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Management styles that make meetings work.

When the situation is sensitive, how do planners respond? Association meeting professionals stress fairness and flexibility--and the need for support.

For all of the planning involved in association meeting planning, the job of the meeting professional remains fraught with the need to make numerous on-the-spot decisions. Beyond the purely logistical decisions that are always part of on-site meeting management, the professional responsible for organizing an association meeting also must take stances on many important issues that fall into gray areas. Among them: how to satisfy a disgruntled member who is asking for a refund or claiming to have already registered, or how to walk the political tightrope with a board member who is asking for a special favor. Issues like these have possible future ramifications for member relations, basic policies, and even an association's bottom line.

Responses to such issues reveal much about meeting professionals' management styles--how they work within the context of their associations' policies and philosophies. Ultimately, their responses probably determine whether they succeed or fail in their jobs.

How do meeting professionals and their staffs know when to go by the book and when to bend the rules a little to craft sensible resolutions to sensitive situations? According to three association professionals responsible for planning meetings, mastering the difficult scenario--and, in the final analysis, managing the meeting--requires a finely honed sense for situational analysis and the ability to manage both people and events well.

Bending but not breaking

"I feel that I am flexible but definite," says Lisa Block, director of meetings and conferences for the Society for Human Resource Management, Alexandria, Virginia, about how she manages her meetings. "When I make up my mind, I make up my mind, and I have good reasons as to why."

Block, a 12-year association meeting planner, explains that she attempts to enable her staff of six to make good decisions based on the same kind of flexibility tempered with firmness.

"At our large meetings, we try to run registration as much by the book as possible," says Block, referring primarily to the association's annual conference of approximately 7,000 people, where more personalized service is not always feasible. "But our staff is trained and empowered to make good customer service decisions--ones where we achieve our goals while still making the customer happy. We know in advance of a meeting where we can give a little and where we won't, and we try not to 'break' the rules, period. We try to look at each situation in a different way and do what we can depending on the particular circumstances."

Block stresses not only the importance of a dedicated staff but also the critical role mutual support for decisions plays in getting the job done. As an example, she recalls best-selling author Alex Haley's appearance at a conference luncheon several years ago. Some 150 more people showed up than were initially expected, resulting in a sold-out event.

"All of a sudden, I was faced with 150 people who weren't happy," says Block, who adds that lunch was included in the registration fee. "I told them where to go to get lunch, that we would refund the price of their lunch ticket, and when they got back, we would have chairs set up so they could see Alex Haley speak, which was their primary reason for coming to the session anyway.

"Once the decision was made, everyone went into action and got it implemented," continues Block. "I wasn't out there by myself, because my boss and staff backed me up. Accounting even had checks cut and mailed to the 150 who didn't get lunch two days after we got back from the conference.

"Having the support of your CEO or boss and having him or her trust you to make decisions and allow you to do your job is critical to your success," states Block. "The worst situation is if your boss gets in your face and questions you while you are in the middle of a meeting or solving a problem. I don't think meeting planners can be successful in the kind of environment where you are constantly second-guessed."

Block tries to anticipate and discuss any potential conference-related problems during staff planning meetings to minimize unexpected problems. And she believes she has become more effective over the years because she has become a better delegator--building and accepting trust and team building among her staff and various suppliers.

"I believe meeting planners have to be control oriented to be effective; however, we have to develop an ability to delegate and empower," affirms Block. "I know a lot about meeting planning, but I don't know everything, and I certainly can't do everything well, so you have to learn how to give things up. As meeting planners, we must take a situational-analysis approach. If you are able to be somewhat flexible, I believe you will be more successful as a meeting planner and at meeting customer expectations."

Involving staff in solving problems

Another meeting manager who firmly believes in the benefits of delegating to staff and supporting them in their decisions is certified meeting professional James R. Daggett, director of education for the American College of Chest Physicians, Northbrook, Illinois. Daggett, a planner for 11 years, believes that building a staff of resourceful and effective communicators goes a long way toward solving problems at conferences.

"The biggest thing I have learned in the past two to three years is delegation skills, which is tough for meeting planners because our perception is that no one does things as well as we do," says Daggett, who was the associate executive director/director of educational affairs for the Society of Critical Care Medicine, Anaheim, California, before he accepted his present position in September. "I really have worked hard to train my staff to do things that I used to do myself. I have to delegate and stand back."

Emphasizing how important it is to support and communicate with staff, Daggett recalls a telling negative experience in a previous job. As a new employee attending his first conference, he bore the brunt of pointed questions and considerable anger from two prominent members while his boss sat silently next to him. This happened, despite the fact that the educational event in question was actually the responsibility of his boss, who later apologized for the incident.

