Doing Smaller Shows? A How-To Guide on Dealing With Meeting Planners

January.

The holidays and parties are behind us, and here we are, back at work. Job One — assuming we have already deleted those company party photos — is to organize for 2009. In our office, we’ve been discussing how the economy will affect our staging business.

Shows that were large and complex in years past will be forced to downsize in 2009, and it’s up to us to prepare for these changes. Here’s what we need to keep in mind: it’s not the technology that makes the larger show different from the smaller one. It’s the people involved. The most significant difference between large events and small events is who’s in charge

When we move from the large event to the smaller one, the producer normally drops out of the picture, leaving us to deal with an entirely different type of player — the meeting planner. Not that meeting planners aren’t involved in large events, but normally the audio visual crew deals with the producer, who in turn deals with the meeting planner.

What’s the difference? Plenty. And mistakes happen when we fail to recognize these differences, and treat a meeting planner as if he or she were a producer, or expect a meeting planner to think and behave like a producer. So, in no particular order, here are some of the differences between working with a producer and working with a meeting planner:

Technical understanding: The producer is more familiar with current technology, and more attuned to the issues of the audiovisual staff. This is not to slight meeting planners, as they and their national association (Meeting Professionals International or MPI) have come a long way toward educating themselves about AV in the last few years. But in most instances, their understanding of audiovisual technology can’t measure up to the know-how of somebody who works with AV every day.

Level of interaction with the AV crew: A meeting planner isn’t going to give you and your crew the level of involvement and instruction that you get from a producer. By virtue of the number of things they’re in charge of, meeting planners must spend less time on each individual aspect of the event. Often, it becomes the responsibility of the head of the AV crew to do things normally expected of a producer, such as running rehearsals, calling breaks, working with inexperienced presenters, and dealing with venue personnel. The AV providers meeting planners like most, in my experience, are the ones who just quietly do these things without bothering the meeting planner with them.

Risk aversion: A meeting planner has a lot on his or her plate — and a million things that can go wrong. Couple that with a lower level of familiarity with audiovisual technology, and you’ll find that most meeting planners prefer the tried and true over the latest and greatest. Whenever you suggest something new to a meeting planner, be prepared to describe when and where you have done that thing before, and how well it worked. 

How they think: Beyond the differences in job description between the producer and the meeting planner are the motivational differences — what makes them tick. Producing content for an event is a creative and technical exercise, working with people who all have some level of creative or technical involvement in what happens onscreen or on stage. Meeting planning is a political exercise. It involves every facet of an event, from travel to lodging to meals to content. It involves subtle nuances of planning around internal priorities, egos, and pecking orders. To a producer, a decision revolves around how it affects the creative content. To a meeting planner, a decision may hinge on whom it will please (or offend).

How do you do your best work, when a scaled-down event has you working directly with a meeting planner? Again, in no particular order, here are some tips for working with meeting planners:

Adjust your expectations – but not downward. Understand that your contact for this event has a wider range of responsibility than a producer. The meeting planner needs a technical expert, and you’re it. Step up and take the role, and let the meeting planner deal with the rest of the meeting.

Speak “meeting planner.” Tone down the technical jargon and answer questions in plain English. Explain your set-up and your actions in terms of the overall event. This is especially important when you have to suggest a change or  explain why something isn’t working. 

Interpret. The meeting planner needs to know the total effect of the set-up, as opposed to specifics of the equipment list. He needs to know the impact on the budget. He needs to know that a set-up will be ready on time, but not necessarily how you’ll get there. He needs to know about trouble, reported quietly, calmly and with a potential solution.   

Have the facts at hand. When you need to suggest a workaround, assure the meeting planner that it’s been done before, and be prepared with specifics. 

Adjust your attitude. We’ve all met the meeting planner who appears to be out of his depth. Whether that perception is accurate or not, the fix is to become that person’s ally. Allow the meeting planner to feel safe with you, your decisions, and your crew. The show will be the better for it. 


rAVe Rental [and Staging] contributor Joel R. Rollins, CTS-R, is General Manager of Everett Hall Associates, Inc. and is well known throughout the professional AV industry for his contributions to industry training and his extensive background in AV rental, staging and installation. Joel can be reached at Joel can be reached at joelrollins@mac.com