Event Management

Caveat Emptor: Is Event Planner Certification Worth the Investment?

Conference badges

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There are more certificates for event planners than ever before. The question is, are they a real measure of competence? And is the more rigorous certification process worth the time, effort, and money?

When Meeting Professionals International (MPI) announced it was launching the Emerging Meeting Professional (EMP) badge, the response by many planners was swift, and it wasn’t pretty.

Some saw it as a money grab. One suggested it was more about attracting new members than a way to truly encourage professionalism. An experienced planner said she was at wit’s end with a colleague, new to the industry, who took a three-day course “and already thinks she can do my job — so imagine what someone with an EMP might do.” Another said an EMP reminded her of “Junior Chipmunk” from the Disney film, “The Emperor’s New Groove,” and not in a good way.

Surely this wasn’t the intention of MPI, which promoted the badge as a way for college students, and anyone else with less than three years of experience in the industry to hone their job skills.

“The EMP focuses on the critical skills that are essential to quickly and intentionally upskilling emerging professionals to meet current labor needs in our workforce. While many programs focus solely on traditionally aged college students, the EMP also seeks to embrace non-traditional or adult learners and meaningfully engage all emerging professionals in dynamic, research-backed learning, community engagement, and industry exposure,” said Annette Gregg, chief revenue officer of MPI.

Alphabet Soup

The EMP brings the total certificate programs offered by MPI to 19. But MPI isn’t the only professional association with such profusion; Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI) has 25. The total programs offered by event industry organizations and the number of different designations and accreditations can reach into the hundreds. The organizations offering these include the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE), National Association for Catering and Events (NACE), specialty education organizations like the Event Leadership Institute (12 certificate programs), legitimate colleges and universities and event somewhat shady diploma mills.

Besides the sheer volume of these things, the chatter about the EMP highlighted an issue bigger than whether badges are significant or silly: Are certifications in the meetings/incentives/events industry meaningful, or are they now only a little more than a glorified participation trophy — pay a fee, read a few documents, sit in on some Zooms, take an easy quiz, and voilà, a few letters to put after your name?

Assessing the Benefits

For many who take the time and effort for a CMP or CAE — both widely considered to be the most rigorous and prestigious in the industry — the answer is a qualified yes. It speaks to a commitment to ongoing professional development since recertification is required every three years. In the case of CMP, there’s a governance commission in the accrediting body, the Events Industry Council, to ensure the credential actually has heft.

Deciding to pursue any designation is like any decision about professional development: it’s a commitment of time and energy to strengthen job capabilities for current roles, prepare for new ones, improve leadership skills and sharpen business acumen in a complex industry that’s constantly changing. But there are other advantages.

Having those letters after your name may boost income. According to the latest (2020) salary survey by M&C Magazine, planners with a CMP earn on average $12,000 more per annum than planners without it. Similarly, according to Convene Magazine’s Salary Survey, event organizers with their CMP increase their salary by 11 percent.

There’s also the matter of status. It’s an acknowledgment of achievement that peers understand. “I am of the opinion certifications should serve to show knowledge, expertise, and a commitment to lifelong learning as the industry evolves,” said Gloria Nelson, CSEP, VEMM, Special Events Concierge at Members, Inc. “It’s a way to distinguish yourself as serious — and for some suppliers, an indication that you know what you’re doing and speak the same language,” she added.

 MPI’s Gregg stresses the importance of its educational offerings. “Our certificates are designed to be deep dives into specializations for meeting professionals who wish to gain additional expertise in areas they may not be familiar with. Our certificate programs are not designations; they do help meeting professionals excel in their roles and host meetings that are meaningful and matter to their stakeholders. MPI employs full-time experts in curriculum design and adult learning as well as an HTM professor to ensure that our programming is beneficial, and our feedback from the professionals who take our courses reflects that.”

Investing in Career Development

Certifications also differentiate a candidate looking for a job, and in some cases, is a job or client requirement. Many government contracts now require that event workers complete the CGMP program. Deidre Young, Meeting Manager in the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, Defender Services Office, noted that all planners at her agency, no matter their level of experience, were required to get the designation at the very least; she also has a CMP and a DES (Digital Events Strategist) certificate from PCMA. Corporate job postings, at least in the U.S., often list a planner certification or certificate as a prerequisite for applicants.

But is certification really necessary, especially for professionals with a proven track record, not to mention decades of experience? Ingrid Rip, a conference and event designer, trainer/coach, and consultant, thinks not. “I am a CES — Certified Event Designer — and I am a big proponent of continuing education, but trainings are certainly not a guarantee. There’s a large gap between theory and practice, especially if you have limited or no real-life job experience. I have 30+ years of experience, but even so, if I don’t have expertise in one area, I’m either certain to develop it myself, or I hire someone to manage that task. You don’t need a formal certification to prove your expertise. And if you’re missing something in your repertoire, you can always take a course.”

She added that in Europe certifications from professional associations don’t compare with the rigor and sweep of coursework offered by hotel management schools. “Professionals here don’t consider certifications as prestigious as they’re viewed in the US,” she said.  

Ultimately, deciding to go for certification or a certificate in a specialty is like deciding whether to go to graduate school after you’ve already logged time in a profession. If you’re dedicating time, effort, and expense, pick a program designed by professional educators and taught by faculty with real-life expertise in their field as well as teaching skills. Extra credit if a professional society administers the certification with a governance board overseeing continuing education.

Selected Event Planner Certifications

In addition to the Certified Meeting Planner and Certified Association Executive designations, here are a few to note:

CMM, MPI’s Certificate in Meeting Management, is often criticized for having loosened standards when it started to be administered by the Kelley School of Business. It was previously administered by Darden School of Business are required a “Business Case Assessment”, which has been updated to a “Work‐Based Case Project”. It’s a 15-week intensive program with three angles: Business Management, Leadership, and Meeting Management, and is designed for director-level meeting and event professionals. 

CEM, Certified in Exhibition Management, is issued by the International Association of Exhibition and Events (IAEE) and widely considered the highest professional standard in the exhibition and event management world. https://www.iaee.com/cem/

VEMM, a certificate in Virtual Event & Meeting Management, is a meaty six-week course with a live instructor and is issued by the Event Leadership Institute. 

CPCE, Certified Professional in Catering and Events, requires three years of industry experience and 30 hours of professional development in the past five years. It’s issued by the National Association for Catering and Events. https://www.nace.net/cpce

CSEP, Certified Special Events Professional, is administered by ILEA, the International Live Events Association. There are three pathways to this certification; all require at least three years of industry experience.

To go the traditional academic route, several U.S. universities, including San Diego State, George Washington University, and Roosevelt University, have undergraduate and graduate programs with curricula that include fundamentals of meetings and events; Central Washington University, Oklahoma City University, and the University of Nebraska offer undergraduate degrees in event management, and the NYU School of Professional Studies Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality offers a Master’s Degree in Event Management.

Photo credit: Anton Ilchanka / Getty Images

CORRECTION NOTE This is an updated version of this story that includes additional quotes. In addition, the earlier version stated MPI has launched five new certificates this year when it is only one, the Emerging Meeting Professional. Plus, the CMM requires seven years of experience, not five, P&L oversight and many other criteria.