Let’s just admit it: Event service professionals too often “get no respect.” Yet behind the scenes, many do a yeoman’s job making their meeting clients look good. One of their champions is Denise Suttle, CMP, this year’s president of the Event Service Professionals Association. She fell into the hospitality business on the convention sales side but found her calling on the service end and never looked back. In this “One-on-One” with ConferenceDirect MeetingMentor editor Maxine Golding, the assistant director of convention services at the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau explains the passion for service that she and so many of her colleagues share. MeetingMentor: What has changed the most in this business since you started? Denise Suttle: Technology has given us a lot more flexibility and time to spend with clients — working remotely, if necessary, while remaining in touch. Social media has made a huge change; we can better help our customers sell the excitement about the destination to attendees. But what’s changed the most is the expanded role of the event service professional. When I first started, we probably weren’t looked upon as the key partner in the process that we are now. I love that the industry is starting to acknowledge our role. We are resource centers and trusted advisors. MM: How did you find your way into event services? Suttle: Early in my career, I worked on a small-town newspaper. For a section on local cookbook recipes, I set up a contest, with judging and sampling, and it became an annual event. Then I worked in a library system in Oklahoma, putting on programs with arts and humanities councils and doing community marketing. When I moved to Albuquerque, someone suggested I send my resume to the local convention and visitors bureau. I was hired to do cold calling and eventually became interim vice president of sales. But I really wanted to be on the operational side — solving problems from beginning to end of a meeting. I’ve been at it for 15 years, and it is my passion. MM: Why did you become involved in ESPA (formerly ACOM — the Association for Convention Operations Management)? Suttle: When I moved to convention services, attending the annual meeting of ACOM was already established as our continuing education opportunity. It was a huge eye-opener to be part of a group of people who knew exactly what I did on a day-to-day basis. Even our families didn’t understand! It is exciting to share experiences with peers who “get you” and will offer immediate and sincere help. MM: What value does ESPA bring to its members and the industry? Suttle: Our mission is to elevate the profession. We provide education and knowledge sharing that prepare our members to help meeting planners execute their events. We have 457 members, which is far too few for such a large segment of our industry. About 58 percent represent DMOs and CVBs, while 42 percent are hotels or convention centers. Around 275 attend our annual meeting. MM: What new ESPA initiatives are being planned? Suttle: We’re making a strong effort to educate C-suite executives at hotels and convention centers on the impact that service managers have on their business. A recent ESPA survey validates that. All 100 meeting planners who responded said that the event service professional has significant impact on the success of events. The quality of our service greatly affects perception of the destination, hotel and convention center for 88 percent of planners. And 81 percent said continuing education by event service professionals is extremely important for them to keep up with best practices. We’re using this information to convince CEOs, directors of sales and managers at hotels and convention centers to shift some budget to educate service professionals, to their organization’s benefit. ESPA also has developed a formal presentation that our members can use to talk to college hospitality classes about considering convention and event service as a career path. MM: What’s fulfilling about the work that ESPA members do? Suttle: We get so charged up about our jobs! It’s different every day. We are called upon to be experts in so many fields — transportation, shipping and drayage, fire marshal, permitting, catering, budgeting. The tasks range from the sublime to the ridiculous. One month, my colleague works with a highend corporate group whose budget is not an issue; the next month, she’ll tote cases of Gatorade or set up light poles or arrange for waste removal at a national horse show at the fairgrounds. But we are unsung…so it’s great to have one time a year at the annual meeting to honor and thank people. And we encourage our members to participate at the local level in National Celebrate Services Week in August. MM: When during the site decision and negotiation process should venues bring event service professionals into the picture? Suttle: As early as feasible! It’s almost too late in the process when the client comes for a site visit. I know my hotel colleagues feel the same way. Logistical questions will be raised in the requestfor- proposal. So salespeople should reach out to their services partners early on to make sure their proposal ends up on top of the stack. At the site visit, time should be set aside for the client and event service professional to walk through the venue together and talk about service needs. It helps us to know what has worked well in the past, what has not, and what the client’s favorite and worst experiences have been. MM: What are the most contentious issues that event service professionals face in working with their meeting clients? Suttle: At the CVB, if customer issues have to do with a venue the group is using or a room block at a hotel or a problem with communication, as the main point of contact for the destination, I will get those complaints or issues. So my job is to keep the communication open among all partners. So much of it is knowing what the potential flash points are. That’s where the education process and networking come in, as well as knowing the venue, city and client’s programs as early as possible. Pulling details from clients is the biggest pet peeve of my counterparts at convention centers. They can’t get BEOs prepared if they don’t get the program until two