justice Training Center serves as the narrow point of a large hour glass. We provide training, technical assistance, resources and services that support the justice system and community justice programs. Stakeholders at the top of the hourglass include federal justice department agencies, other technical assistance provider organizations and other universities and colleges. The lower part of the hour glass includes justice related agencies and programs throughout the United States. My role is to oversee the collaborative partnerships that are needed to plan national and regional training events and conferences. I help assure that the training events are aligned with the federal agencies’ agendas and needs are appropriate and targeted to the needs of the attendees. Another key part of my contribution is to identify and help teach practitioners how to translate what they know into quality applied learning training delivery.
MM: What do you see as your biggest challenges or obstacles within your market?
SA: The biggest challenges are tighter client deadlines and quicker turnaround. As a third-party, we are constantly looking for ways to drive costs out of the system while maintaining a high level of customer service and client satisfaction.
BM: The approval process for events coordinated using federal funding has changed significantly over the past year and a half. The work with federal agencies is many times a moving target. The turnaround time for delivery of events can be short, which increases the stress level for those providing support as well as for the potential attendees. Recent obstacles include challenges with meeting fiscal constraints for food/beverage and meeting facility costs. Changes have created a need to revamp our entire approach to budgeting and planning large scale events.
MM: What do you find most rewarding about your job?
SA: No day is ever the same, and in my current position I am constantly working on different projects all the time. It is always fun to work with new employees, especially new people to the industry and see them get excited about what they are doing. I also love problem solving with my co-workers and coming up with creative solutions to present to a client. As a planner, it is always great to go onsite and see all your hard work come to a successful end. When attendees leave a program and say how great it was, it definitely makes me smile.
BM: Most rewarding for me is the variety in the types of events and services we provide. There is never a dull moment. I value the problem solving and opportunity for continuous improvement. I also appreciate the opportunity to be part of translating the local justice system needs into effective and meaningful training events that also align with federal funding requirements.
MM: How has public perception on meetings and conferences affected your events (if at all)?
SA: Whenever something makes the news (i.e., AIG), it makes all of us take a step back and evaluate what we are doing and how it might be perceived. Working with the pharmaceutical industry, we are constantly adjusting due to the ever-increasing scrutiny and reporting requirements surrounding meetings that involve health care professionals (HCPs).
BM: I don’t see a significant impact on public perception.
MM: What kind of changes are you experiencing within the industry?
SA: When I first started in the industry (in the late 1980s), PhRMA Code didn’t exist. Now, the rules and guidelines around their meetings are extremely strict. In a way, they have actually made planning easier - pharmaceutical meetings that involve HCPs have a much narrower scope. The reporting requirements surrounding those meetings and interactions are continuing to tighten and become more and more rigorous and we are constantly evaluating what data we are collecting in order to report on it correctly.
The other big change for the meeting industry is the speed of technological innovation and change. M&I now has a Mobility Solutions team, as a number of our clients are migrating away from providing paper and setting up mobile apps to communicate with attendees. I expect that to continue to grow over the coming years.
BM: Recent changes in federal funding requirements reduced the allowable expenditures for facility, food and beverages. This impacts the flow and cohesiveness of the training environment as we need to allow a longer period of time for lunch breaks and experience a delay in bringing everyone back together again after lunch. We needed to extend the number of training hours to accommodate the disruption in the learning process caused by the lunch breaks. Changes to allowable expenditures also impacts hotel or facility contracts; there isn’t the same room for negotiation with properties.
MM: How do you stay connected with your attendees?
SA: Most communication is electronic - from registration to confirmation to sending travel information via e-mail. Some of our higher touch incentive programs will send meeting material via mail, but that is a small percentage.
BM: We use Facebook, electronic newsletters and announcements distributed through SwiftPage, assessments and polling through Survey Monkey, direct mail, phone calls, webinars and exhibiting at related events. We also work with our collaborative partners and national organizations to distribute information about upcoming events through our respective contact networks. We also have an electronic online catalog of training offerings and use a Microsoft® SharePoint portal to provide resources and information on relevant topics.
MM: How has technology changed your planning?
SA: Technology changes everything. It enables us to communicate up-to-date, real time information with attendees, vendor partners, staff and clients. When I first started in the industry, it was a big deal to receive something via fax or FedEx. Now, I don’t even remember my office fax number and I get annoyed if a hotel can’t send BEOs or an invoice electronically!
BM: Web and cloud-based applications allow us to work remotely and to share information in new and enhanced ways. We use Go-To-Meeting and Go-To-Webinar technology to connect service providers and consultants with local groups of attendees throughout the country. We are also seeing an increase in the use of online training tools, including video and online presentations in place of traditional PowerPoint presentations. This requires additional network and internet access for our meeting space.
MM: If you had to switch to working in another meeting segment (corporate, government, non-profit or independent) which would you choose and why?
SA: In my career, I have already been in most of the other segments! I have experience as a corporate planner, association planner and hotel conference service manager. Right now, I am exactly where I want and need to be with a great company, so I can’t imagine being anywhere else.
BM: I would choose corporate. My reason for this is that there appears to be more opportunity to be incentive-based in the corporate arena. This can help motivate staff to be more creative and to take more ownership in the outcomes for a cost-effective