From the Corner Office

Blending Soft and Hard Management Styles

By Association Adviser staff • March 28, 2016

… with the freedom to zigzag within your own lane.

Christie Pruyn, MPI Chicago
Christie Pruyn, MPI Chicago

Christie Pruyn, CAE, CIS, executive director of the Chicago area chapter of Meeting Professionals International, motivates a vast network of volunteers to help her modestly staffed organization continually “up its game” and offer a vast array of programs for its high energy members.


Associations need to keep changing, adapting and “upping their game.” Don’t be afraid to try new things. 

I love being around hospitality folks, says Christie Pruyn. They have great personalities and so much energy. Their enthusiasm is contagious. 

Thanking volunteers isn’t enough; associations must understand the type of recognition volunteers need. 

Association Adviser: Christie, tell us a little about MPI Chicago.

Christie Pruyn: Meeting Professionals International (MPI) is the world’s largest and most vibrant global meeting and event industry association with 18,500 members in 71 countries. The Chicago Area Chapter (MPI-CAC), founded in 1972, is the largest MPI chapter, serving 900 members.

AA: Is there such a thing as a typical Chicago MPI member?

CP: I wouldn’t say there’s a prototypical member, but most fall under the category of either: association planner, supplier, corporate event planner or government meeting planner. What they tend to have in common is a very high level of energy and a deep commitment to the meeting and event business here in Chicago.

AA: Have you always worked in the meeting and event space?

CP: I’ve been at MPI for only two years, but I’ve worked in the hospitality industry for many many years and also at association management companies. I’ve had the opportunity to be on both the client side and the management side, and that’s been very valuable.

AA: What’s a typical workday (or week) like for you?

CP: We’re professionally managed by Meeting Expectations, who handles things like accounting. That frees me up to focus on strategic operations, financials, membership, board management, sponsorship and fundraising. Ultimately I’m responsible for the regional growth and direction of MPI-CAC. I’m also responsible for showcasing how education plays a vital role in expanding our association’s mission and reach.

AA: How does CHI MPI differ from other meeting and event planning associations?

CP: What makes Chicago MPI unique is our willingness to take risks. We never stop trying new things. It could be planning a new type of event (different venue, location, format, etc.) that’s never been attempted before. There’s a willingness to say, “Let’s try that” and a willingness to help out. We’re not satisfied with just having a monthly breakfast and bringing in a guest speaker. We’re always trying to one-up what we’ve done before. We’re always looking for that next big thing. When I say [innovation] is part of our culture, it’s not like some organizations where you may have one or two people who really want to take a leap and try new things. It’s integrated throughout our organization, including our board and all the volunteer committees. It’s contagious.

AA: How should associations think about measuring the success of their events?

CP: Membership surveys, post event surveys and being in touch with your membership are key. This year we’re going to do a full deep-dive membership survey in which we really look at what they want from our events and our communications, and then we’ll see what strategic changes need to be made. We also do a lot of assessing through social media. We use it frequently to take the pulse of members and to post/tweet from events so even non-attendees can feel as if they are actually there. Most of the time you need to keep your eye on the financials, the profitability of your events, but also on how much they’re doing to foster engagement and a good member experience. Every July we partner with 10 other not-for-profits to hold an event called Industry Exchange for the Chicago hospitality industry. The main goal is networking and being the voice of events in Chicago. It’s a great event, but we know going in it’s not going to be a moneymaker. You want your attendees to feel value and have a good experience with you. That’s where this type of event fits in to our strategy.

AA: What are some of the most surprising things you’ve learned since taking over the helm of MPI- two years ago?

CP: The thing that surprised me the most was how much you can get done with volunteers. I’m amazed by the passion of the hospitality community in Chicago. I think we are a special market. Our people interact and work together so much. They have such a passion for MPI. It’s contagious and great to be around. We’re the largest of the MPI chapters and I have only one other FT staff person and a few shared staff (it works out to 2.25 people). But with over 175 dedicated volunteers, we can hold about 22 events a year, plus board meetings and executive committee meetings.

Another thing that surprised me is the depth of sponsorship opportunities we have. Many associations say sponsorship is very important, but the amount that can be sponsored here—and creatively sponsored in order to help your event succeed–is really something. Helping to take [sponsorship] to a whole new level has been a great experience for me. At the chapter level, we only get a very small proportion of the dues that members pay to MPI [national], so we have to be creative about making money in other ways.

AA: How would you describe your leadership style?

