Chain of Connections: Planning partners share secrets of successful relationships

Networking is a main reason people attend events, and the local CVB knows all the hot gathering spots.
1 Networking is a main reason people attend events, and the local CVB knows all the hot gathering spots.

Relationships are the lifeblood of the meetings and events industry. Strong relationships pay off in successful meetings for planners, clients, sponsors, and attendees.

“Building strong relationships is one of the most important things we can do,” says Sally Mainprize, owner of Iron Peacock Events in Arlington, Texas. “You must have a strong team of people. You cannot stand alone because events take so many different people in so many different roles to make them successful.”

Like anything, relationships take work, and they’re founded on open and honest communication. The pandemic put a strain on connecting, placing relationship-building on hold and severing existing connections. Now, with the meetings comeback, planners are in a rebuilding phase.

Think of building relationships as part of the job. “You have to foster that,” says Heather Herrig, president and chief event strategist at Every Last Detail event planning firm in Atlanta, Ga. “Relationships don’t just happen because you do business with somebody one time. You work at it. There’s too much at stake not to.”

The planning process is a chain of connections linking concept to ROI. That chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so the best plan is to build strong relationships every step of the way. Here’s a primer on creating productive working relationships—and even friendships—from the perspectives of the team members it takes to produce an event.

Outdoor spaces bring a breath of fresh air and change of scenery. Ask the hotel for recommendations on unique event spaces at their property.
Outdoor spaces bring a breath of fresh air and change of scenery. Ask the hotel for recommendations on unique event spaces at their property.


The Sponsor

The best way to form a good relationship with sponsors is to ensure they get their money’s worth. High on the sponsor’s wish list: attendee engagement and high visibility, including digital signage and making sponsor videos available on mobile devices. Event apps can help sponsors reach their target audience by matching them with the right attendees and offering the ability to schedule one-on-one meetings. Technology also can track attendees (including alerting sponsors when a top potential client arrives) and measure foot traffic at an exhibit booth.

Planners don’t have to go hi-tech to please sponsors. Tried and true traditional methods, such as food and prizes, work. Longtime conference sponsor hh2 Cloud Services, a construction industry mobile technology firm in Kaysville, Utah, counts on attendees visiting the meeting exhibit hall.

“Some meetings do a great job of placing the snacks and beverages in or past the exhibit hall so that attendees have to come into the exhibit hall,” says Dennis Dorrity, the firm’s director of events/creative. “Another great method to promote attendees meeting with the exhibitors is giving them a card that they get punched by each exhibitor they talk to, and then they turn it in for a drawing for a prize. It’s a great opportunity for us as exhibitors.”

Even easier: Ditch the physical punch card and use a digital list online. That way, if attendees contact a sponsor via email rather than stopping by their booth in person, the contact can still be checked off. “Doing it all through a software system is so much easier,” Dorrity says. “It’s easy to miss an email and a headache to have to go back and forth in it.”

Lead-retrieval systems offer another way to save sponsors time and increase efficiency. “It’s hard to always write down names and emails or keep track of business cards,” Dorrity says. “The lead-retrieval system allows exhibitors to scan badges of those who come to the booth and get the contact info needed. It’s a great feature planners can offer.”

Food plays a central role in any gathering, so check with venues to see if they offer cooking classes or chef demonstrations.
Food plays a central role in any gathering, so check with venues to see if they offer cooking classes or chef demonstrations

The Attendee

Without attendees, there is no meeting. Attracting attendees is paramount, so be aware that attendee expectations have risen since the pandemic. Today’s attendees are more selective about the events they attend, in large part due to increased costs, health concerns, and travel headaches.

Scott Mills, president of William Mills Agency, an Atlanta, Ga.-based public relations and marketing firm serving the financial industry, attends several events each year. For Mills, the cost of attending is a prime motivating factor.

“That overall cost, including flight, hotel, and registration fee, is certainly a big part of the decision, but beyond that, the cost matters because I like to have multiple people from our company attend,” Mills says. “It’s hard to transfer the experiences, networking opportunities, and content. If the total cost of participation is reasonable, I like it when we can send three or four employees. If it’s expensive, we simply can’t.”

In the education space, access to travel funds can vary widely, notes Mary Price, director of teaching and learning at The Forum on Education Abroad, a Carlisle, Pa.-based nonprofit member organization that develops standards for education abroad professionals. Cost restrictions can make even smaller expenses such as meals a dealbreaker.

“People can sometimes have difficulty getting reimbursed for food costs in higher education, so having some meals incorporated into the conference fee is really helpful for some,” Price says.

