Meeting goals Featured

6:56am EDT December 17, 2003
Being put in charge of planning a meeting or event can be overwhelming.

There are seemingly a million questions to be answered: Where will the event be? Do I need food? How much? How do I stay on budget? Where do I find a guest speaker? How do I set up an agenda?

These are just some of the many questions that need to be answered before the event. Extensive planning and preparation are the keys to having a successful meeting.

"The average person can do it, absolutely," says Susan Friedmann, author of "Meeting & Event Planning for Dummies." "First and foremost, find out what the purpose of the meeting is."

Once you have a clearly defined goal for the meeting, it will help set the framework for all the other decisions that have to be made.

"Find out who is invited," says Friedmann. "Is it something that needs to be held on site or can you go to a local hotel or destination meeting facility? These are some of the logistical things you need to find out at the onset. Start focusing on the purpose and what you want to accomplish."

One of the first things you'll have to decide on is a date. Find out when the most important people are available and set a date based on their schedules so you can be sure they will attend.

"It's not good deciding on a date and then finding out that the key people can't make it," says Friedmann.

Location, location, location

Choosing the right location for your meeting is vital to the event's success, whether it's a local meeting facility or a fancy hotel across the country.

Regardless of where you are holding the meeting, make sure someone visits the location. The Internet has made it very convenient to locate facilities in the right area, but photos can be deceiving and marketing materials aren't always accurate.

"It's important that someone goes and looks at the facility to make sure it has everything you need," says Friedmann. "Visit the room you are going to be in. Hopefully, you are not right next to the kitchen. Find out what else is going on in the hotel the same time as your meeting. Determine how much privacy you are going to need and decide whether the room fits your needs."

Find out who else has used the facility and talk to them about their experiences there. Was the hotel staff easy to work with? Did they help make their meeting a success?

"If this is the type of meeting where people will be bringing their partners and spouses, you'll want to find out what facilities are available for them," says Friedmann. "Are there sightseeing opportunities? Determine what's going to go on. Is there going to be an organized spousal program as well as your meeting program? That makes it more complex, but it's something you need to think about."

Be careful about planning on using facilities that are either under construction or undergoing renovations.

"They may tell you that it will be ready in time for your meeting, but there are a lot of things that can happen to prevent that," says Friedmann.

Before your visit, determine all of your audio-visual and food and beverage needs so you can set these up with the hotel or meeting facility. Know how many people are coming and work with the hotel to establish your requirements for any breakout sessions.

If the hotel provides AV equipment, make sure it is properly maintained. Now is also the time to ask if you can work with a third party to bring in AV equipment if you are not happy with the quality or pricing of the hotel's equipment. Some hotels allow you to do that and others don't.

"Sometimes they won't have the kind of equipment you need, and you'll have to make other arrangements," says Friedmann.

You also need to determine what configuration the room or rooms should be set up in. Will it be a podium and microphone at the front with theater-style seating, or do you prefer a flip chart with classroom-style seating where everyone is at a table so they can take notes?

"The more important your meeting is, the more important it is to visit the destination and not take anything for granted," says Friedmann. "Do your homework. The more investment you are making, the more careful you have to be."

Great expectations

The success of any event often hinges on who the speaker is and what topics are covered. After all, most meetings are a forum for information exchange of one type or another. Providing the right source of information and meeting everyone's expectations for both content and time commitment is important.

Determining what you expect from your speaker and communicating that to him or her will go a long way toward keeping everyone focused. Even for smaller meetings, make sure everyone is prepared.

"There's nothing worse than being at a meeting and then suddenly being asked to talk about subject X with no preparation," says Friedmann. "It's important to just communicate what I'm expecting to the speaker. If you want them to talk about the economic situation within the company for 10 minutes, then tell them that so they can prepare."

You have to understand what you want from a speaker and communicate that.

"What's the purpose of having this person?" says Friedmann. "Is it just a rah-rah speech, or are you really looking for some content?"

If you want a speaker from outside your company, contact a local speakers bureau for leads. And, as with the facility itself, a speaker should be researched.

"Get referrals, and if you have time, try to view the speaker at another event," says Friedmann. "Really work with your speakers so they understand what you want them to accomplish."

One of the most difficult thing to manage with speakers is time. If you have multiple speakers or events throughout the day, one speaker running over by 15 minutes can wreck the entire agenda.

"You need a timer," says Friedmann. "This should be someone who is not in charge of running the meeting. They have to be strict because it's easy to run over."

Rather than forcing people into predetermined time slots, sometimes it is better to contact them before the meeting and ask how much time they think they will need.

"Let them know up front that you would appreciate it if they would stay on time," says Friedmann.

One solution is to have a person sitting in the front row with cue cards. One should say five minutes, one two minutes and one should say stop. As time winds down, the appropriate card is subtly displayed to the speaker so he or she knows it is time to wrap things up.

"You may get someone that carries on regardless, but there isn't a whole lot you can do," says Friedmann. "You just hope the person is respectful of the time allotted." How to reach: www.thetradeshowcoach.com