Meeting Delaney

Cindy Delaney is planning for her future by capitalizing on the trend of corporate outsourcing of event planning

by Craig Bailey

Photos: Jeff Clarke

Business people concerned with planning meetings for their companies are increasingly reaching for the phone instead of the aspirin. As more businesses outsource event planning, Cindy Delaney has found that her people skills combined with a penchant for meticulous attention to detail can yield a productive career as an independent meeting planner.

Delaney leveraged years of hotel and resort experience into Delaney Meeting & Event Management, a business she founded in her Fairfax home in early 1997 and recently relocated to the fifth floor of the Champlain Mill in Winooski. Working from a small office Delaney rents from the Vermont Association of Business, Industry and Rehabilitation (VABIR), the company helps a dozen mostly Vermont clients plan a total of approximately 15 events a year, most of which take place in the Northwestern part of the state.

Cindy Delaney

Cindy Delaney of Delaney Meeting & Event Management in Winooski handles a variety of tasks for mostly Vermont businesses and organizations planning events. Working with two clients in Washington, D.C., gives her a national perspective of the planning industry.

Delaney grew up in Medford, N.J., and went to Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Her junior year spent at the University of Vermont — “I wanted to ski!” — gave her a taste of the Green Mountains she couldn’t forget. Delaney and her father, a salesperson for a Canadian paper company, “made a deal that I had to graduate from Skidmore,” she says, “so I went back my senior year.”

Six months after graduating from Skidmore in 1985 with a degree in business focused on marketing, she went to work for Omni Hotel in New York City as the banquet sales manager. The massive facility offers more than 100,000 square feet of conference space. “A lot of my outgoing sales efforts were cold calling,” she recalls. “I would go into buildings that had 50 floors. I would start knocking on doors on the top floor and knock my way down.” It turned out to be Delaney’s introduction to the school of hard knocks: One in 20 businesses would be receptive enough to accept her literature. “It made me very thick-skinned and I’m probably better at what I do now because of it.

“I like to bike, I like to run — I couldn’t do that in the city,” she continues, “so I started looking for jobs in Vermont, and within a month had a job at Smugglers’.”

Her move to Vermont in August 1986 yielded two significant events: the realization that what she’d really like to do one day would be to own a business, and the introduction to her future husband, Peter Delaney, director of resort operations who now holds a 17-year tenure at Smugglers’. “I think if I hadn’t met my husband, I probably wouldn’t have stayed, just because the winters are so long,” she speculates. “Although now that I’m 13 years here, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

After spending seven years selling Smugglers’ Notch Resort as a destination to ski groups and conference planners, in 1993 Delaney moved to the Sheraton Burlington Hotel & Conference Center in South Burlington as a senior sales manager and later as director of catering. “The Sheraton owned the Ramada. I was the main contact for both hotels for the National Governors’ Association when they were in town,” she says. “That was great. It was such a nice challenge.”

In March 1997 she acted on the inspiration she felt several years earlier by leaving the Sheraton and founding her business. “You work so hard with people and you get to know them so well and then they’re gone,” she says of hotel work. “Whereas if you do it yourself, you work with them year after year.” A part-time job at Otter Creek Awnings selling sunrooms supplemented her income for a few months until her business took off.

One of her early meeting planning jobs involved part-time work for UVM Continuing Medical Education, which coordinates post-graduate medical courses for physicians. Linda Saia, director of continuing medical education, met Delaney when Delaney was director of catering at the Sheraton. “You have to have confidence in the person who’s planning your meeting,” Saia says. She lists extreme attention to detail, organization and the ability to work with clients who want to micromanage their meetings as well as people who’d rather take a hands-off approach as key traits for an effective planner. Saia says Delaney is “outstanding at doing all of that. She has an incredible eye to detail, is extremely organized and very attentive to the needs of her clients. I think she’s fabulous!”

If the pressure grows as key meeting and events approach, Delaney seems to handle the stress in stride. Even on the eve of the Vermont Star Homes conference held at the Sheraton, a conference sponsored by the utilities that Delaney’s been working with for two years, she’s quick to laugh, focused and philosophical on the topic of event planning and her role in the industry.

“Almost every client will hire me to do all the coordination with the hotel or the location where they’re having the event,” she says, explaining that matching an event to the facility is a “primary piece” of her business, as well as a challenge when it comes to larger events to be held in Vermont.