Offering multiday rates or providing a portion of the event online can help draw attendees, as well. “It puts a heavier load on planners, but from a participant standpoint, it offers attendees more ways to participate.”

The intangible costs of participation also factor in: What is the attendee giving up to attend, such as another event or work and family time? The pressure is on planners to offer an agenda that’s worth the sacrifice, increasing the FOMO factor.

Mills points to content and networking opportunities. “There are conferences I spend the majority of time absorbing the sessions,” she explains. “For me personally, at this stage of my career, it’s about who is in the room. The last big event I went to, I went to one session, and the rest of the time, I was meeting with others in attendance. It was a wildly successful conference because I knew who I was going to be meeting with and scheduled my time to accommodate everyone. Getting the time to further business relationships, whether with someone new I’ve never met or someone I’ve done business with for years, is a key benefit in deciding what event to attend.”

Don’t underestimate the importance of free time and connecting with the destination. “It’s important for me to have downtime so that I can get out and experience the community I’m in,” Mills notes. “It’s also great if the agenda has programming built into the agenda that gets attendees out in the community. I really value that.”


Forming a strong relationship with CVBs is a must. Planning a meeting or event starts with the free services offered by a CVB, and no one knows a city like their staff.

“The CVB is essentially the boots on the ground for a planner,” says Adrienne Siemers, chief sales officer for the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp in Tennessee. “We’re here to point planners in the right direction and advocate for them along the way.”

The root of any successful relationship is good communication. Sometimes the best form of communication, Siemers says, is simply picking up the phone and having a conversation. “A lot can be worked out on the phone versus a back and forth via email,” she says. “If there’s a problem that needs to be worked through, picking up the phone and verbally working through it is the best advice I could give.”

Be honest and upfront about your group’s needs from the beginning. Open communication during the negotiation process builds trust and prevents problems down the road. “It’s always helpful if the planner will negotiate in good faith and be completely transparent about their needs and deadlines,” Siemers says. “Sometimes the biggest challenge we see on the negotiation side is not getting the clear picture of what is really needed. Lay out on the table what your group needs.”

In addition to being clear, planners can create better relationships—and better events—when they communicate all details as soon as possible, particularly when something changes or an issue arises. “If the planner feels the group may not pick up as many attendees as originally anticipated or there is something about the group that should be brought to the attention of the venue, the sooner they communicate that information to us the better,” Siemers advises. “Planners should always keep in mind that we want to create a win for them, their group, and our community; and communication plays a major role in
doing that.”

The Venue

Events are about communication, and so is the planning process. Keep the doors of communication open to build relationships based on trust and honesty.
Events are about communication, and so is the planning process. Keep the doors of communication open to build relationships based on trust and honesty.

Relationships are built on trust, and that works both ways. The best tack to take is to trust the knowledge of the venue staff. They know what works in their space—and what doesn’t.

“We can be value-added ambassadors and look for cost savings at various capacities, whether discounts in the rental or from vendors,” says Cynthia Serrano, assistant director/general manager of the Fort Worth Convention Center in Texas. “We can also help make connections with local vendors.”

Because planners feel responsible for the success of events, relinquishing control can be difficult. But handing over some responsibility to the venue staff and making them part of a planning team can actually reduce stress. Showing others you value them as allies breeds trust and confidence.

Sharing details also helps. “From the flow of the event to when you need to move in and out to the number of people—all of those details are important to us,” Serrano says. “If we don’t have it up front, it could put us at a disadvantage. We want to be on the same page.”

While Micah Quinn, director of the Oxford Conference Center in Oxford, Miss., notes that the center’s staff can work on a flexible timeline, she echoes the need for early and frequent communication. Providing all pertinent information from the get-go helps establish expectations and allows the venue to determine what’s possible.

“Whether the venue can provide the expectation or not, it’s always good to know the planner’s expectation from the start, such as getting certain set ups or how early they want access to the venue,” Quinn says. “Give the venue an expectation so we can see what we can or can’t do.”

Quinn suggests designating one person within the planning group who will be the point of contact for venue staff. Having a designated point person helps the venue staff reach the correct decision maker with critical questions and information. It also can save time and money by avoiding repeated or unnecessary changes due to a communication miscue.

“When there are many cooks in the kitchen, a lot of people ask for things, and sometimes those things cost money or are big changes to the original plan that someone else then turns around and asks to have changed back,” Quinn says. “Having one person relay decisions is key.”

