The Causes &
Cures of MPS (Meeting Planner Stress)
No job is without its stressors, but meeting
planners face a unique set of challenges and obstacles to maintaining
their mental health while under the constant pressure to perform
almost perfectly. Here's a look at how to mitigate some of the
not-so-joyous parts of one of the association profession's most
By Paul Pearsall, Ph. D.
"A meeting planner is someone who spends most of her or
his life helping other people enjoy theirs." This was the
job description given me by a member of the Professional Convention
Management Association (PCMA). She had spent more than 30 years
of her life organizing and offering meetings around the world
and had hired me several times to keynote for her various organizations.
She agreed to be one of 28 meeting planners to participate in
a 30-year clinical study of some of the most successful people
in the world, and this subgroup in my research offers helpful
lessons for anyone with the responsibility of bringing people
together to meet, learn, connect, rest, and play.
In the mid 1970s, I was chief of the Problems of Daily Living
Clinic at Sinai Hospital of Detroit, a facility that offered help
to otherwise healthy people in coping with the usual stresses
of daily living and working. Many of our patients were suffering
from work-related stressors, and the myths of "life/work
balance," not being a "Type A," and other self-help
platitudes proved to be of little help. Tired ideas such as quality
time, creating new vision statements, better communication, team
building, awakening an inner giant, and applying the seven (now
eight) habits of highly effective people were not resulting in
the lives they and their families hoped for. Professional success
often was accompanied by personal failure, and its price was neglected
relationships and stress-related illness.
Our more than 25 years of complete psychological and medical
testing included physical exams, bloodwork, cardio-stress testing,
and videotaping, including a camera in the sun visor of the subjects'
cars to assess stress levels as they drove. We audiotaped them
at family dinners and at work, interviewed their colleagues and
clients, and in the case of meeting planners, also interviewed
those attending the subjects' meetings. We discovered that the
highly successful people we were seeing had mistaken an intense
life for a meaningful one, and what they accepted as "normal"
had become a major threat to their own and their family's health.
The Two Successes
We learned that there are two kinds of success: healthy and toxic.
Healthy success leaves us and our families feeling energized,
healthy, content, fully in charge, and engaged in the life we
choose to live. The term for this from the new field of positive
psychology — which focuses on strengths and virtues rather
than simply on remediation of faults and flaws — is "flourishing,"
leading a life that feels generally wonderfully worthwhile. It
may not be the good life as prescribed by scientifically unburdened
self-helpism, but to the healthily successful and their families,
it feels like a good life.
The other kind of success is toxic. It results in chronic distraction
and impatience, a low threshold for anger, chronic health problems,
and what might be called "affection deficit disorder,"
shown by, and experienced by the families of, the toxically successful
as being too busy to love and too tired to care. Positive psychology
calls this "languishing," meaning not being mentally
ill but not really mentally healthy either: largely devoid of
and failing to regularly share extremely positive emotions. As
one spouse of a meeting planner suffering from toxic success put
it, "She comes home with all of her emotional capital spent.
She says she doesn't bring her work problems home, but she's the
Until I addressed the January, 2005 PCMA Annual Meeting, I had
never separated out the subgroup of 28 people whose work was planning
and offering business meetings. While this is too small a sample
to be statistically significant — and biased in its selection
because of my often working as a presenter for the planners we
studied — this group does seem to offer unique perspectives
on a profession that affects the lives of thousands of workers
and their families.
Six Sources of MPS
There is no such thing as a meeting planner. At least in the group
of 28 people we studied who called themselves meeting planners,
not one of them did exclusively that. When I first began keynoting
for corporations in the 1970s, most companies had one person serving
solely in the role of a meeting or convention planner. All of
the meeting planners we interviewed in the last several years
served many roles, often including assisting the highest corporate
officers or holding vice president or higher positions themselves.
Most of them also had other significant organizational responsibilities
as well, in areas such as education and training, human resources,
and sales. Their business cards read more like menus than descriptions
of a position. Stress resulted from trying to parcel out bits
of their most precious commodity — their attention —
in order to plan, organize, contract, budget, and supervise a
Only meeting planners seem to know what a meeting planner does.
Meeting planners fully understood the complex and time-consuming
nature of their work, but few others in their organization seemed
to really get it. The planners themselves knew that a meeting
can take at least a year of prior planning and that a meeting
of more than 1,000 people might require at least three years of
lead time, but they seldom had it. They knew the importance of
early planning but had difficulty getting anyone else's attention
until the last minute. They knew the importance of establishing
clear meeting objectives but struggled to get their superiors
to focus on doing so. They needed to know the exact number of
attendees in order to do their budgeting and planning but were
stressed by constant changes in incentive programs or who would
qualify or be invited to attend. They chose venues carefully and
often after months of effort, but regularly encountered conflicts
in individual preferences regarding various meeting sites. Their
most time-consuming decisions were often overruled, and the pressures
of negotiations with vendors and venues were needlessly complicated.
They had to begin early to take advantage of discounts at venues
but had trouble getting final decisions from those whose approval
was required. And, after navigating all of these obstacles, they
often were criticized for going over budget.