“Size is a real big concern in Vermont,” she says. “A lot of groups would like to grow their (trade) shows and can’t because there’s no place to have them.” Delaney cites the Vermont Products Trade Show, presented by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and the Vermont Small Business Development Center, as an example. Under Delaney’s management, the show debuted in Manchester last year with 127 producers of Vermont products exhibiting to wholesale buyers. She predicts the show will offer 170 exhibitors when it’s held at the Sheraton in July. “We moved it to Burlington so it could grow,” she says. “What we’re going to do next, I don’t know.”

Some organizations are moving toward producing two events: one in the Burlington area, and another, smaller event in southern Vermont as an alternative to a single, large, Chittenden County show. Delaney says studies indicate a large convention center might be feasible in the Queen City if a minor league hockey team or the like could be attracted to the area as a complement to the slow, winter, trade show season.

What’s more, Delaney says the strong market is making it harder for people in her position to negotiate with hotels. “The hotels aren’t courting the meeting planners like they used to,” she says, adding that the cyclical nature of the business nearly assures the tables will be turned in a few years.

While acting as liaison between clients and conference centers is a task Delaney handles for nearly every client, the variety of other tasks Delaney Meeting & Event Management provides runs the gamut. Some times clients might hire Delaney to just decorate for an event.

Typically working several months in advance of an event, Delaney might provide marketing, including direct mailings to potential attendees, advertising, press releases, or, in the case of her many non-profit clients, public service announcements.

“Registration is a big headache for a lot of people,” Delaney says, “but we do it for a lot of groups, so we’ve gotten good systems down.” Delaney, who employs a part-time receptionist and has occasional help from college interns, receives registration forms, builds databases of attendees, handles registration fees and provides on-site registration at events. The large volume of phone calls she receives from people looking for more information about events was a strong impetus in her move into VABIR’s office suites. Twenty or 30 messages would typically be waiting on Delaney’s answering machine in Fairfax after she spent a day in Burlington meeting with clients. “I’m much better off here, just because I needed to sort of step up my image,” she says. “People’s expectations were that they would get a warm person answering the phone, not a machine all the time.”

“The fee fluctuates,” Delaney says. Before signing a contract, she itemizes all duties to offer clients the most flexibility in what they choose to handle in-house and farm out to her business. “It just doesn’t make sense to duplicate efforts, and I want them to hire me again,” she offers. “So the more fair I am to them, the better chance I have.”

Detail work is crucial in the meeting planning business, but for Delaney, the reward is in the long- term relationships she forges with clients — the type of relationships she couldn’t always establish in her previous jobs.

“Every day I count my blessings,” she says of the contacts that have generated work during her business’s salad days. “I’ve had people who recommended me that I don’t know, but they’ve heard of me through someone else. So I’m very fortunate that way.” She lists Direct Design in Burlington and Purple Elephant Promotions in Essex Junction as two local businesses she employs on a regular basis. “If I didn’t have a good resource base of people who I can sub out to,” she says, “it would be hard for a single person running a business to succeed.”

Business is chugging along for Delaney Meeting & Event Management, and Delaney is cautiously optimistic for the future. “There’re times that I feel comfortable,” she says, before a chuckle, “but then I don’t want to get too comfortable!” Teaching at Champlain College in Burlington — she taught introduction to travel and tourism in the fall and is handling a study tour to Rome through February, which will result in a trip to that city during spring break — has suggested an added career possibility in case her business slows down.

“There was a concern a few years ago that conference business would decline because teleconferencing was going to take over,” she offers. “I don’t see that happening. I think the reason people have conferences is so they can network — so they can meet new people and share ideas. That’s still happening, and that’s still going to happen.”

Cindy Delaney’s tips

  • Have a defined purpose for the event. Who are the potential attendees? Why are you holding the event? Why should people come to the event? When is the best time of year to hold the event? What is the best location?
  • Develop a marketing plan. How will you reach your potential attendees? What is the most cost-effective way to reach them? Does the event need an image? Should you use more than one marketing medium (direct mail, advertising, PR, partnerships with other organizations)?
  • Have a realistic planning time line.
  • Set a realistic budget.
  • Get all volunteers and committee members to buy into the marketing efforts, the time line, the financial risks, and the expectation of them as a planning committee member.
  • Have the foresight to know when you need to hire professional help in planning all aspects or a portion of the event.
    — cd