Meeting planners change lives.
I’ve spent a lot of time up in the air lately with our distant industry cousins, the flight attendants. I’ve had plenty of free time to be inside my head (if United offers Wi-Fi on board any of my flights, they’re doing a great job of hiding it from me). On one particularly long haul, I reflected on a parallel between flight attendants and meeting planners: lack of credibility. For those of you old enough to remember, flight attendants used to be called stewardesses, ‘sexy stews,’ ‘flying waitresses’ and probably worse.
It’s not just a matter of vernacular; it’s a matter of credibility and respect. Flight attendants fought for their credibility back in the 1970s and 1980s, and today it’s common for the pilot to tell us that the crew is there primarily for our safety and then for our comfort. If the plane is spiraling out of the sky, you don’t need a Coke with no ice, you need a flight attendant with serious training.
As planners, we’re immersed in a similar battle for credibility right now and it’s not about titles - it’s about a lack of understanding of the value we bring to the table.
I Don’t Hire Clowns and Balloon Animal Artists
Back in the 1990s, when I told someone what I did for a living, I often got comments like, “Oh how fun! You get to plan parties all the time!” About 10 years ago, I stopped calling myself an event planner when discussing my job with a non-industry person and started calling myself a convention planner. Although conventions were only about half of what I did, something about that job title earned me more respect. People had an easier time envisioning a convention and its demands - ‘event planner’ was too vague and too open to misinterpretation (unless you do plan parties, and then hey, more power to ya!).
When I speak to audiences of meeting planners, I often ask the question, “How many of you have friends or family who don’t understand exactly what you do?” I always get laughter and a majority of hands going up. What a shame. If we can’t even convey our job and our value to those closest to us, is it any wonder that the HR department and the C-Suite don’t value us to the level we deserve? Within the industry, we all know the value we bring to the table; it’s outside the industry where we have a major disconnect.
It’s Not about the Chicken
A friend and colleague, Jan Aument, told the greatest story last year at a SPIN (Senior Planners Industry Network) event. She nervously set up a meeting with the CEO of her large company to discuss upcoming meeting strategy. Several weeks later, when she sat in his office, he began discussing transportation and lunch options. She politely interrupted him, saying, “Sir, excuse me, but it’s not about the chicken.” He was surprised to learn that she had strategies in mind to align his goals and objectives with her meeting design - strategies that could elevate his message and strengthen the return on investment (ROI) of the event. Today, she has a seat at the table whenever the CEO wants to discuss the business strategy of company meetings. All the planners at the SPIN event roared with applause after hearing her story - somebody had broken through and achieved her rightful credibility! Hurrah!
10 years from now, I truly hope that such a story will a) not have to happen in the first place, because we’ll have a seat at the table and b) if the story does happen, it’s just a run-of-the-mill conversation and not a major career breakthrough. How do we get there though?
How do you talk about what you do?
Change has to start with us. CEOs aren’t suddenly going to decide we have merit and HR Directors aren’t suddenly going to start classifying us differently - we have to lead. It all starts with how we talk about what we do. That doesn’t mean we have to go into deep detail with the gas station attendant about strategic meeting design, but we have to do better. Rather than saying, “I’m an event planner,” how about elaborating a little to say, “I plan events that enable my non-profit to change the world,” or “I design meetings that achieve high-level corporate objectives,” or “I am the chief of 1,000 tasks that deliver a strategic outcome and I’m darn good at it?” Start with your friends and family. Commit to doing better when it comes to explaining your job and its impact. It starts on the individual level with us claiming and conveying our true worth.
We Change Lives
Do you ever stop to consider how the meetings you plan change lives? They do! I planned commercial real estate meetings for 15 years and those meetings changed lives. Through my efforts, salespeople were inspired, educated, recognized, connected and less frustrated - which all led to greater earnings for their families. Through my efforts, the CEO could sleep better at night, knowing his message and his strategy were resonating throughout the company after a national meeting. It wasn’t feeding starving children, but what I did changed lives. I know that whatever type of planner you are, you change lives too. We all do. Next time someone asks you what you do, how about saying nothing more than, “I change lives,” and gauge their reaction?
The time has come for meeting planners to speak up and elevate ourselves beyond bagel-counters and party-throwers. I’m sure we all can throw a mean party, but there’s a whole lot more to our skill set than that.
Shawna Suckow, CMP, is a veteran planner and the Founder and President of the Senior Planners Industry Network (www.spinplanners.com). She’s the author of Planner Pet Peeves, and her new book, Supplier Pet Peeves, both available on Amazon or at www.shawnasuckow.com. She speaks to audiences worldwide on supplier-planner relations and other meetings industry topics.