Alabama experts offer tips for finding the right person to facilitate your planning

Original article published on on Feb. 14, 2024 by Gail Allyn Short

Whether it’s a board meeting, a gathering of shareholders, a team-building excursion or a conference, convention or expo, organizing professional gatherings like these require logistical planning, savvy and steady nerves.

If a company, however, lacks the in-house bandwidth to organize a meeting, conference or convention, hiring a meeting planner might be the best and most efficient option. Meeting planners can scout out and secure bids on meeting venues, reserve hotel rooms, arrange transportation and secure staffing, food and beverages and even entertainment.

But experts say that when it comes to finding and hiring the right meeting planner, it pays to start early, especially when planning a meeting for a large crowd.

Jenny Askins, founder and CEO of Touronimo Destination Management Group

“The sooner the better is always better,” says Jenny Askins, the founder and CEO of Touronimo Destination Management Group. The company, based in Huntsville, plans events ranging from corporate retreats to conferences.

“A lot of places like convention centers are booked years in advance,” Askins says.

Sherry Pierce, owner of the corporate event planning company Studio08 in Mobile, agrees.

“Give yourself plenty of time,” Pierce says. “For a 300-plus conference where we have multiple days, you really need nine to 12 months to plan, just so you can find the event space that you need. Then you’ve got transportation and whether people can make their flights and having to book hotel room blocks. There’s just a lot of logistics that has to happen behind the scenes.”

On the other hand, a meeting of 30 of your VIPs may only require three to six months of planning, Pierce says. 

The obvious question, then, is figuring out where to look for a meeting planner.

One quick way is to conduct a Google search online using a combination of the keywords “meeting planners” and the city where you plan to host the meeting. Or try the chamber of commerce where you plan to meet; chambers generally maintain a list of their city’s businesses.

Recommendations from colleagues can also help.

Also check with hotels and other venues that regularly host meetings. In fact, some venues have their own lists of “preferred” local meeting planners on hand, Pierce says.

And those venues can include destination sites such as resorts, says Pierce. “So many resorts work with very specific planners and have a preferred vendor list.”

In some cities, a good option may be to contact the local county convention and visitors bureau. The Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau, for example, provides meeting services ranging from planning and promotion to staffing, says Director of Convention Sales Steve Pierson.

On its website, the bureau lists other services such as assistance with registration, bags and brochures. They also connect organizers with local vendors, local tours and nearby attractions.

“We know the city. We know the area. We know who to get them in touch with for what they need,” Pierson says.

The bureau even offers complimentary site inspection trips for clients to see prospective meeting venues in the area, Pierson says. “We’ll design a unique site inspection of the city and the facilities designed around what their requirements are, so they’re not wasting time,” says Pierson. “We’ll pinpoint what they’re trying to accomplish during the meeting, what the goals are during the meeting, what kind of experience they want their attendees to have, either in the meeting facilities or outside social events that may be included.”

Steve Pierson, director of convention sales for The Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau

With names of meeting planners in hand, it is time to narrow the list by conducting deeper research and interviewing each one to see who is the best fit for the job.

“You have to find the one that aligns with your vision, your needs and your working style, and the person that you’re the most comfortable with because you’re going to be building something with them, and you want somebody you can trust and communicate with,” Askins says.

She says it helps to ask meeting planners about meetings they have organized in the past.

“I may request a reference or look at the testimonials on their website. To be honest, I don’t think it hurts either to look at their LinkedIn page and at their connections. Reach out to some you might have in common and see what those people think,” Askins says.

Sherry Pierce, owner of Studio08

During the consultation, describe for the meeting planner the company’s vision for the event, including details such as the number of anticipated attendees, whether conference rooms are needed, the number of box lunches required, the guest speakers and whether the meeting will encourage excursions to local attractions between sessions.

Then lay out the budget and ask what services the meeting planner can offer, Pierce says.

“You really need to talk with your planners about that to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting. For example, what kind of staff are they bringing on board?” Pierce says.

Other questions might be if they can handle the logistics of a meeting of 50 or 500 people? Is the budget large enough for the kind of meeting the company wants to hold?

“I always ask my clients what their budgets are, and if I feel like in the interview with an initial consultation that their budget isn’t going to meet the needs of what they’re requesting for me to do, I’ll quickly explain that to them,” Pierce says.

In those cases, Pierce says meeting planners should help clients rethink ideas and pivot to more affordable options.

Askins says, however, that it is important to choose a meeting planner who possesses a positive attitude and a willingness to make things happen, describing what is possible for the size of the budget instead of simply nixing ideas without offering attractive alternatives.

“You want someone you can trust so that you can say, ‘Look, this is what I want. I get it. We can’t afford the circus, but how can I make this look like a circus?’ and a good meeting planner will come in and figure that out for you,” Askins says.

Besides a positive attitude, the experts say to look for red flags such as a meeting planner who is slow to return calls.

“If you haven’t heard from someone in 24 to 48 hours, then you should move on because that means that they’re either overwhelmed, overbooked or just not a good communicator in general. And no one wants to be sitting waiting for an answer for something that they might need immediately,” Pierce says.

Finally, before signing a contract, a clear understanding of the cost is critical so there are no surprises on the invoice. Does the meeting planner charge a flat fee, by the hour or by a certain percentage of the budget?

After hiring a meeting planner, it is then time to let the professionals do their job.

“I wouldn’t sit back,” says Askins, “but if you’ve done your due diligence, hopefully you can trust the person that you put this event in their hands. But, in my opinion, a good planner or a good event coordinator will keep you informed,” Askins says.

“We have lots of tools now. There’s Google Task reminder. You can put all kinds of things on your calendar to remind yourself to reach out to that client and let them know that things are moving along. It takes five minutes to reassure your client that things are moving along like they should, and that I’m available for any questions or if you’d like to touch base or have a quick Zoom meeting,” Askins says.

“You either have the heart for this business or you get out because it’s not easy,” Askins says. “But the hospitality industry is just so fulfilling to me. I couldn’t do anything else.”

Gail Allyn Short is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the February 2024 issue of Business Alabama.