July Planner Profile: Sue Walton

MeCo Co-Founder, Co-Owner of May and Williams, LTD., Independent Meeting Planners, Evanston, Illinois

Sue Walton’s experience as a planner began during a 1980’s political event that included a keg of beer. “On the 4th of July, in 1987,” she recently related, “my husband and I were attending a Libertarian Party of Illinois picnic and people in attendance were talking about the upcoming National Libertarian Party Convention, which was going to be held in Seattle at the end of August. As people in attendance finished off a keg of beer, they wondered why Illinois/Chicago could not host the next presidential nominating convention in 1991. By the end of the keg, my husband and I said we’d research how to plan a convention, because we were in the process of selling our mortgage brokerage business and were looking for something new to occupy our time.”

As she goes on to say, “The rest is history. I have never looked back. I love what I do!”

Here are some details of that history, including Walton’s involvement as an Editorial Advisory Board Member for ConventionSouth magazine, and some examples of the types of meeting and event planning she has completed over the years since that pivotal political event.

Q: What are your current roles and responsibilities as a planner?

I work with small non-profits plus occasionally a dentist from Pennsylvania, who conducts periodic continuing education classes for small groups. I find the venues for him and negotiate the contracts. I do not go on-site. For my non-profits, I arrange both local and national meetings. For example, my work with one religious group, the American Ethical Union, involves finding the venue for their national meeting and negotiating the contract. I serve as a liaison between the national staff and the hotel. I am the person who says to the program committee, “you can’t end a general session at a particular time because it will cost us extra money.” I work with participants to address their food preferences. Also, I drive to each annual meeting because of the stuff I must bring: cameras & tripods, power point projectors and laptops.

Another client is the Council of Georgist Organizations. I do their membership and fundraising appeals, select sites, negotiate contracts and prepare the conference mailing and evaluation for their annual meeting.

Q: What types of training and education have been important to your work as a planner?

I am OJT (on the job) trained. I am self-taught. I have never worked as an employee of an association and have been my own boss for my entire meeting planning career. I am not one for certification, but I like to attend industry events with educational components for experienced planners. My main source of education is the MeCo list. MeCo stands for the Meetings Community. We’re an all-volunteer listserve of over 3,500 members; suppliers, planners and students. I joined MeCo on January 6, 2006 as one of its first members and became a moderator less than a week later, so I am considered to be a co-founder.  I am constantly learning things from the list, from venue evaluations to better ways to provide room pick-up history by type of rooms booked.

My volunteer activities include: Social Chair of my condo association and secretary of my local senior center’s advisory board. I am founding secretary of the Chicago Ethical Humanist Circle. I am recently retired from being the co-chair of the building rental committee of the Ethical Humanists Society
of Chicago.

Q: What types of changes have you seen in this industry during your years as a planner and how have they affected you?

With the internet, I save paper by not getting my industry news in the mail; I do not save articles in hard copy, so I save them electronically. My pet peeve is that not all websites pass muster with my malware filter, so I may be interested in an article, but my software does not allow me to read it.

Also, apps for individual meetings which have the budget are fine, but they need to be tailored to the group’s dynamics. I don’t like standard forms for online searches because I have my own RFPs.

Q: What are the best things about your job?

Being my own boss; I set my own schedule. As we speak, I need to get ready for my Wednesday Silver Sneakers Yoga and Exercise class. I love checking out new venues and working with my participants, whom I consider to be my kids. I also like to work by myself at my own pace.

Q: Are there any special experiences that stand out?

In 2002, as my Georgist conference was getting underway in London, Ontario, my mother passed away. Since I had no one to back me up, I  could not go to her memorial service. My conference participants gave lots of space and hugs. Recently, the woman who made sure I had the “space” lost both her mom and her uncle in the same week, so I stepped up to the plate to give back to her and tell others to give her “space.”

Q: What are the biggest day-to-day challenges you face?

Budgeting; finding the right cost-effective venues for clients who are literally church mice or retired academics who can not afford expensive venues and are very, very budget-conscious about what they pay. What my clients and I think is affordable is considered by many to be unreasonable. I’m not qualified to go on FAM trips since my clients’  total room nights do not qualify me, so I miss out on venues that could be a good fit.

Q: What are some of the most interesting (good or bad) experiences you have had
as a planner?

Bad: whirlly gig (flying centipedes) bugs in a college dorm room in 1991—I did not book another college for 16 years after that. If I see bugs of any kind, I will not book a venue.

Good: Being a part of MeCo and having my MeCousins (my fellow moderators) with whom I interact every day; Being part of ConventionSouth’s advisory board since 1994. Getting a birthday cake during my 2016 Georgist Conference in Orlando. I do not like to work on my birthday nor do I like to take tests; it is the one concession I make to being a workaholic. (I work from 7:15 in the morning until about 8:30 in the evening, but I do not sit at my computer constantly.) The client wanted the week of my birthday, so I was stuck, and the venue knew it, so there was a chocolate cake in my suite at the end of the day. I love the customer care the Wyndham gave me!

Q: What advice would you offer to other planners? (Especially those just starting out.)

READ, READ, READ; interact with your peers on listserves. which is the most time-effective way of keeping up with new developments. Be a plugger!

Q: Our issue topics this month are Small Market Meetings and Medical Meetings… do you have any experiences in these areas that you might share?

Small market meetings are ideal for my clients; we get lost in large markets. Small markets are affordable both room-wise and for food & beverage.

Click here to read more from the July issue of ConventionSouth Magazine.