Sweet treats from Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at the goampi Meeting Planner All Stars program. photo by Lauralee Shapiro CMP

Sweet treats from Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at the goampi Meeting Planner All Stars program. photo by Lauralee Shapiro CMP

What does a meeting planner want?

That question is as enigmatic as a clueless husband wondering what more could his wife could want after his birthday surprise of a new vacuum cleaner didn’t go over quite as expected.

The answer to what a meeting planner wants varies as much as who may be asking. Is the person pondering the hotel coordinator who’s servicing a group’s meeting or trying to solicit that business, or is it the AV tech/florist/caterer/transportation or furniture décor rep? Is the planner working for a corporation, association, or independent?

The simple answer to what a meeting planner wants is a smoothly-run event, surrounded by attentive and reliable vendors in a fantastic venue that was generous with incentives, and to have the client’s attendees wowed by the entire experience.

Easy peasy to pull off, right?

Or not, which is why an audience of about 85 were so intently focused on the questions and responses given by a panel of six Meeting Planner All Stars at the January luncheon meeting of the Greater Orlando Area chapter of Meeting Professionals International (or goampi, as it’s more commonly referred), hosted by Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.

Even a pre-set individually-plated array of tiramisu, chocolate mousse cake and two cannolis couldn’t deter the anticipation of what the planners would say at this second annual Meet the Planner All Stars discussion, once again moderated by Alisa Stewart, CMP, CMM. Stewart is the National Account Manager for Experient, a past president of the Chicago chapter of MPI, and is a member of MPI’s International Board of Directors.

All Star Meeting Planner panel. L to R: Tiffany Hallgren; Sandy Pizzarusso; Alisa Stewart, CMP, CMM; Scott Mifsud, CMP; Nikole Fridenmaker, CMP; and Laura Mast. photo by Geri Bell

All Star Meeting Planner panel. L to R: Tiffany Hallgren; Sandy Pizzarusso; Alisa Stewart, CMP, CMM; Scott Mifsud, CMP; Nikole Fridenmaker, CMP; and Laura Mast. photo by Geri Bell

Joining her onstage were Tiffany Hallgren, Learning & Meeting Manager for Turnaround Management Association; Scott Mifsud, CMP, and the General Manager for Just Right! Destination Management Company; Nikole Fridenmaker, CMP, and the Director of Meetings and Events for the Association for Change Management Professionals (ACMP); Sandy Pizzarusso, Director, CUS Event Management for Fiserv; and Laura Mast, Manager of Convention Housing Operations for the Freeman Company.

The questions were pointed, laser-focused on concerns I frequently hear vendors query, such as “Should I cold call, or if not, how do I reach a planner?”  to “What would get that planner’s return business?”

Cold calling got a resounding chilly response, “Unless you reference someone I know,” says both Stewart and Mast. The general consensus seemed to be to “research my business before placing that call” although several vendors in the audience opined that in their crunched day, there often isn’t time to do that. Mifsud says “LinkedIn is your friend. Use your connections.”

The session began with what makes a property stand out. Hallgren states, “When they deliver the dream. The service level is high and they fulfilled their promises.” For Pizzarusso, one experience set the bar. “At each portion of the site visit, I was greeted by the Manager for that area, from the Room Manager to Catering.” With more than 26 years’ experience as a meeting planner, Pizzarusso says this was the first time that had ever happened. Mifsud pointed out that hoteliers should show a consistently high level of attentiveness. “I may have a small group that time, but the next time could be much larger.”

What are some of the biggest challenges with contracting in current marketing conditions, asked Stewart. “Don’t say no to me immediately,” says Pizzarusso. “Find other incentives that can be applied to sweeten the deal. Throw in some free water bottles or coffee. Find something that my group would need and discount that amenity, such as meal coupons or transportation.” Fridenmaker says ACMP prefers convenience over budget. “How close is the airport? How easy is it to get to the property or around the area?” Stewart mentioned that one way to reduce costs for a conference is to get the vendors to stay on property. She explained that the cost for exhibit hall space is high and vendors staying at the host hotel lessens that expense overall.

The most frequent measure of a conference’s success has been by surveying attendees, but Fridenmaker suggests also asking the speakers or vendors for their perspective. Hallgren noted that she watches how engaged the attendees are in networking during the social events to assess the success.

Interestingly, the greatest diversity in responses arose to two questions: If you had unlimited funds, what would you use them for; and, what is your (least or) favorite type of marketing?

For the funds question, Pizzarusso and Mast answered location and venue. Mifsud said décor and entertainment. Fridenmaker cited production, AV, décor and appropriate furniture while Hallgren said creative food and AV, using the newest technology.

When it came to marketing, the responses were as diverse as the backgrounds of the meeting planners.

Stewart cites as her favorite, “Tell me you’ve donated money to a charity in my name. Send me a hot dates and rates schedule that I can then pass on to my clients.” She also noted that clients want to know the average Google and Trip Advisor ratings on a property before they’ll consider taking their attendees there. Pizzarusso likes receiving marketing materials with a personal touch. She cited as an example a recent coffee cup wrap sent to her before the MPI World Education Conference. It said “join me for a cup of coffee” and had her name hand-written into the invite. Mifsud says digital files he can examine at his convenience hit the spot, while Hallgren prefers handwritten notes. (Take that, all you educators who think learning cursive writing is passé.) Fridenmaker adds one more distinction to printed vs digital materials. “If I have to print a file, it goes right into the trash.”

As I stated in the beginning, there is no one answer that will facilitate a vendor’s endeavors toward garnering business with a meeting planner. Here at least are some avenues to consider and possibly pursue. To all you vendors: I’m interested to hear from you (if you’ll share what works and doesn’t.) And to any of you who couldn’t attend the meeting or listen in on the live web access, there’s always next year’s goampi Meeting Planners All Stars program!

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.