MPS (meeting planner stress) is made worse by PMS (primarily
meeting stupidity). Our videotaping revealed what seemed to be
a temporary drop in IQ by those who attend meetings — and
the degree of the drop correlated with the beauty and luxury of
the meeting venue. Many who attend meetings in exotic or even
just interesting locales adopt a vacation mentality that leads
them to think and behave in ways they would not in their ordinary
work situations. They regress to childish dependence on the meeting
planner and her or his staff, often asking ridiculous questions
and making demands that require extraordinary patience and superb
acting ability on the part of the meeting planner to mask amazement.
One attendee regularly asked the meeting planner questions such
as, "Which stairs in this hotel go up?" and "Will
it rain tomorrow?" and "Should I bring my swimsuit for
the snorkel adventure?" and "Should I dress for tomorrow's
meeting?" to which a tired meeting planner answered, "That's
entirely up to you, but I do think you might be a little chilled
if you're naked."
The constant self-control necessary for dealing with the meeting
madness of some attendees results in additional stress and fatigue.
(Not surprisingly, the other subgroup profession in our research
that was closest in its profile to meeting planners was nursing.)
"The toxic one" phenomenon. No matter how experienced
the meeting planner, all of those we studied told stories about
the one problem attendee who pushes their stress button. This
is usually a demanding person who is a chronic complainer, seldom
expresses a modicum of appreciation (but offers plenty of criticism),
considers a meeting planner to be his or her personal servant,
spends most of the meeting establishing and fueling a meeting
rumor mill, and serves as nagger, reviewer, and critic from registration
to departure. One meeting planner referred to an executive's spouse
as her "meeting problem child whose mere appearance causes
my heart to race and blood pressure to go up."
Though they try to ensure that attendees eat and sleep well,
meeting planners rarely do. Many attendees told us that they envied
meeting planners' opportunity to travel to so many wonderful places
and enjoy a life of going from one meeting to another eating great
food and doing fun things. Of course, meeting planners know that
none of this is true. Site visits to the best places are spent
in long meetings in boring rooms with little or no opportunity
for the planner to personally enjoy the site. Meeting planners
usually watched their attendees eating scrumptious meals but were
too busy running and troubleshooting to enjoy the meal themselves.
Their hotel rooms were more storage closets than suites, and they
seldom slept more than a few hours. They had become quick-change
artists who could shower and dress in minutes, and while they
often selected their venues for such amenities as health and spa
facilities, they had little time to use them themselves. Poor
nourishment combined with lack of exercise and sleep deprivation
contributed to the MPS, which led to the hurried languishing that
characterizes toxic success.
Meeting planners experience SIG (stress-induced growth). Despite
the above stressors, the meeting planners we studied reported
loving their work and wishing they had more time to just plan
events, free of the distractions of their other work obligations.
They had what I call The Beethoven Factor, the capacity to forge
joy in the crucible of constant stress and to experience what
we named from our research as stress-induced growth. (For information,
see my book The Beethoven Factor: The New Positive Psychology
of Hardiness, Happiness, Healing, and Hope [Hampton Roads, 2003].)
Those who showed this factor were characterized by the traits
So how do they do it? How do meeting planners thrive through their
MPS? Are there research-based secrets of invincibility to the
stress that comes with helping others to productively and joyfully
meet together? My research indicates that there a few points that
might help soothe the fast mind and busy body of the meeting planner.
Know and accept your meeting planner temperament. Our studies
indicate that some meeting planners are "hot reactors"
and others are "cold reactors," and that trying to change
your style creates even more stress. Hot reactors tend to overreact
to almost everything, sweat the small stuff, and manage their
stress by rehearsing worst-case scenarios and being creative worriers.
It's pessimists who are most likely to be pleasantly surprised,
and hot-style meeting planners manage their already high anxiety
like this. Cold reactors tend to have less anxiety in the first
place and proactively work to avoid it. For them, the standard
instruments of self-help — such as meditation, visualization,
and practicing the relaxation response through deep breathing
and mental focus on a nonstressful image — might come in
Don't get in touch with your feeling or vent your anger. Of course,
in the face of conventional pop psychology, this sounds like blasphemy.
Self-help pop psychology is based on self-fulfillment and "emotional
hydraulics" theories, but positive psychology research shows
that both of these ideas are wrong. It's helping others flourish
that enhances our health, and that's what meeting planners do.
And anger isn't like steam. It will eventually dissipate. When
your toxic attendee insults you, take a breath and let it go.
Choose peace over being right.
Remember why you do what you do. Business meetings serve as a
major avenue for learning, connecting, rewarding, and celebrating
the work that we do. Meeting planners are the deans of this unique
corporate curriculum, and their stress can be reduced by taking
more moments to stop, take a deep breath, and just watch as attendees
learn something new, connect in the ways they so dearly need but
too seldom do, and enjoy the wonderful opportunity you have created
Author Link: Paul Pearsall, Ph.D.,
is a clinical professor of nursing at the University of Hawaii
who also is the author of numerous books and a frequent keynoter
for associations and corporations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.