weeks out. Even if meeting planners are waiting on board members or the program chair, they can at least send things they know two months in advance, or they can send one function at a time. MM: How would you describe a “great” customer? Suttle: The best customers are very organized, know their programs inside out, are not afraid to tell you what they want and are very clear about their expectations. They also keep communications going. And they’re friendly, with a good sense of humor! When I moved to convention services, I started working with one planner who was encyclopedic. She gave me a complete history of room blocks in prior cities and food and beverage expenditures, demographics, a breakdown of likes and dislikes, samples of everything imaginable. She gave me everything I needed. Most of all, she anticipated questions, which is usually our job. MM: Venues and organizations that produce meetings are challenged to do more with less. What are event service professionals doing to cope with staffing and resource issues (for both sides)? Suttle: Third parties are one way to go. If you don’t have staff, you must outsource. It’s a good reason to use a local destination management company to help with creating your events. If you’re not already working with the CVB, pick up the phone and call them. Their event service staff is waiting to work with you. We also rely on a pool of volunteers, interns, students from local colleges with hospitality programs, even the nearby Air Force base. Most cities have access to bonded registrars, for example, so you don’t have to pay for staff travel. I always encourage planners to use our resources. MM: What are the responsibilities of event service professionals to customers (and vice versa) in the area of risk/emergency management of meetings? Suttle: There is responsibility on both sides. We know the emergency procedures at our facility, but we must ask clients for the prospective risk management issues at their meetings. Here’s an example: Our city hosts an annual marksmanship event for police officers. It is very well contained with minimum risk, but it brings out protesters. We must be aware of what is allowed and not allowed on property and on city streets, and we want contacts ahead of time so that we can make the right calls, if needed. At ESPA’s annual meeting last January, we held a risk management session specifically on firearms and concealed-carry laws. It opened a lot of eyes about how to inform our clients about the laws in our municipalities and states, as well as the procedures in our own buildings. It’s better talked about and dealt with ahead of time; that is so much a part of our work as a resource and as a strategic partner. MM: How have mentors impacted your career path? And how have you mentored others? Suttle: I have had informal mentors. Some meeting planners — like Kathy Smith, who retired in December from the American Association of Neuromuscular & Electrodiagnostic Medicine — have influenced me greatly. I worked with her over a five-year period, from time of booking to the meeting scheduled a little after 9/11. She epitomized the perfect meeting planner. I’ve also learned from some incredible educators and voices of the industry in online forums. I’m thinking of Bill Host and Joan Eisenstodt. When I was able to get to know them at meet-ups, it was so much sweeter to develop a relationship. And I certainly hope I am mentoring others, not in formal relationships but through constantly teaching and sharing what I know with my colleagues. MM: What would we be surprised to learn about you? Suttle: I love to sing! It started with Joni Mitchell songs while I played guitar, then Handel’s “Messiah.” I had to stretch to polish my sight-singing skills as I tackled major classical works with the University of New Mexico’s “town and gown” chorus. We’ve sung Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, Puccini and Verdi, and we’ve performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. I’m an alto and love to sing harmony. I’ve read how studies validate that group singing creates chemical and physical reactions in the body that give us a natural high, a feeling of joy. Achieving a common goal, performing in harmony, happy participants — doesn’t that sound like the perfect meeting? About Event Service Professionals Association Founded: 1988 by William Just, CAE, CMP, as the Association for Convention Operations Management; name changed in 2011 to reflect the diverse roles members play in venues and cities. Mission: Elevate the event and convention service profession and give members knowledge and networking so they can execute innovative and successful events. Members: 457, from such areas as convention, event, tradeshow or facility management and coordination; operations; catering; attraction/entertainment facilities; audiovisual companies; decorator management. Sustainability in Action The Event Service Professionals Association inaugurated Green Week this past April to increase awareness about sustainability in the meeting and event industry and to celebrate ESPA members’ commitment to these initiatives. Some events held during the week included: ● The Westin Indianapolis coordinated with Visit Indy to conduct a tour of The Alexander Hotel (LEED® Silver certification) with lunch following at Cerulean (its farm-to-table restaurant). The attendees — Visit Indy employees and downtown event managers — were encouraged to walk, carpool or bike to the venue using the city’s Indiana Pacers Bikeshare program. ● Nearly 20 employees of the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau took a ride on the ZeroBus (Louisville’s new Zero Emissions, Zero Cost downtown circulator) and toured the new downtown climbing facility, ClimbNulu. ● An ESPA webinar featured meeting planner, convention center, CVB and hotel panelists who presented best practices for green meetings. For more information about ESPA’s Green Week and its sustainability impacts at its annual conference, visit ESPAOnline.org/GreenMeetings.html. “ESPA is making a strong effort to educate C-suite executives at hotels and convention centers on the impact that service managers have on their business,” said Denise Suttle, CMP.
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