This is the fourth in a series of five Meet the Planner profiles, in which we get event planners’ insights on their jobs, their motivations, and their challenges — as well as their thoughts on venue and hotel interactions.
Sometimes, people navigate a very winding road before ending up in a particular career.
That was the case for Michele Gebrayel, who originally went to culinary school to be a pastry chef. She transitioned into a position as a conference concierge at a Ritz-Carlton hotel before eventually taking a job as a marketing assistant.
Even at her current company, DuCharme, McMillen & Associates, her move into event planning wasn’t immediate. “I can’t even put my finger on when it began, but it just started with one little event,” she says.
Now, 10 years later, she is a corporate event manager for the tax consulting firm, which is based in Atlanta and has about 400 employees. Michele plans two kinds of one-day educational seminars across the U.S. and Canada: The bigger events are for 40 to 120 people, while the smaller, more frequent roundtables are for up to 20 people.
Last year, she did 40 of the larger events, but this year, her company decided to cut the number to 13 while increasing the number of roundtables. The change was made in an effort to create more intimate environments and attract higher-level decision-makers. “Quality, not quantity,” Michele says.
That focus on quality is something Michele values in her manager role, which she took on about two years ago. “I was given the opportunity to manage the events the way I felt would be most beneficial to portray ourselves to our clients and prospects,” she says. “That meant enhancing the experience and spending a little bit more money on the event.”
Another advantage to becoming a manager was that she was allowed to travel to each event. Previously, someone from the tax industry would be sent instead, so Michele had to provide detailed email or written instructions on all the logistics. “It was very frustrating when I would get a phone call after the event with a complaint, and there was nothing I could do because nobody told me about it and I wasn’t there,” she says. Now, “I really get to see the event from beginning to end.”
Planners Prefer Responsive Venues and Thorough Proposals
Typically, Michele’s events are in prescribed cities, so she takes the advice of her company’s regional directors on the best venues. “They’ll give me a list of places that are close to public transportation and easy to access,” a key factor since most of the event attendees are local.
“If price is not too much of an issue, then I move forward with their first choice. If their first choice comes in significantly higher on room rental, sleeping room rate, or extra fees, then I’ll start looking at a second or third choice,” she says.
On the rare occasion that she isn’t given venue preferences, “then I start looking at the menus and taking into consideration how responsive the venue was. … If someone keeps calling me Gabby, when it’s Michele, I think they may have an issue with details.”
She will also reject a hotel’s bid if it doesn’t match the thorough notes about her needs that she included in the RFP. For instance, all her events take place on Tuesdays or Thursdays. When a proposal comes back with a Monday or Friday date, Michele says, “my thoughts are that they didn’t listen to me or they’re trying to get me in on a less desirable day, and I just won’t even go there.”
Transparency Is Important on Both Sides
Like 56% of respondents in Cvent’s 2018 Global Planner Sourcing Report, Michele is typically more likely to choose a chain hotel, since she can expect a certain kind of experience. “With the exception of the occasional person who sends me a proposal for a Monday, the people that I have been working with recently have been really good. … I feel that (the bigger chains) are very understanding and know what I need and try to give me a good value.”
Sometimes, though, it doesn’t go as planned, and there can be wide repercussions. Several years ago, “there was one particular chain that we had a very hard time with a couple of times. … I still struggle with selecting that particular company for fear I may have a bad experience,” she explains.
While that instance was an exception, in general, Michele says she would appreciate more transparency from hotel teams. Especially because she worked as a hotel conference concierge, she understands issues such as the need to hold a particular room or meeting space until a certain date. “I wish that they’d just be straight with me and say, ‘Listen, we can’t release the space, but can you hold out another two weeks? When is your drop-dead date? How can we work with you?’ instead of just giving me a no. … If we could have a little transparency, that would be more helpful, because if they are my first choice, I will hold out for them.”
In addition, there are a few extra things that hotels can do to get on Michele’s good side. She sometimes asks for access to the club lounge, for example, which helps keep her costs within her per diem. It also “makes my life a lot easier” when she can get a good sleeping room rate, since her company will raise a flag for rooms over $200. “Little things like that are really appreciated,” she says.
Companies Are Spending Event Budgets 'More Wisely and Efficiently'
Cost concerns will always be an issue in event planning, even as budgets are increasing. “I think (companies are) definitely trying to their spend money smarter — getting bigger bang for their buck. That’s the reason for us transitioning from 40 events to 13 events but increasing our smaller roundtables,” Michele says. “They’re still spending the money, they’re just spending it more wisely and efficiently.”
The other change that Michele has witnessed is a greater understanding of the benefits that event planners provide. “It’s been really nice that people in my position are appreciated and recognized for being a significant part of the team, even though we don’t necessarily generate the money that our directors are generating,” she says. “We’re making it a lot easier for them to generate some of those dollars for the company (with) our efforts to put on a nice event.”
That company support allows planners like Michele to focus on creating great experiences for their clients — even if it means spending more to do it. As Michele says, “Cheap things are not good and good things are not cheap.” By working closely with planners to provide good value and be transparent about any issues, hotels can also see the benefits of higher event budgets.