Interviews with Planners - Maureen Sojka
Maureen Sojka, CMA Association Management’s Event Manager, is an experienced conference and event planner who has organized a multitude of meetings, from large-scale multinational events to local association conferences.
She has hands-on experience juggling the event planning needs of multiple organizations, including budget preparation, contract terms, negotiations and analysis, speaker management, off-site events, exhibits and trade shows, and travel.
Maureen brings excitement, passion and two decades of professional experience to her clients at CMA. She currently plans meetings and events from site inspections; planning and onsite management through post reporting.
She holds an ASAE certificate in association management and has a wide range of knowledge working with associations, boards and committees as part of the professional staff and as a board member herself.
What is the best advice you have ever received as a planner?
The best advice I’ve received and say time and time again is to be flexible. There will always be a wrinkle thrown into almost every event no matter how well you plan. Learn to be flexible and deal with issues as they arise and always remember that there is nothing that you and the hotel or venue cannot resolve. On the other hand, always hold a tie-down meeting with your team prior to departure to make sure there are no loose ends. Doing this will ensure that everyone knows what is happening at all times during the event, what their on-the-ground responsibilities are and where they should be.
What is the most unique location you have ever planned an event at? What was great, what was challenging?
The most unique location I’ve ever planned an event at is Chengdu, China. The hotel, the Intercontinental Chengdu Global Center, was beautiful and decorated for the winter holidays and the staff was very willing to please. The challenge came in communication as there were very few English-speaking staff. I made it a point to find someone there who could work as our liaison to bridge that gap for us so that we could still operate effectively without being able to communicate as effectively. I found a great AV provider who turned out to be invaluable as an interpreter and as a right hand in making sure all the room sets, F&B, etc. were just as ordered. He went above and beyond just being the AV provider.
What advice would you give to someone entering the business today?
To someone entering the business today I would say: Try to learn and absorb as much as possible from your upline or find a mentor and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Chances are they have been doing it long enough that they have come across almost any scenario you can imagine and probably have a solution.
Second: Don’t be afraid to voice an opinion or make a suggestion – fresh ideas are always welcome. As someone new coming in you offer new perspective and you might think of something that hasn’t been looked at that way.
What do you see as the most challenging aspect of being a planner, and how do you overcome that challenge?
It depends on your client base, but planning meetings for non-profit organizations is a challenge in that your budget is very limited but the meeting has to have a high impact as it is the once a year event that brings people back and keeps them as members. It is challenging when groups want to go to the top tier cities and then attendance is at a record low when people can’t afford to attend. On top of that, the meeting costs are way over budget due to the big city location. I have started directing some of my clients to the “newer” revitalizing destinations that are extremely affordable such as Reno, NV. Airlift may not be great, but room rates are more than affordable at around $100 per night and coffee is about $35 per gallon. Places like Reno are doing an amazing job at revitalizing their city and making it a destination for the future. Now is the time to get into some of those destinations before they too become the “in” place to go.
How do you think our industry will evolve in the next five years?
Obviously, the current political climate and uncertainty will have a lot of effect on the meetings industry as it impacts the travel industry. Many meeting attendees are international and we are just beginning to feel the effects of the policy changes now. Perhaps we will have to incorporate more virtual meetings for international attendees. Although, nothing can replace the invaluable one-on-one networking opportunities that actual meetings provide to the attendees.
What makes you successful as a planner?
I think what makes me successful as a planner is my wide range of experiences. I have taken a little bit of the best parts of all of the planners: CSM’s, sales, CVB’s, etc. over the years and tried to incorporate them into my planning. I am able to see the big picture as well as the details and able to delegate. I think my strongest trait is building relationships with my global hotel sales, CVB’s, CSM’s etc. and those relationships in turn develop into a great partnership for a successful meeting.
In your opinion, what is the best and worst industry trend of the year?
Worst Industry Trend: Featuring new F&B trendy foods at the conference that nobody really wants to eat. They may look lovely but will rarely translate into attendees raving about the food. Instead they wind up complaining about it.
Best Industry Trend: Innovative meeting space designs, replacing the boring audience feel with a true participation and interactive experience is great.
What is the best industry book that has helped you as a planner?
Event Planning: The Ultimate Guide To Successful Meetings, Corporate Events, Fundraising Galas, Conferences, Conventions, Incentives and Other Special Events
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