by Linda Leier Thomason
Susan McLane: A successful meeting planner has a package of certain personality traits, including congeniality, superior people skills, perseverance, and discipline. Good organizational and multi-tasking skills and an ability to think ahead are essential to be successful in this industry.
MM: Obviously, you have been successful, having served in your current role for more than two decades. What has been the foundation of your success?
SM: I have always applied the discipline and work ethic that I grew up with and refined through my military training and service to everything I have done in my job, my community, and my personal life. I am blessed that my husband of 40 years, Bill, shares these same values. The military background also helped prepare me as a leader [and] manager and gave me the ability to work above and below the chain of command. I have worked over four decades in the Illinois legal community - 20 of those years for the founder of our corporation - prior to coming to ATG.
MM: What can you tell us about the profile of your typical meeting attendee?
SM: It is the ATG and subsidiary board of directors and their guests. The men and women who serve on our boards are attorneys who are partners in successful law firms in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana. Other attendees include the ATG subsidiary executive staff and their spouses or guests, or fellow managers and coworkers. Many of ATG’s leaders are also leaders in their communities and sometimes serve in government and military positions at the state and federal levels. I couldn’t ask to work with better people.
MM: What compels these individuals to attend your meetings?
SM: They attend because they serve on the boards and board committees of ATG and its subsidiary corporations. Our directors play an important and dynamic role in achieving the goals of the parent company’s mission statement: “To be the premier lawyer service organization for the benefit of the profession and the public.” ATG and each of its subsidiaries offer products and services to lawyers that help them build their practices and serve their clients.
MM: What advice do you have for meeting planners who are new to the profession?
SM: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” What I mean is that success comes one step at a time. It is a building process, and one must be disciplined about the to-do list and keep an eye on the end goal and what is required to get there. You might think you don’t have time during the process to make follow-up notes, but I cannot tell you how many times I have been thankful over the years for this discipline. When attempting to hold someone accountable for a promise made or service performed that didn’t materialize, you have the backup needed to make things right.
Always stay calm, cool, flexible, and willing to ride the tide. In the event world, I have seen so many ugly blowups between planners and hotel staff over the years. I always wonder what went wrong for them and try to remember that no one is perfect and, sometimes, one has to implement Plan B or Plan C. It is part of being prepared. Examine the processes and find ways to work smarter, not harder, and, by all means, accept that you will make mistakes - then learn from them.
Finally, always remember success is a team effort. Acknowledge those who have worked alongside you to make things happen.
MM: Identify three ways you have seen the meeting planning industry change in the past five years.
SM: The first is software. Every year, better technology and tools are released to help meeting planners improve meeting details and data.
Second is internet research and email communication. The ability to search for meeting destinations online is wonderful. Sometimes, I wonder how those of us who remember doing it all by phone, fax, and mail got it all done before the internet. Communicating electronically with destination management companies, chambers, visitors’ bureaus, hoteliers, attendees and their guests, plus every contracted vendor, is beneficial beyond measure. However, there is no substitute for a one-on-one conversation to investigate possibilities, identify the needs, secure the plan, and start building trust. I will never commit to a site or hotelier without a site inspection. For me, meeting face-to-face with the people I will ultimately be working with and seeing the products and services is a must.
Third is the greening of the industry. The meeting planning industry should be commended for its efforts to become greener. I appreciate knowing upfront who scores highest in this regard. ATG continues to offer meeting materialsand mailings electronically, and electronic communication with vendors, attendees, and their guests is paramount to successful management because we often need an immediate reply so we can go forward with the details.
MM: What doyou value most about planning meetings in the Midwest?
SM: I appreciate the opportunity to conduct and keep business in our own backyard, especially the Windy City. Chicago is very competitive with other major metropolitan cities for convention and meeting business. Midwesterners are warm, friendly, and usually display a great work ethic.
MM: What do you personally do to contribute to the betterment of the industry, and how do you stay current on industry issues?
SM: I try to attend Destination Showcase in Chicago and the annual IT&ME meeting each year. I also subscribe to several [industry] magazines. Reading and hearing true accounts and war stories from fellow meeting and event planners is very helpful.
MM: What do you see in the future of the industry?
SM: Meeting planners must be able to adapt. Stay in touch with the latest in communications and document-sharing technology, but know when an actual phone call or an in-person meeting is best. Building relationships with vendor contacts, leaders of peer organizations, and other community members is also critical. Knowing who to call when time is tight serves one well.
MM: What is the best compliment you’ve ever received from a meeting attendee, and why does it stand out?
SM: “Susan, you always go above and beyond.” Especially today, people so appreciate quality customer service. To know that, out of all the things you have been asked to do and have on your plate, you went “above and beyond” to pay special attention to a personal need or you followed up on an idea to make a situation better, without asking a peer, because you knew it was the right thing to do for the right reason, and you scored big-time - [that] is rewarding and memorable. To see the smile, to hear the heartfelt “thank you,” that goes miles with me.
MM: Describe a meeting-related disaster and how you overcame it.
SM: In my 21 years, I have been in the bowels of a hotel three times because of weather-related issues [including] tornadoes in Wisconsin and Missouri. Once, in St. Louis, we had a board dinner in a hotel wine room, on the lowest level next to the kitchen, so when the alarm sounded, we didn’t have to leave. In fact, we had the best spot in the hotel - access to all of their finest wines and food enough to feed armies!
MM: Who are your meeting planning idols and why?
SM: I have great admiration for JoAnne Hibbs of the Illinois State Bar Association and Susan Van Kollenburg of NCA Higher Learning Commission. Each knows what it means to multi-task, how to quickly assess needs, and draw upon their experience and knowledge to quickly resolve problems. I appreciate their willingness to guide and to share their experiences with me.
MM: What brings you the greatest daily joy?
SM: Well, personally, it is the love of my husband and my family of three daughters, sons-in-law, and five grandchildren. Professionally, it is the wonderful folks I work with each day at ATG. After 21 years, we are like family, too, plus the extended work family of my board members and their spouses/guests and those in the meeting industry with whom I have had the privilege of working for two decades. I come to work each day with a grateful heart. There are many weeks when I work beyond the standard 40-hour workweek. I try to strike a balance between family and work and live by the Ethel Percy Andrus quote: “What I spent is gone; what I kept, I lost; but what I gave away will be mine forever.”