A lot of meeting planners learn the job the hard way. One day they are doing their regular work as administrative assistants or marketing managers, and suddenly a boss puts them in charge of the next fundraising gala or industry conference.
Some learn by trial and error. Others head for the classroom, such as the Meeting and Event Planning Certificate Program at the California State University Sacramento College of Continuing Education.
For a bit less than $1,600, a student can learn about budgeting, coordinating, designing, managing and marketing events, plus the related risk management and information systems. The classes also are available a la carte for $94 to $274.
The University of California Davis has a similar Campus Event Planning Certificate just for on-campus employees who have been thrust into the new role, though right now it’s in mothballs because staffing is stretched too thin, said Lina Layiktez, a manager with the Campus Events and Visitor Services.
It’s intended as an introduction to event planning rather than a way for an experienced event planner to get better, she said. But with more than 500 event planners on campus, UCD had no problem filling its classes.
An event planner must work out a lot of details, starting with site selection. If alcohol is going to be served, that brings up one set of challenges. Open flames bring another element of risk. If any kind of commercial activity is planned, that could open a new batch of legal obligations.
Certificate programs typically need some updating every few years to keep pace with industry trends and technological developments. The Sac State program for meeting and event planning was retooled this year under the direction of Sacha Joseph-Mathews, an assistant professor of marketing at University of the Pacific. Among other things, there was nothing in the curriculum about environmentally sustainable practices.
“Also, the program had been previously designed for people who were in event planning and wanted to brush up on tools and training. We felt with the economy, there may be some people who might want to change careers. You might have a bunch of people who were not in event planning before but had an interest in it,” she said. Some might be thinking of starting their own event planning firm, so she added some business components as well.
Nine people finished the first run of the new curriculum this past summer. A new round of classes is scheduled to start Oct. 12, with room for 25.
Having a certificate is not the same thing as having certification. Essentially, a certificate program trains people, while a certification test assesses what a person currently knows about the field.
Very few places offer an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in event planning, said Joseph-Mathews. Even the hospitality management degree at UOP has only a small event-planning component.
So the certificate does open doors, said Babette Jimenez, program manager with the College of Continuing Education at Sacramento State.
“It does show they have quite a bit of time spent in the classroom learning the skills. It’s about 103 hours,” she said. “I work a lot with hotels in some of our other programs, because we book space. In the different sales offices within a hotel, this is exactly the kind of work their staff does.”
The skills are even used in putting on courses. The continuing education program often holds classes for state agencies at hotels. That means working with reservations desks, caterers, printers and insurance companies.
“If we were to hire someone just for an administrator position in my office, if they had a certificate in meeting planning, I would definitely look at them differently,” Jimenez said.
Six months after graduating from UC Davis with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Siera Levenson learned about the Sacramento State program from her brother’s girlfriend. Learning the lingo was helpful. Levenson also appreciated the introductions that instructors made to people in the industry around Sacramento.
“The networking I got out of that alone was worth the money,” she said.
Levenson finished the courses in July. By August she had landed an internship with Net Impact, a San Francisco nonprofit that promotes socially and environmentally responsible business. Levenson is helping to plan the organization’s annual conference.
Certificates come from schools, but certifications usually come from professional organizations. They come in several varieties, even within the specialized field of meetings and events.
Margie Starr, director of sales and marketing for the Sheraton Grand hotel in Sacramento, is a certified meeting planner. She’s also a past president of the local chapter of Meeting Planners International.
The CMP designation is granted by the Convention Industry Council.
To help members earn a CMP, a planner must already have clocked some hours in a leadership role, which can vary with the type of work they are already doing. Most local MPI chapters also offer study groups.
Above the CMP there is a certification in meeting management offered through MPI.
Even more rarified is the CSEP: certified special event professional. Ingrid Lundquist earned the designation from the International Special Events Society in 2000.
“I think I was the 141st person to get it. Now I believe there may be around 250,” she says. It involved classes at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., after which she had to take a written test and submit a portfolio. She compared it to getting a doctorate degree for her profession.
Lundquist specializes in high-profile, one-time, milestone events such as the 50th anniversary of the Firehouse Restaurant in Old Sacramento, and events leading up to the opening of Raley Field.
“When you work at that level you need to know everything about the industry. It’s not just planning an in-house monthly potluck. When you get the training, you learn the important elements that go into putting on special events.”
Even a good vocabulary matters, such as knowing that an epergne is an ornamental stand, or that a gobo is a device used in photography.
“If you know the vocabulary you can communicate with whoever is in charge of a certain part of an event,” she said.
In her field, the initials CSEP open doors for her Sacramento firm, The Lundquist Co. An organization putting on a complex event might go through the list of CSEP holders, pulling in Lundquist from California, a lighting expert from Texas, and an entertainment specialist from Florida.
But any kind of certification enhances a résumé, Starr said.
“Meeting planners like that because they know they are working with someone serious about the business,” she said. Likewise, when she sees the initials after a client’s name, she has more confidence that the clients know what they are doing.