Renee Robertson has over 30 years’ experience as an event planner. For the last 12, she’s worked for California-based MFactor Meetings, a third-party planning firm. “We do the logistics for a lot of incentive meetings, sales kick-offs, board conferences, and user conferences, several of which are held overseas. We’re a mid-size company, so we all wear several hats,” she says. For smaller meetings, she does everything, from sourcing to developing the budget and negotiating the contract, to planning and operating the program.
Robertson works from her home in Arlington, Texas. Recently we spoke to her about two of those overseas events and the numerous changes in the industry during her three decade career.
How has the industry changed over the years?
Program length, budgets, perception, and expectations, both clients and ours, are different today. Take incentive programs, like a President’s Program in Maui, for example, for salespeople who’ve made their quota. In the past that might have lasted 7 to 8 nights, and now they’re usually 4 or 5.
Budgets have gotten smaller over the years as well, and today clients want to be informed about every line item instead of agreeing to a “package.” They want to know what their dollar is going to buy and what the return on investment is. People are also more conscious of the event’s location now, because their boss is not going to approve certain high-end destinations. You need to think not only about whether a location and city have the draw for a user conference and suit the needs of the meeting, but also whether it adheres to the budget.
In the 80s and 90s, it used to be easier to please clients. It didn’t take as much because they hadn’t been exposed to everything available today. Also, years ago, we didn’t incur attrition charges; if we booked 100 rooms and filled 90, we didn’t pay for the unused ones. Today we do. Hotel contracts have also changed. They used to be two pages; today they may be 15. Every time something goes wrong, the hotel or the meeting planner adds another clause.
Of course, the technological changes are also huge. There was no internet or email when I started. We used a word processor and a telex machine for international correspondence, and when fax machines came out, I thought they were miracles. It took 15 minutes to send a page, but wow. I got my first computer in 1988. However, we had more time to do things then. With email, we’ve backed ourselves into 24/7 operations.
What was a particularly challenging event to plan?
Recently we planned a client event around a river cruise on the Danube that stopped at multiple destinations. We had to hire destination management companies for each port and make sure the food, beverages, and the amenities were taken care of wherever the ship stopped. We also had to transport the attendees to events at each port, such as to a boys’ choir. There were a lot of moving parts.
What was your favorite event?
One in Vietnam this year. We got lost in the country’s food, culture, everything. The event combined the solitude of some beautiful, quiet resorts with the craziness and loudness of the shops and restaurants, or the sights and sounds of a street party. Every night was like a carnival with people, vendors, colors and lights.
Looking back, what would you tell yourself on your first day as a planner?
You learn best from mistakes. You have to be prepared to learn the hard way.
What’s a lesson you’ve learned?
How to rebound and bounce back. You may introduce your clients to product, places and things and they may turn them all down. You can’t give up; keep looking and sourcing and presenting ideas. You’ll find the right options eventually.
Also, cut yourself some slack. You don’t know everything and neither does the client. Event planning isn’t brain surgery; it’s putting pieces of a puzzle together. Have a little faith in yourself.
What was a problem you ran into at an event?
I have forgotten to have a gift delivered to a client’s room, and to arrange to have a VIP picked up at the airport. You have to admit the error, find a solution, forget about it and move on. It’s like a neon light shining on you and it’s painful. Accept that you’re going to make mistakes with so many moving pieces.
What the best advice you’ve gotten?
Eat the meal on the airplane because it might be the last time you get to eat for a while. Also, keep asking questions, and write down the answers.
Do you have a tip to pass on?
Enjoy your job. It will come through to your client. You need to work hard, but you have incredible opportunities in this industry. Working 16 hours in Rome or Marrakesh is quite different from working 16 hours behind your computer at your usual desk all day.
Words of wisdom for planners?
You never know where your next client will come from, where a connection in this business may lead. You may handle a program for one client and find that someone within the group from another company may want your services. Also, you frequently get leads when you’re somewhere other than work, like on an airplane, where you talk to someone and they ask for your card. Sales opportunities don’t come only in a conference room. You’re always representing your company.
What makes an event special to you?
Being with a group that enjoys what they’re doing. In Vietnam, as our guests were walking into a street party, the drums were blaring and it was obvious everyone was having a good time. I fed off that and got goosebumps and teared up a couple times.