"I listened and replied that I did not have enough information to answer |the members'~ questions at that time, but I would go back to the office and research it and get back to them just as soon as I could," says Daggett. "Nevertheless, it affected my relationship with those two members for a long time afterwards."

"Communication is the key word," says Daggett. "You have to be conscious about communication to let your staff know where you stand on projects and to find out where they stand."

Daggett asks his staff to be up front during difficult situations and not to pretend to know all the answers immediately. "I tell |staff members~, Don't feel you have to respond so quickly that it may be the wrong answer," explains Daggett, who manages a seven-person staff. "Involve the team members who know that area of activity, because they may likely have to live with the consequences of the answers.

"Some organizations feel that every staff member should know everything that's going on--in a large association, that's just not practical or feasible," he continues. "You have to be diplomatic, but when you have too many requests to juggle, every one can't be a top priority. You don't want to deny anyone, however."

Daggett cautions that meeting planners and their staffs have to be aware of membership politics to do their jobs well. "When people are committee chairs or on the board of directors, they sometimes start to look for exceptions to the rules. They may want to get that lower registration fee even though they registered late, or they want to get upgraded to a suite or something else, and you may have to bend the rules a little bit sometimes, but let them know that it won't happen again and that it is in the best interests of the organization that you can't do it," he explains.

"I think, automatically, we always look at our own best interests and how they will affect us in the long run," Dagget says, "but for the most part, I always try to stay within the policies that have been set and agreed to and voted on by the membership. And as long as we communicate that policy and let the member know why it exists, we can handle the situation well." Pointing out that he generally plays strictly by the rules in the areas of event sponsorship and exhibitors to make sure association policies are consistently applied, Daggett adds, "It's important not to just say, 'That's the rules,' so that the member doesn't think he or she is being mistreated by staff."

Fostering fair treatment

"When I was in charge of the exhibit area, I was far more by the book than I am now that I'm dealing with members," says Dobby Wall, director of meeting services for the American Physical Therapy Association, Alexandria, Virginia. Wall, a 15-year meeting planner who shares a staff of three with APTA's expositions director, believes member relations at conferences generally require more flexibility. For example, she says the association has given its registration staff the authority to make on-site judgment calls, which "often depend on the time of the conference and the experiences we've had."

"We have a hard-and-fast rule that after the first day of the conference, we don't give refunds," explains Wall. "But rules are made to be broken, so you have to be flexible. You don't want to lose someone as a member or potential member." One way she attempts to avoid registration showdowns in the first place, though, is to try to communicate before a conference with members who may have registration-related problems.

For Wall, being flexible creates more benefits than drawbacks. People feel they are getting fair treatment, she explains. "I like to reach compromises with people because that way I don't give them the feeling I have totally caved in to them, but I also have let them know I am not ignoring their concerns and the issue at hand." The possible downside to compromise, concedes Wall, is that planners may send a message that their deadlines aren't firm.

While Wall, who chairs ASAE's Meetings and Expositions Section, points out that she has had very few problems at her conferences and members generally leave them feeling happy, she explains that her biggest challenge in recent years has been crowded sessions.

"Where we get into problems is in the session rooms," says Wall. "We are one of the fortunate associations that enjoyed a 40 percent increase in attendance in one year, so we couldn't anticipate the crowds at all sessions, and some were full as a result. Then, we get unhappy members and potential members who tell us the only reason they came to the conference was to attend the one session that is full, so of course we will refund one day's conference fee in that situation," says Wall. In the case of another event, a typically sold-out awards luncheon, she requires people who are late in exchanging their ticket vouchers to wait and take any empty seats once the event is under way.

Like Block and Daggett, Wall believes that management support is critical to the success of any meeting manager and his or her staff.

"If |upper management~ second-guessed me, I'd be second-guessing myself," says Wall. "But they've never done that to me once, and I have a good mentor who is a vice president and was in my position herself."

Wall believes she has become a better manager by developing better delegation and team-building skills.

"We do a lot of consensus building as well as team building, and I am much better at that now," says Wall, who has been in her present position about six years. "But also, we have a very team-oriented approach to our conferences, and included in that team is not only staff but consultants, audiovisual suppliers, decorators, caterers, and other suppliers."

As for her delegation skills, Wall feels that she has learned exactly what delegation involves if it is to be a successful management tool.

"There's a difference between delegating and dumping," says Wall. "You have to turn over the authority to make the decisions on that |delegated~ assignment as well. It's important to let people put their own signature on a project. I try to tell |staff~ what end result I would like to see but not how to do it."

How Different Styles Work in Practice

Sticky situations put planning, procedures, and ingenuity--not to mention your patience--to test. ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT spoke with four association meeting planners and posed to each the same three awkward scenarios. Their reactions below show how their styles affect their decisions.

