We are not a culture that is comfortable talking about money. Flaunting it, yes—but talking about it is seen as impolite, unprofessional, even vulgar.
In order for planners to know how much they should be making for their work, however, they’re going to have to open up. Because if there’s one thing planners agree on, it’s that their work is often undervalued and inadequately paid.
“I don’t think anyone makes what they should in this industry,” says Jessica Brooks, CPCE, vice president of operations at Crystal Gardens Banquet Center. “People think you plan parties for a living. They don’t understand what goes into it.”
Whether you’re on staff or self-employed, here are three steps to take to increase what you earn.
1. Know your worth. Research what the market will bear for your services and, for selfemployed planners, what competitors charge. Sites like salary.com can provide useful information. Look for companies similar in size and industry to yours, and use those metrics to negotiate for better pay.
2. Demonstrate your value. Carol Galle, CMP, owner of Special D Events, says negotiating successfully for money is similar to doing so in any other profession. “The fee is relative to your education and experience,” she says. “As a company, we have 25 years of experience, and many of our staff are CMPs, and that says something.”
But you must also prove your value, she says: “At the end of a project, we summarize money we saved during negotiations with vendors and suppliers. It’s also about efficiency, like were we able to repurpose items? Surveys also generate metrics. If you take over an event and can demonstrate that attendee satisfaction has increased, then you’ve demonstrated value.”
Brooks says professional planners are key to running cost-effective events and maintaining good relationships with vendors and venues. “We’ve got corporate events that spend their money wrong every year,” she says. “Every year I offer to help, but they don’t understand it. We had one client who was notorious for their events because they were always a disaster, and they did it all themselves. They had a plated lunch event, and called the morning of the event with 150 more people. The Governor was even coming. After that event, someone said she was going to plan her daughter’s wedding with us, but every time she attended an event with that client, we ran out of food, etc. So we fired them. For a venue, when you work with someone who isn’t a planner, you can lose business.”
Aaron Wolowiec, MSA, CAE, CMP, CTA, founder and president of Event Garde, agrees that being able to articulate your value is especially important in an era where the company admin is just as likely to be asked to plan the annual conference as a professional planner. “I can set a room and probably the HR person can set the room,” he says. “But mine is going to align with the minimum requirements for the ADA, with sight lines, with hotel service. I understand all those things and the HR person does not. I think understanding what your expertise is and being able to say it is key. Tell people why they’re paying a premium price.
“I have my staff document all their hours,” he adds. “For my big conference clients, my organization is spending 1,000-1,500 hours working on an individual conference. Understanding the time commitment it takes to do this work is really important, and showing that.”
3. Increase your value. Attend professional- development programs and demonstrate the return on investment to your supervisors. That means bringing back valuable ideas, and then implementing them and showing results.
“The thing to learn here is to be proactive, to take initiative,” Wolowiec says. “Planners should focus on, what does our overall meetings portfolio look like? Are we making money? If you’re running your department like a business, that’s going to demand a higher salary than filling out BDO forms. It’s being able to say, ‘I’ve conducted an audit of four programs, and here are the ones that need to be sunsetted.’”
The CMP exam was created 30 years ago, and historically, a meeting planner’s focus was on logistics. “Essentially a professional designation was set up to focus on food and beverage, A/V and room setup,” Wolowiec says. “Where we are now is very different. The focus should be more on strategy. If a meeting planner is driving operational and business goals, if they’re bringing in money, if they’re truly focused on strategy and not just logistics—I think people are willing to pay for that.”