Meetings + Events

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Meeting Planner Entrepreneurs

Read how three meeting planners struck out on their own, and discovered success

An entrepreneurial spirit. Rock solid organizational skills. Nerves of steel. Independent meeting planners need them all. Here’s how three meeting planner entrepreneurs struck out on their own—and discovered success.

A Brand in Balance
Jennifer Wood CMP
Owner, Convene, Puslinch, Ont.
For Jennifer Wood, there is no differentiation between an entrepreneur and her brand. “It’s not business,” says the former ad exec, “it’s personal.” Employing the personal touch can give independent meeting planners an edge over their larger competition, provided they know how to leverage it. “First, you need to ask yourself: ‘Who is my client base?’” says Wood, owner of Convene, a full-service meetings, events and consultation company specializing in the pharma industry. “Mine is an educated and elite group of professionals, of which a significant proportion are male. I need to recognize that and tailor my marketing accordingly.”

Enter the chocolate and periwinkle colour scheme—arguably a masculine combination that glosses everything from Convene’s slick website, to stationary; even her home-based office has coordinating hues on the walls. “The look and feel of my business must work together to deliver a clear and consistent message.”

Although she works from home in Puslinch, Ont., you’d never know it. Her phone is answered by a professional reception service, and her number has a 416 area code because her business comes from Toronto.

While Wood goes to great lengths to present a professional first impression, having a virtual office is not something that the mother of two girls goes out of her way to hide, either. If asked, she is blunt: “I can work anywhere and get anything accomplished. From my office I have a breathtaking view of the lake—and that is good for me. The happiness and energy I feel become part of the brand.”

Nicely in her Niche
Tuesday Johnson-MacDonald CMP, CMM
Principal, TAP Resources & Associates, Ohsweken, Ont.
“It’s all about passion,” says Tuesday Johnson-MacDonald, principal at TAP Resources, when asked what it takes to be a successful independent meeting planner. “You just can’t do it without passion. With it comes the drive and determination needed to overcome the inevitable highs and lows of being an entrepreneur.”

Johnson-MacDonald, who worked in the industry for 20 years before opting to go the independent route, knows how devastating the lows can be. Her first year was a bumpy one. Johnson-MacDonald’s founding partner—the person who had originally suggested that they go into business together—decided that as a single mom the uncertainty of business ownership was too risky. “I hadn’t gone into it thinking I would do it alone. But after some thought I made the decision that I would move ahead and give it my all,” says Johnson-MacDonald. “It could have gone either way, but by the fifth year in business I was doing a little jig because I knew I had made it; I was doing something right.”

Johnson-MacDonald says it’s helpful to have a specific area of expertise when you start out, but also strongly suggests branching out a little once the business has been established. TAP Resources, for instance, offers two areas of specialization: conference and event management as well as consultation. The latter focuses on the aboriginal community, which Johnson-MacDonald describes as, “a huge market that is being missed.” She would know. Not only is TAP based on a Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, in Ohsweken, Ont., Johnson-MacDonald herself is Aboriginal, and has always worked with her community both directly and as a liaison with mainstream agencies. Toronto Tourism recently retained TAP to teach cultural nuances and protocols to 30 sales people representing 30 different hotels from across the city.

Big Challenges = Big Solutions
Mariette Haras CMP
Owner, Big Events Inc., Waterloo, Ont.
It’s not surprising that topping Mariette Haras’ list of the most important attributes for independent meeting planners are “perseverance” and “the ability to wear many hats and switch them quickly and easily.”

Case in point: when the Waterloo, Ont.-based owner of Big Events Inc., a 14-year-old business specializing in corporate events that range from an intimate dinner for 50 to a monstrous 15,000-person Truck Fest with 100 volunteers, decided to move her website to a new server, her existing web host decided to make things messy by holding her domain name hostage.

With no in-house legal department, Haras donned her lawyer hat to explore every possible solution, from contacting the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), a not-for-profit organization mandated to operate and oversee dot-ca domains, to contemplating a switch from dot-ca to dot-com (not a viable option at a cool US $17,000). In the end, Haras had to go back to the original server. “I had to say: ‘Okay, you win. Now let’s get this mess cleaned up.’”

Luckily, Haras has the winning combination of “great staff” and “flexible suppliers,” which she says enables Big Events to push ahead and sustain momentum. “Our five staff members work extremely well together on every level, and everyone has their specialty,” she says. But finding suppliers willing to be flexible can be a bit more difficult. “If I want quail eggs served in a nest, I don’t want to hear, ‘We don’t do that but you can pick something else from the prepared menu.’”

To find this can-do attitude, Haras has scoured events looking for creative chefs who are up to the challenge. If she finds a potential candidate, she’ll start with a small event and see how it goes.

In all cases, Haras treats suppliers as part of the team. “I invite them to pre-op and post-op meetings, and for really large events, I’ll hold a wrap-up party for everyone involved.”

By Sherryll Sobie

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