"We start by asking the client what they really want to accomplish," says Woody King, owner of Destination Management and Marketing. "Once your objectives are established, the meeting can be planned more effectively."
There is no one-design-fits-all plan for ensuring an effective meeting. Factors to consider include the ages of participants, their gender and what positions they hold in the organization.
"All of those demographics influence the choices you'll make," says King. "The theme and design of the meeting, as well as the detailed execution, comes from the up-front understanding you gain from this information."
And it's important to share the purpose of the meeting with the attendees, says King.
"Tell the attendee why the meeting is important. If you can't do that, you won't get his or her attention and buy-in," he says.
Chris Curry, owner of Destination by Design, agrees that having a clear-cut goal for the meeting is critical to its success.
"You need to define the meeting's desired results and then come up with objectives to make them happen," Curry says.
Devil's in the details
Plan the meeting well in advance.
"Successful meetings are not planned in days, especially if they are for large groups," says Curry. "Some hotels are booked two or three years out."
King says the average lead time for meeting planning is from three to six months, depending on the meeting type and size.
And before you put it together, define the budget for every facet, including the location, food, speakers and gifts.
"Knowing your budget is another key part of planning," says Curry. "And you have to have more than an overall number. Have it broken down by category, food, equipment, etc., in targeted ranges that match the goals. In other words, don't plan a hot dog dinner at a formal meeting."
Flexibility is important.
"There is a great deal of detail to oversee when planning a meeting," King says. "Select a date and site, but be flexible on these."
Once you've narrowed your location choices, get references from planners who have conducted meetings at those places.
"It always helps to find out what some of the pitfalls and benefits were of using that facility if you haven't used it before," King says.
And always have a back-up plan.
"It's a good rule of thumb to have a contingency plan for everything," says King.
Executing the perfect plan
Once your meeting is set, communication and follow-up are essential.
"Take the time to have a pre-conference meeting," says King. "Remind everyone of what their responsibilities are and discuss food and security issues, ground transportation and even the accounting."
That means knowing who can sign the master account and who can't, and who will review the bills.
And make sure there are accommodations for attendees with disabilities.
King recommends all department heads, the sales staff and the general manager of the hotel attend the meeting, and that hotel staff, including telephone operators, get the word about any VIPs attending. The pre-conference meeting can take place as late as the day before the scheduled date, preventing potentially costly mix-ups the day of.
"It pays to make sure all the bases are covered," says King. "When you don't think through all the details, you'll get no return on your investment."
For especially large meetings, Curry recommends the services of a professional planner.
"It can be a full-time job planning big meetings," he says. "Planners can save a lot of time and leg work. We can provide alternatives without the company having to make 150 phone calls to figure them out."
Curry says his company recently found a way to save a client $10,000 on its annual Family Day event.
"They took that money and used it to enhance the event," he says.
Looking for the perfect place
If your meeting is a large one with many attendees from out of town, a hotel or convention center is a logical choice for location. But how do you choose one that fits your budget and meeting needs?
Joe Bocherer, director of sales at the Hyatt on Capital Square, says knowing what's been done at previous meetings is vital to getting the best deal.
"A planner basically needs to provide us with a history of what's been done," says Bocherer. "Then we can take our facility and find a way to match what's been done or do it better. The more detailed the history is, the better. With a lot of information, we can put our best foot forward."
Bocherer also recommends flexibility in budget and accommodation requirements.
"We have 17,000 square feet of meeting space. If the planner can be flexible and use theater style seating instead of classroom, it allows us to maximize the space," he says.
Bocherer says the Hyatt offers the planner more than a place for the meeting; the staff can provide ideas if the theme is still up in the air.
"We become more of a consultant then," says Bocherer. "We provide the planner with pictures of what we've done in the past that can spark ideas."
If you're looking for a place that can pull together many venues, The Westin Great Southern Hotel partners with local theaters, restaurants and clubs to offer a complete package of entertainment and hospitality to its meeting clients.
"We are adjacent to the Southern Theatre, which has 900 seats, and attendees don't even have to walk outside to get there," says Juliann Beatty, the hotel's director of sales and marketing. "We are also next to the Pulse Nightclub and have hosted after-hours parties there."
The Westin also works with COSI and German Village and Arena district restaurants for entertainment and progressive meal packages. Beatty says some companies buy out the entire hotel and redecorate the lobby or other areas to match themes.
"We have turned our lobby into a disco and the second floor into a safari," says Beatty.
Like Bocherer, Beatty can help planners come up with unique and creative meeting themes.
"We work with so many local businesses, we can give them ideas for things they didn't know existed," she says.
If your meeting is of the small, one-day variety intended for local attendees, there are several location options to meet your needs. For example, a training meeting may require special equipment, computers and a convenient setting, while a retreat calls for a quiet, out-of-the-way spot with no computers or equipment.
Here are some possible locations:
* Columbus Zoo and Aquarium (614) 645-3466
* Franklin Park Conservatory (614) 645-1800
* Cherry Valley Lodge (740) 788-1200
* Schottenstein Center, OSU (614) 688-3939
* Greek Orthodox Cathedral (614) 224-9020
How to reach: Destination Management and Marketing, (614) 785-0605; Destinations By Design, (614) 798-9857; Hyatt on Capital Square, (614) 228-1234; Westin Great Southern Hotel, (614) 228-3800