CP: My style is very relationship-focused and inclusive. I take the time to listen first and then try to lead. I’m really close with the people I manage and I like to know as much as I can about them. Also, it’s very important to have a goal and stick to it. But, you also have to have some leeway, especially when you’re working with volunteers. That’s what makes my job so tricky. Again, it’s not their full-time job. You can’t have the same hard line with volunteers that you might have with staff. It’s been a wonderful growth opportunity for me to manage so many volunteers, to get to know them well and help them in their careers. My style is a mix of soft and hard. You have to get to know the person first and understand where they want to go and what they want to do. But there has to be some structure, so their goals are aligned with our goals. You’re driving down the highway and making sure we don’t veer off the road, but you still need the flexibility to zigzag a little within your lane.

AA: Your organization has a very high proportion of members who volunteer—and keep coming back. How do you make that happen when everyone’s so busy these days?

CP: The most important thing is to say, “thank you” and to recognize your volunteers. It starts from the top down—it’s everyone’s responsibility–and we do a good job of that in our social media, too. You need to figure out what type of recognition is most valuable for each volunteer. For instance, some volunteers need company recognition. We’ll write a letter to their boss saying, “Thank you for letting Nina volunteer for us. She did a great job.” Remember, many people volunteer because ultimately they want to be the president of their organizations. We have an awards program that recognizes our volunteers and we try to help them make extra business connections.

AA: What do you like most about working in the association world?

CP: An association is dedicated to something specific, so it’s about believing in what that group does and helping them move forward. I would have a hard time working for an association if I didn’t believe in what it was doing. The other thing I enjoy about association work is the people. I enjoy working in matrixed environments (both on the AMC and client side) and working with people who have the passion to commit to a business or a cause that they love so much. I love being around hospitality folks; they have such great personalities and so much energy. They’re always going, going and going! It’s very motivating, dare I say, awe inspiring?

AA: Christi, let’s go back to matrixed organizations. Is “wearing multiple hats” a core requirement for today’s association leader?

CP: I’d say being bipolar is even better {laughing}. When you work for a management company you have responsibilities to your firm, responsibility to the board and responsibility to the client. You have to wear all these hats and you’re the intermediary between the management company and the association folks. There is an element of juggling and plate-spinning as you’re interacting with so many people with so many different goals. The benefit of MPI Chicago is that we have a really good relationship with our management company. I’ve worked for other associations in which that’s not always the case—that’s when the hat gets even bigger, since you’re trying to juggle all of the politics.

AA: Do have any special strategies for connecting with Millennial staffers and younger members of the meeting and event profession?

CP: We’re listening very carefully to what the younger people are telling us. We used to have our monthly board meeting face to face. But, with all the other requirements these folks have, it was becoming too much. And when you’re asking people for such a big time commitment, you risk not having the right kinds of people on your board. Millennials don’t want to meet face to face. They want to video-conference in, or [check in] from their phones. It’s been a good shift. So now we don’t require as many face to face meetings. We’re really trying to change with the times and streamline our volunteer requirements. We depend so heavily on volunteers. We don’t want to burn them out.

AA: What are MPI Chicago’s most important member communication vehicles?

CP: Since we have no member magazine, our weekly e-newsletter Conversations + Connections is our primary communication vehicle (3,500 distribution), along with eblasts. We have published a directory for many years with Naylor’s help and recently expanded the agreement to cover ad sales for our website and newsletter. Social media has also been a very good outlet for us, especially Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn discussion groups. Since we’re a small-staff organization, we use a volunteer marketing committee (with board oversight) to monitor our social media outreach. But, our popular LinkedIn discussions are unmoderated and very grassroots.

AA: How does MPI-CAC bring new ideas to the table? Do you have a formal innovation process or is it more ad hoc?

CP: If you want to be innovative and try things, it’s got to come from the top. We have a formal process. You work through the executive committee and often our board, if it’s a big idea. If you came to me and said, “Hey we want to partner on this,” I’d ask you to send me what you have so we can then meet face to face to talk it through. Then I’d say, “Great, but it has to go to our executive committee,” where we will flesh out the idea. Also, you can’t always be developing new things unless you’re willing to sunset programs that may be past their prime. We had a facilitator in recently to help us get better making those tough decisions.

AA: If you had an unexpected 50 percent budget increase, how would you spend it?

CP: We would invest it in our back-end technology, especially in a robust website and a marketing tool that would allow us to do a better job of segmenting and optimizing our messaging to different member subgroups. Associations need to keep changing and keep learning to adapt. You’ve got to keep upping your game.