The questions

1. A speaker is dissatisfied with a room setup or time slot and insists on a last-minute change. What do you do about it?

2. A member arrives at your meeting with a guest and wants the guest to come in free. What do you do? Does it make a difference if the member is on the board?

3. You have a policy that suppliers who are not exhibiting cannot attend your convention. A brand new company calls at the last minute, wanting to get in, but your exhibit space is sold out. What do you do?

The answers


Meeting Services Manager

American Counseling Association

Alexandria, Virginia

1. I would do everything to accommodate the speaker as long as it did not cause too much confusion for people attending the session; |I would~ maybe try to switch with another speaker. I would try to please both sides if possible. If not, I would probably consider the attendees first, because they're the ones either paying for the session or traveling to the session to hear certain speakers at certain times.

2. No, it doesn't make a difference if the member is on the board, because as a member of the board |he or she~ should set an example. If other members have to pay for a guest, board members should follow the same guidelines. If there was a fee set, I would charge it. If there was some sort of problem, I would say, "You need to pay this now. If there's a reason you don't agree with it, you can write a letter to the director."

3. I would get all of the supplier's information, take down the name and number for next year, sign the company up in advance for next year to exhibit, thank them for wanting to exhibit, but explain that there is no more room. If there is some way to shift exhibits around to fit them in, I'd try to accommodate it, but make sure they have all the information for the following year. I would allow them to attend in order to see the exhibits; it might encourage them to exhibit next year and give them a feel for who's attending and what market they need to reach.


Director of Conferences and Expositions

Water Environment Federation

Alexandria, Virginia

1. It depends on what the speaker's change is. Basically we sent the speaker the information and confirmed it many times, and that's the way it is. If |he or she~ wants audiovisual equipment or something like that, we can see about getting it, but we can't make room changes; we don't have rooms to change to. We don't have that kind of problem much.

2. To a social event we would handle it. To a conference? No, the guest would pay. We have spouse and guest rates, and guests can sign up for that. It makes no difference if the member is on the board. A social event, though, is a different thing.

3. We charge companies a one-day pass, and if they decide to take space with us the next time, we give them a refund on the pass. We don't let them in free. That way we protect the exhibitors that are on the floor. We've never had a manufacturer turn in the receipt showing he came in, either. We give companies the option, they pay, they come in, most of them take space, and most of them don't turn in the receipt.


Manager of Conferences and Meetings

American Compensation Association

Scottsdale, Arizona

1. For the most part we have standard sets for workshops, but we have been known to make some changes given the time factor. The time slot is a set program that has been in the brochures for some time. Their time frames are advertised, and they have advance notice. That would have been addressed earlier than on site. We have never run into that situation.

2. In the event that the conference has a guest fee, we do encourage the member to pay for that. If |the person asking~ is a speaker, |his or her~ guest is welcome to attend |the speaker's~ session. Yes, it's different if |the person asking~ is a board member. It's a political thing, and I don't think anybody would say anything too much different.

3. Anyone is welcome and encouraged and invited to attend our conference for the appropriate fee. If it was a new supplier and we were not able to accommodate |him or her~ in the exhibit hall, we would invite |the supplier~ to sign up for the following year and ask for payment of this year's registration fee.


Manager, Education/Training Department

Wisconsin Credit Union League

Pewaukee, Wisconsin

1. If it's at all possible, I do whatever I need to do to make the speaker as comfortable as possible to be as effective as possible. And that depends on what the speaker is asking for. Depending on time schedules for speakers, they may make some minor changes, and frequently the speaker and I will just go |make the change~. It may mean the audiovisual equipment is not quite the way they wanted.

2. No, it doesn't make a difference if the member is on the board. We have a pretty good track record on being fair, and we work out with the person what they feel is fair in the situation. We've been lucky in that we've never had a problem with that; people in our business understand that if they want to bring a guest, they have to pay just as everyone else has to pay.

3. We don't have a policy like that. There's very little we can do in terms of exhibitors if they are suppliers and they want to exhibit. The only thing we have done is to invite them on a free pass to tour the exhibit floor, to encourage them to sign up early for next year. That's about all. And say, "Hope you come back next year. We have a really great show." |Q: Would this be an escorted tour?~ If I were in an organization where I felt uncomfortable giving the person free rein, then yes, I would ask someone to accompany the person. It depends a bit on who the exhibitor is, what company |he or she~ represents, and whether I thought the person was trying to make free contact with our members.

Jeffrey R. Waddle is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer who specializes in meetings and conventions.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Meetings; includes related aticle
Author:Waddle, Jeffrey R.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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