“Motivating Meeting Planners: How meeting department managers keep their independent, world-traveling, Type A planners challenged, happy, and sane.”
By Bob Andelman
Medical Meetings Magazine
September/October 2006

Are planners a tougher crew to manage than other employees?

You bet.

For starters, they need to be offered different incentives than their co-workers. Mostly what they want is some time off and a little stress relief. They need recognition for doing an arduous job that their fellow employees often misunderstand and underestimate, and they need help coping with all the regulatory changes in the medical industry that affect meetings.

We decided to approach five experienced healthcare industry meeting department managers to find out how they manage it all, and keep their staffs — and themselves — sane.

MM: What’s different about managing a meeting planning department versus other departments?

JENNIFER HEGNER: We’re focused on one area, but we seem to touch almost every department — research and development, clinical, sales, and finance. We’re very diverse compared to some groups. People underestimate the knowledge and information that passes through a meetings department. That’s why I find this so appealing. If you want to know about the company, you get many different perspectives.

JUDY BENAROCHE JOHNSON: Pharma meetings are in the spotlight more than other types of meetings, and we deal with a lot of compliance issues. Also, the types of attendees are physicians, clinical teams, and pharma company employees who generally do not know one another prior to arrival. They have different objectives versus a sales meeting at which all the attendees are from one company.

DEBBIE RICCIARDELLI: It’s not as easy to “grade” a meeting planner’s performance as other employees. Unless you are at the planned function, you often have to depend on the feedback of the attendees to determine how well the meeting was executed. I usually don’t have to solicit feedback if the meeting did not go as well as I would have liked, as more than enough people will comment. If the meeting goes well, as 99.9 percent of them do, I ask the person who was my contact from the company side for feedback, and anyone else whom I speak with who was in attendance if I cross their path. Other jobs can be measured more objectively, with facts and figures.

MM: There have been numerous changes in the medical meeting industry: regulatory, compliance, and legal issues; and the role of procurement. How do you help your staff to handle the increased stress level?

HEGNER: We have a network of people we can reach out to for help. We have a good relationship with our corporate attorney and our regulatory and clinical departments, for example. They’ve helped us to understand any changes in the industry and how we may have to change our behavior [in response]. We have a positive attitude here — life changes, and you have to adapt to those changes.

I really believe that it’s all about relationships. If you have a good relationship [with different departments], that keeps you ahead of the game. They can be great advocates in getting you through it as painlessly as possible. You can’t be a successful meeting planner these days and be stuck in your ways. You have to keep up with trends, technology, your industry, and your company to be successful.

JOHNSON: We continue to stay abreast of issues by reading as many publications as possible, attending conferences, and viewing Web sites and then communicating the issues clearly and often. The company must be creative, and everyone needs to have a willingness to change, learn, and continue to reinvent their roles within the company.

MM: How do you compensate staff for time away and late hours?

VALERIE RICHARD: Personally, I have five weeks’ vacation (when I can use it!) plus extra days off when I must work weekends. I also am allowed to keep my planner and travel points (hotel and airline programs).

JOHNSON: We offer Meeting Time Off to be used at the meeting manager’s discretion. MTO is earned for weekend days worked.

RICCIARDELLI: If a planner works weekends or long days, I try to be lenient with the punctuality and time off rules. Of course, as with anything else, you have to make sure everyone is in agreement as to what constitutes “reasonable” and make sure you are both on the same page, or it can get one-sided very quickly.

MICHELLE BERRIOS: We offer an AWS (adjusted weekly schedule). If a planner is on site over the weekend, he or she has the opportunity to take a day off during the week after the event.