The Hotel

Planner relationships with hotels took a beating during the pandemic. Among the hotel pain points for planners are the exodus of experienced and familiar staff, staffing shortages or new staff who lack knowledge, reduced services, rising prices and additional fees, competition for space, and stricter contract terms. Because many events begin and end at hotels (and some take place on the property), it’s vital for planners to rebuild relationships to navigate these challenges.

Spend the time to get to know the hotel’s team—and for them to know you. “Relationships take time, and I know we all have a lot on our calendars, but it is important to schedule in the time to get to know your sales manager, whether it is in market, on a sales call, or during your conference onsite,” says Karleen Johnson, director of sales for TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach, Fla. “You are important to them, and they truly value the relationship they have with you and with all of their clients—so grab that coffee, lunch, dinner, drink at the tiki bar, and take the time to get to know one another. You may end up meeting your new best friend.”

Taking the time to create that connection, that two-way street, makes for a mutually beneficial relationship of trust, respect, and communication. It also equips hotel management with the information they need to best support your event, adds David Wahba, director of sales and marketing for Caribe Royale Orlando in Florida.

“The more we know about the group, the more we can fight and advocate on their behalf,” he says. “I understand that planners may feel it’s important to keep their cards close to their chest, and they can certainly do so if they choose, but unless the hotel truly knows everything about their group and attendees and what’s important for them to have a successful event, we can’t capitalize on the power of a trusting relationship. Holding back and not being fully transparent leaves an opportunity missed.”

At some point during nearly every event, something unexpected happens that requires the plan to go off script, Wahba adds. The optimal way to handle that scenario requires trust already being a part of the relationship.

“Inevitably, the hotel will need to go outside the scope of the contract to solve an issue,” he says. “When those situations arise, it’s infinitely easier to solve the problem when trust is already established, with each side knowing the other side has their back.”

The Food & Beverage Team

Food plays a central role in any gathering, so check with venues to see if they offer cooking classes or chef demonstrations.
Food plays a central role in any gathering, so check with venues to see if they offer cooking classes or chef demonstrations.

Food is a critical ingredient in any gathering. So, having a solid relationship with the food and beverage team is integral to success. That’s just one of many reasons they should be brought into the conversation from the beginning, says Vicente Lavayen, corporate director of beverage for Mainsail Lodging and Development, a Tampa, Fla.-based hospitality company with several Georgia and Florida properties in its portfolio.

“If food and beverage managers are brought in to be a part of the larger group discussion while planning the event, it allows for more creativity and direct feedback,” says Lavayen, who also is director of food & beverage for Epicurean Hotel Tampa. “It also ensures that the planner’s vision is fully realized with the execution of the event.”

Jamel Taggart, director of beverage at Choctaw Casino & Resort in Durant, Okla., agrees. Strategic leaders know their team, their capabilities, and what they can offer an event, so including them from the beginning helps them hit the ground running, Taggart says. And while details are important, so is sharing the overall vision for an event. Being open-minded and trusting of the F&B team sparks their creative juices and makes them a true partner.

“We’ve had some great planners that are good about sharing what they want the atmosphere to be generally and then letting us run with it,” says Taggart, who also is a member of ConventionSouth’s Editorial Advisory Board. “Essentially, they shared their goals and then put the ball in our court and let us come back to them with ideas, and I love it when our team gets the opportunity to do that. You generally get a better meeting if you let the property run with it. Our ideas generally come back more over the top than they would have been if it was perfectly detailed as to what we are supposed to do. Though it can be harder to pull off in this scenario, we don’t mind because we get to help plan and have fun with it.”

Planners can proactively tackle the elephant in the room by addressing the F&B budget right off. That starts with sitting down with the client and creating a realistic budget for food and beverage before reaching out to vendors, advises Michelle Rounsaville, owner and chef at My Michelle’s catering company in Oxford, Miss.

“My favorite planners to work with are efficient and helpful in that right off the bat, they help their client accurately budget for food and let them know what is realistic,” she says. “Along those lines, it also works well when planners reach out for up-to-date pricing and then take that back to their client to ensure a realistic budget is included from the start.”

Understand exactly what the F&B team will and won’t do, and make that clear to the client. “Sometimes, we run into groups that think we are responsible for much more than we are, such as decorating the tables, and that can create awkward situations,” Rounsaville says. “It also helps when planners make sure the group knows exactly the type of food and beverage service they are getting, whether it’s plated or table service or buffet. Every caterer is different, and my table service may be different than another caterer. It’s always helpful when planners set the correct expectations with their clients.”

