Monday, November 4, 2013

Me: On Being an Event Planner

Posted By: Leah
You know how some people just know  what they want to be when they grow up? Like fireman or policeman or doctor (had to think of something not ending in 'man'). That's how it's always been for me. ..

I saw Pretty Woman when I was 8 yrs old. I ditched my dreams of being a stewardess (my first dream job, this was prior to the term 'flight attendant.') You know the part in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts goes shopping then the mean ladies in the stores treat her like trash? Then everything is made right when the general manager of the hotel takes her shopping and shows her which fork to use... I wanted to be that guy. But not really... what I wanted was to help people know about the fancy shopping places. And send them to the best restaurants and help them with know which fork to use. I wanted to make things happen... I wanted to be the one to set all that up. I just didn't know what job that was. I knew it wasn't a fireman or doctor.

Here I am 25 years later as an event planner. I plan very high level VIP events in fancy cities in the US and in Europe. It's my dream job.

One of the most common things people ask me about my current job is what is it exactly that I do. So often at events I plan, attendees say "oh you do what my daughter wants to do."  I guess have pretty much every girl's dream job. So what is called exactly? What is it that I do?

I am a global event planner and work in marketing for a privately held company that has Fortune 500 clients. In the past six months, I've been to Florida three times (Clearwater, Orlando and Miami), as well as Budapest, Hungary. Today I was on the phone with venues in Paris, Las Vegas, Miami (again), and Phoenix. I plan conferences, dinners, activities, and fun once in a lifetime opportunities for clients and prospects of my company all around the world. I have a trip planned in the next week to Miami. I'm going to one of the fanciest golf courses in the US. People wine and dine me. They want me to select them for my events. It's pretty awesome. It's also A LOT of work with a lot of deadlines, decisions, and people who hold me accountable for each detail.

I've worked for hotels, caterers, convention and visitor's bureaus, a convention center, and prior to my current position; I spent 4 years planning logistics for events in a large healthcare system. I've worked on every side of the event process from venue, vendor, and most recently, a planner. I've worked for non-profits as well as in a corporate setting.

You know how I mentioned some people are born wanting to be a doctor, or policeman? I was born wanting to coordinate events. I have never worked in a position that did not support this goal. Every job I have has built my resume. Because of that, I have a bachelor's degree in it, as well as almost 12 years experience planning events. And I love it.

The next question I get a lot from other people is how do they get a job planning events, because lets be honest, everyone thinks they can do what I do. And to give an honest answer, yes I think anyone who has planned their own wedding, their child's birthday, heck... even planned their own vacation can do what I do, because that is all a part of it.

What has allowed me to work in this field since college breaks down to a few things that can truly help anyone, no matter what field you are in.

We'll call this section Leah's Career Advice: 

The first is networking. They say "It's all about who you know." And that is the absolute truth. I networked my way into three fantastic college internships (yup I did 3- I worked in a hotel, I did marketing, and had an internship in event planning). I networked my way into my first position post-college by attending a "Christmas in July' hospitality industry networking event at an area hotel. I ran into a girl in my major who introduced me to the hiring manager at the local convention and visitor's bureau and the rest is history.

The second is experience. For the jobs I've gotten that were NOT based on who I knew, it's my experience directly in the field that scored me the interview. I have never 'settled' for a position that is not in my field. This is important, as some people jump from job to job and are less worried about building their resume. If you want to be an event planner, only work in jobs that support that.

The third is organization. I will admit it, I'm a clutter loving person. I like to keep my desk with everything in plain sight aka messy. This, however, has nothing to do with how I organize events. I am a planner by nature. Because of this, I plan everything WAYYY in advance. Like as far ahead as humanly possible. I am absolutely not a last minute person. Also, I want to provide the people I work with as much detail as possible in as simple to understand terms as possible. I like making notebooks with tabs. I send emails with bullets and the bullets have bullets and then numbers and then a, b, c broken down under that. I make schedules planning things down to the minute. I think it stems from in high school and the recurring dream of not knowing which class to go to next. Or having the other dream where I skipped a class all year and not knowing. Because of this, I don't trust my own memory. I already know I'll forget something. I write everything down as if I wake up with amnesia and don't know what time to go to work. That's how I do it. And people love it. I give them confidence to do their job while I worry about the rest.

The fourth is personality/attitude/grace under fire. This is truly the one thing that separates the good planners out there from the not so good. Every property I work with since forever complements me on how easy I am to work with. At some point planners got the bad rap that they were these bossy task masters. In actuality, that is not necessary for a perfect event. We all have the same goal- to hold an epic event. As the saying goes "you get more flies with honey than vinegar." And as a 'southern belle' planner, that's truly my thing. I can get the best rates on everything by being honest, real, and open throughout the planning process. I don't play 'hard ball' or hold back information hoping to 'strong arm' into getting my way. I'm upfront and say what I need. If it doesn't happen, I handle it directly. I ask what CAN happen. And when things go wrong, I handle it, expect service recovery, and move on. It's just business. While nothing should be taken personally, there also is no need to be rude. ever.

