SOS From an Overworked Events Planner

Author: Convene Editors       


Members of the Association for Asian Studies gather in Denver for the 2019 convention. The conference manager for AAS asked PCMA’s Catalyst community about their staffing solutions. (Courtesy AAS)

PCMA’s Catalyst community offers members a platform to ask each other questions, share ideas, or, as the website says, “communicate and collaborate.” Each month Convene features some of the most popular topics in the forum. Here’s a sampling from a recent Catalyst discussion.

In Need of Additional Help

“We are currently in the process of drafting a document to our executive officers to justify the need for hiring a meeting assistant/coordinator to support our annual conference,” Robyn Jones, conference manager, Association for Asian Studies, wrote on the PCMA Catalyst forum. “I am a meeting department of one and am responsible for all conference planning. We are a 6,500-plus membership association. Our conference averages 3,400 attendees, 400-plus sessions, 125-plus exhibitors, a film expo, 15-plus ad hoc business meetings, and reception events. All exhibits, sponsorships, advertising, and registration are handled in-house. Currently, our full association staff totals nine people, including the executive director. I am looking for a bit of feedback from planners with a similar size or smaller conference with more than one staffer who is responsible for meeting logistics. I would like to share some examples with our board.

“Clearly, I have been making the planning of this conference look like a cakewalk, so much so that our board cannot understand why we need to hire another staff member. (Did I mention we have another conference in Asia and other committee and board meetings I am responsible for?) Any feedback would be helpful, or simply a link to your association webpage where I can view your staff list for staff number comparisons. Thank you.”

First, wow! I’m in awe of how much you’re doing! That said, I hope you’re able to get some support. We hold two annual events per year. Largest event is 2,500. Between both meetings, it’s around 200 sessions, 400 speakers, 60 vendors, and 100 posters. My team is:

  • Director (me) — oversees department, budget, staff, overall event strategy, sourcing, contracts, meeting logistics, exhibitors. I also do the sourcing and logistics for other organization events.
  • Manager — oversees overall content/speaker planning, planning committees, pre-con programs, and also oversees other non-conference-related programs.
  • Assistant — provides administrative support for agenda and speakers.

There is also a fourth person who works on posters and exhibitors — it’s maybe 10-15 percent of her job. And, we usually have a paid intern for about 10 hours a week. Even with this setup, I feel another assistant level position would be helpful.

In making the case for new personnel, I try to demonstrate what’s lacking as a result of limited staff support and what could be possible. Then, we try to see how we can support the overhead.

For example, are your meetings generating enough revenue to support another staff member? Do you have other organization areas that generate revenue that could help support? Are there meeting expenses that could possibly decrease? Not always feasible, but sometimes worth reviewing.

Good luck with your endeavor and great question to pose to the group. Look forward to seeing other responses!

— Mariellen Morris, Director of Conferences, Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research

We are in a very similar situation as an association with conference attendance/exhibitors, etc. We hired an assistant a couple of years ago and it has been a huge benefit as to what we are able to do. We have a few more staff but some of them are part-time, contracted employees.

— Kerisa Citro, CMP, DES, Director of Conferences & Events, Women in Aviation International

I’ve worked on teams of varying sizes from two to nine people, on events ranging from five to 25,000 attendees, with calendars from three to 50 annual events, and the makeup of teams I enjoy working in most have three members:

  • Director (sourcing, contracts, volunteer committees, and overall department management)
  • Sponsors/exhibits manager
  • Speaker/registration/logistics manager

With this size team, everyone can be cross-trained and stay tight-knit. Additional temp/contract staff can be hired above and beyond these, as needed.

— Melissa O’Campo, Meeting Manager, Murdoch, Walrath & Holmes

You’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from other folks and I’m sure you’ll get more. I’d also recommend that when you make your recommendation to the board that you also take into account the amount of time that you spend in the planning process. In particular, how much overtime do you work on average? Though in today’s world it’s not always realistic anymore, I remember someone telling me once way back when that if you can’t do your job within a 40-hour workweek, then that’s the No. 1 clue that you need more staff. I doubt many planners even with help can say they only work 40-hour weeks, but if you can demonstrate how much overtime that you are working to make this happen (which I can imagine is a lot), then I think that can also help demonstrate your case.

Also, see if you can quantify how much you are not able to do because you don’t have the capacity to do more. Personally, I used to struggle with all of the elements that I wanted to add to my meetings to take them to the next level, but that sometimes I wouldn’t even bring them up because I knew I was just adding more work to my already overwhelmed workload. Hope that helps! Best of luck to you.

— Kristin Hanley, Owner/Operator, KH Conference Solutions

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