Offer feedback along the way. “Everyone puts a lot of hard work, time, and energy into meeting planning, and there is nothing worse than when you’re executing but you don’t know where you stand,” says Gladi Colon, complex director of event management and catering at Caribe Royale Orlando. “You want to know that what you’re executing is good in the eyes of your planner.”

The Tech Team

The tech team should be an integral part of planning so they know what equipment and technology is needed well before the event starts.
The tech team should be an integral part of planning so they know what equipment and technology is needed well before the event starts.

Today’s events require technical expertise, and it really comes down to one question: What are your IT needs? That’s according to Andre Wright, IT manager at the Renasant Convention Center in Memphis, Tenn. The answer to that question varies with each event, and it’s all about the details.

“I like to get a good grasp of what the group will be using the network for, such as basic streaming or daily office tasks like sending emails and scheduling Zoom calls,” Wright says. “It’s usually pretty simple needs from an IT standpoint unless it’s a large tech convention.”

Involve the tech team early in the process and share what information you can, including the number of participants, their Wi-Fi needs, whether technology will be connected to the venue’s network, known firewall restrictions, and required network modifications. IT professionals appreciate planners who communicate specifics, talking through an event so the tech staff knows what to expect, has the right equipment, and is fully prepared. That is particularly important in ensuring attendees with disabilities are included.

“That also gives me an opportunity to ask other related questions, such as when they will be coming in and if there are any other special needs we can provide,” Wright adds. “Getting the opportunity to sit and chat with them, especially with their IT personnel if they have it, makes the transition a little easier and leads to a smoother event.”

The Speaker

Give speakers details about what is expected of them, including touching on event themes, and set up a walk through to make sure the technology
Give speakers details about what is expected of them, including touching on event themes, and set up a walk through to make sure the technology

An engaging speaker can be one of the most memorable parts of an event. Planners play a big role not only in selecting the right speakers, but also in making sure speakers have what they need to prepare and present. Step one is sharing expectations and considerations for the particular event, such the audience, the topic, the theme, and key takeaways to incorporate.

“From even the earliest conversations with the planner, I need to know if there is a theme they are looking for our content to fit or if they need us to help create one,” says Zach Schaefer, founder and CEO of St. Louis, Mo.-based Spark The Discussion. “Oftentimes, deciding the theme is pretty last minute, and that doesn’t set speakers up for success.”

Offer guidance on the speaker’s role. Be clear about whether the presenter is the keynote speaker, what the speaking format will be, whether handouts or graphic presentations are expected, and how much time will be allotted.

“Will there be a question-and-answer period included, and if so, is it part of my time allotment to speak or will it be in addition to my speaking time?” notes Schaefer, an author, professor, consultant, and speaker who specializes in communication. “It helps a speaker gauge how much content they need to include.”

Technical logistics play a significant role Ofor speakers, as well. “I always want to know early on if I can present from my own computer or if I am being required to present from their onsite technology,” Schaefer says. “A detail like this may seem small, but it’s really important to a speaker.”

When using the event venue’s technology, have a pre-event walk-through to make sure the technology is working and sufficient. “You can never assume that everything will connect correctly, so I appreciate when a planner will work out an onsite walk the day before the speech if possible—not only to look at the technology, but to see the space and get a feel for everything.”

If a pre-event walk-through is not possible, have an audiovisual expert available at set up and during the presentation. “Knowing someone from IT is there and available to help me set up or deal with a problem that arises is a top need for me,” says Hilary Landorf, associate professor and executive director of the Office of Global Learning Initiatives at Florida International University in Miami. “To me, a good planner will have someone there who takes charge and ensures that everything is hooked up and ready to
go. When that’s not the case, a presenter can get anxious.”

An important detail: Make sure the person introducing the speaker knows how to pronounce the presenter’s name and is properly prepared to give the introduction.

“Introductions are important,” Schaefer says. “Most speakers have multiple versions of introductions that are easy to read, and when someone gets up to introduce them, it’s always clear when they haven’t looked over it, stumbling over it, mispronouncing a name, or getting facts wrong. A good speaker will just go with it, but planners set a speaker up for failure by not ensuring a qualified and prepared person does their intro.”

Leave a comment


Sign-up for your account with Convention South.
Please check the box below to confirm you would like to be added to Kenilworth Media’s various e-mail communications (includes e-newsletters, a survey now and then, and offers to the Convention South industry*).

Leave this empty:

*We do not sell your e-mail address to 3rd parties, we simply forward their offers to you. Of course, you always have the right to unsubscribe from any communications you receive from us, should you change your mind in the future.