The fifth is taste. This is another area where people say 'oh I could do this.' What planning comes down to is not your own personal taste... because believe me, I don't look like I stepped out of the pages of vogue. I know a lot about etiquette, but I'm not Miss Manners all the time. Nor do I need to be. What is important is I am a good judge of people and can determine other people's taste... meaning what they want. A great example is when I was recently in Miami. I was there on a site visit for my company to select a hotel, and some other activities for my work's upcoming conference. I know my company's clients, I know their demographic, what they would be comfortable with and it is my job to pick what is the best for the company. Not what I think is the best if I was going on my own vacay. My job is to put others first in all things. To ensure their expectations are exceeded and go about this in a seamless, professional, yet warm manor. I am the one they trust with their special requests, food allergies, if they need a room to breastfeed in... trust me, I handle it all. I am the biggest hotel snob ever, however sometimes the fancy brands we all know and love aren't always the best. It's an eye for detail, making sure there's no chipped paint, scuff marks, and the staff is very very happy. That's what makes a great property.

I hope this better explains what I do. Basically, it's a field that is crazy fun, crazy busy, and not everyone is cut out for. A lot of planners talk about the 'high' they feel during events. That all their hours, weeks, and months of preparation have paid off. It is compared to a 'runners high' or the euphoric feeling where you are so excited you can't sleep. I would say this is how you know this is the right field for you. Some people experience post-event stress. I (knock on wood) have never experienced this. But it is common for some planners to become either stressed out or in some cases depressed after an event. Have you heard of the 'post wedding bridal blues?' It's similar to that. I guess for planners who don't have 80 zillion things they are working on they can feel sad their event is over. Another thing I've seen first hand is planners take advantage of their situation. The drinks are free, the music is loud, so why not have fun? That gets the buzzer. The brake lights. You are getting paid to manage an event, not paid to party. It's amazing to me how many planners try to operate with hangovers. Trashy.

Wedding planning. I must mention that I, like 99% of the girls out there have wanted to be a wedding planner at some point. Remember the movie with J. Lo and she had that bridal emergency kit? I love that stuff! Weddings and social events are a blast! However these are hands down the most difficult to plan. Not because the vendors are any different to work with... social events have more emotions involved. Weddings have crazy mothers of the bride, aunts who think they are supposed to be the planner, lack of funds, last-minute emergencies, all sorts of drama. Plus they take place on the weekends! Great if you don't mind giving up your weekends, but not so great if you prefer more 'normal' hours. Social events are the same as weddings. Generally these take place on the weekends and unless a bossy-natured event planner gets involved, these can equal drama as well.

If you want to get involved in planning events, even if you don't have the degree and experience, there are tons of ways to start. The best is volunteering. If you are a member of a church, a PTA, have a local animal shelter, a library, anywhere... they would be thrilled for you to help. Organizations have all sorts of events from fundraising to volunteer appreciation events. By starting small, you can build your resume and gain experience. Even at your current job, I'm sure there's a holiday party you could get involved planning.

And you guys... stuff does go wrong. Vendors don't show up when they are supposed to. There is traffic. Your 'helpers' have family emergencies or just don't show up. Participants get lost, co-workers request your help on other projects. Your awesome ideas get shut down and you have to go with other people's less than stellar plans. It happens. You gotta roll with it and have backup plans to the backup plans. Let's face it, something will go wrong at every event. That's the one thing you can expect. What I love is thinking on my feet and handling the situation with ease. This is what makes me shine as a planner. A creative solution for a seemingly impossible situation.

What else? Are there any other questions you have about event planning you've always wondered but not known who to ask?

The last thing I will address is the downside. Every job has a downside. And everyone's downside is different. So what I think is the toughest part of being a planner is probably not necessarily what another planner would say. For me, I get lots of recognition. No matter what organization I've worked for, I have gotten mad props, or kudos, or whatever you want to call it for doing my job well. Awesome for me, except this puts me in the spotlight and reminds others that I have a job that they don't have. I have the type of job everyone thinks they could do (and probably could). Therefore I'm a target for people trying to elbow their way into my position. Some are upfront and clear with their intentions. Some are sneaky and take more of the dirty, throw you under the bus approach. Fortunately for me, these instances are not super common, but it does happen. It's a fabulous, glamorous looking job. Some days it is glamorous. Most of the time it's just a whole lot of work. Sometimes a year of planning for a 4 hour event. You have to put your pride aside and put others first. Above everything else, that's what makes a good planner great.

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