Originally published Meetings Today
When meeting planners express frustration with the CSMs (convention services managers) (aka ESPs, event service professionals) who don’t call or email in a time frame that is acceptable to the planners, or who suggest that the CSMs don’t know enough about properties, I bristle.
Many of us who’ve been in the industry for some time know that sales will sell the world and that those in service must make it happen, regardless of the realities of what has been sold.
That’s not just an opinion, it’s the reality of the current and former CSMs I interviewed.
My First Professional Experience with CS and Sales
I moved to Washington, D.C., where I still live, in 1978. My first job here was as an association planner for the association’s 10th anniversary meeting. Although I had planned meetings and events around the U.S. prior to my move, I wasn’t schooled or trained in the profession.
On my first visit to the already-contracted hotel, I met with the sales manager and convention services manager and said, “Tell me everything.” They did and it was the beginning of my “love affair” with convention services and all they brought to the process and execution of meetings.
This convention services manager and all those who worked the back—or heart (Thank you, Mark Andrew, for the better term.)—of the house to set and service meeting and event space ensured my employer’s 10th anniversary meeting, celebration and related events were flawless.
I could not have done it without them.
I’m guessing that you planners could not manage without them. And I know that those of you in sales depend on them to deliver the magic you sell.
Who Plays What Role
Those in sales and marketing do lots to woo planners and groups to come to their properties. They are given budgets to entertain and attend industry events to schmooze planners. CSMs must produce what sales sells and it is not always easy. And in the end, they do it, sorta like the analogy of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire—backwards and in heels. Well, not exactly—rather, they do it working very long hours and days for much less money and far less respect than those in sales receive. In fact, I’d compare their role with ours as planners; we make it look easy even when it’s not, and get far too little credit.
Many planners will understand when I say that too often the salesperson shows up on day four of a five-day meeting to see when you’ll book the next meeting at their property. The CSM is there with you from the start of the pre-con(vention meeting) and through the post-con, and every day and evening of the event. And if they can’t be there that late, they ensure someone who knows the meeting will be.
If it goes well and the group rebooks, the CSM, unless we planners specifically say it, won’t get the credit for the return booking. If it goes badly, and it can, the CSM is blamed (sometimes fairly as in the one with whom I worked who showed up at 9 a.m. for the 7 a.m. general session rehearsal and left by 3 in the afternoon) even if they executed their role magnificently.
Relationship of Planner and CSM
Like some of you, I, too, have been frustrated when a phone call is not returned “promptly” (which some believe is within 10 minutes!) or an email is not answered with the information urgently requested for a meeting in a few months or later. When a CSM is working with an in-house group, their “desk-time” (as noted in the interviews I did) is limited. They are giving their attention to those in-house. We’ve all seen the domino effect of one planner late with their meeting specifications (“specs”) on upcoming meetings: No one gets what they need on time.
In 2019, when I spoke at a conference, the CSM was the person who, with the client, helped me the most. The CSM managed a complex in-house meeting with many demands while begging the next groups to please send their very late specs. It was all done with a smile and kindness.
I know and you do, too, that we get very cranky when our employers or clients or volunteers with whom we work don’t tell us what they need or do it very late or make changes—frequently! We all depend on each other.
CSMs must be part of site inspection.
Intuitively, I knew that. Experience confirmed that too often those in sales, who usually conduct site inspections, don’t know the intricacies of the space and its use. They are not exposed in too many circumstances to the intricacies of set-ups and flow that a CSM has that can then benefit the planning of our meetings. And if the CSM is also responsible for all or aspects of catering, they can add their knowledge at the time we are still considering which property to use
Wait…are you bashing sales?
Nope. I wish all hotel, convention center, conference center and other venue salespeople had convention services and operational backgrounds. In fact, I think it should be mandatory for anyone selling space and its use to have first been part of a service team. The industry doesn’t understand or work to ensure complementary roles and training.
Salaries and incentives, too, may be part of the issue. Salespeople are tasked with booking quotas that can push them to book more without explaining all that a planner needs to know. Too often those who plan are not trained, and we need to have partners who understand all aspects of their properties and how our meetings and events will work. You’ll read in the interviews of situations where CSMs saved everyone by their attention to detail.
When it’s not working
An experience with a client meeting at a major convention hotel taught me to ask many more questions in the RFP about the CSMs’ experience, including whether they are members of ESPA. On a site visit with just the CSM, I was surprised when they—a director—who had been with the hotel many years never, as we walked through, addressed any of the set-up people by name. I want to see teamwork from the first experience.
About 15 minutes into the inspection, and with other hotel options from which to choose, I stopped and asked why they were not addressing the staff by name. I was told, “They work for me. I don’t need to know their names.” My response? Buh-bye—I want to see a team that respects each other and works with respect to make meetings happen.
The relationship starts with the first call or visit and asking about experience and how they work with the entire staff. If there is not knowledge and cooperation, the meeting can suffer.
Training is available
I served on the customer advisory boards of a number of hotel companies, and on the (then) CIC (now EIC) Board as one of MPI’s delegates.
During service on the hotels’ advisory boards, I repeatedly asked why CSMs were not sent to industry meetings to meet and learn with planners and with salespeople, and why CSMs weren’t part of the tradeshow team. It made sense since I knew they were the reason groups rebook.
When I served on that Board, I got to know both Keith Sexton-Patrick and the now-late Bill Just, he the founder of ACOM, now called ESPA. Spending time with them was invaluable. They worked hard, as do all now on the ESPA Board, to persuade hotels, convention centers and conference centers to support their CSMs with ESPA membership and for attendance at industry meetings to learn and build relationships.
Alas, too many service departments are understaffed and those who do the work are too often stretched too thin by the planners who don’t provide their specs on time, and so getting away is difficult. See what Deidre Reid, ESPA Treasurer has to say about the support she receives.
Hmmm… a vicious circle?
What can be done
- Salespeople and planners must promote—even insist—that the CSMs in the properties in which they work be made members of ESPA. (I gain nothing for this promotion.)
- The industry must elevate the standing of CSMs. Thankfully, of those inducted into the EIC Hall of Leaders (I’m a proud 2004 inductee.) are some from convention services. I was thrilled that Keith Sexton-Patrick was honored, with Jim Daggett, the late Doris Sklar, and me, by HSMAI, with the Pacesetter Award in the 1990s.
- We all need to establish and meet deadlines to help each other shine.
- Meeting planners can help train CSMs just as they have helped train us. Help them learn more about adult learning and the work we do.
- Planners must write specific praise of CSMs in real letters to GMs and owners.
This blog and edition of Friday With Joan is dedicated to a number of people, all in convention/conference services, some who have passed away, and all of whom made clients’ meetings and events great and made my life richer and my work smarter: Alvin A. Brazile, Jr., Michael Conod, Bill Just, all of blessed memory; and Devon Sloan, Kim Peterson and Linda Tudor.
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