Interview: Kolleen Whitley
Only two years after graduating from her alma mater, Rutgers University, Kolleen Whitley moved from planning university and community events to corporate affairs. Now the event and trade show manager at the Fortune 1000 company Heartland Payment Systems, she is still an active member of her university’s alumni association and a proud volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters. Whitley tells us about the fateful day that turned her into a meeting planner for life.
IN HER WORDS
I didn’t always know I wanted to be an event planner. In fact, I had no idea such a position existed until I fell deeply in love with it.
At Rutgers University, there is one event in the spring that brings roughly 20,000 community and university members to the campus on the last Saturday in April, rain or shine: the New Jersey Folk Festival. Robust in its history and heavy undergraduate involvement, this event spans a large field on the university’s Douglass campus and fills the space with music, food, demonstrations, activities and craft vendors that are significant to the cultural focus of the festival each year. Every year, the festival highlights a different culture.
In 2006, the year I initially became acquainted with the festival, the heritage spotlight was on South Korea. I volunteered to assist at festival check-in where all of the vendors, performers, board members and other constituents would arrive to collect their name badges and report. Even at 6 a.m. when I arrived for my shift, the area was buzzing with excitement. Everyone who approached me was full of enthusiasm, thrilled by the legacy of the event and optimistic for yet another successful festival. The festival coordinators, ranging from 19 to 22 years old, all had an air of confidence about them. They seemed fun and friendly and as though they had all built a strong rapport with the team. It was clear that each of them was an integral part of the process leading up to the festival; I had seldom seen so many undergraduates with such grace under pressure. In the short four hours of my volunteer shift, I knew that I would do whatever it took to be part of this team the following year. And that’s just what I did.
The following July, I reached out for information, attended an education session, interviewed, and was accepted onto the team for the 2007 New Jersey Folk Festival Committee as a stage coordinator. As one of 14 student coordinators, I was tasked with researching the culture of the festival’s spotlight country, the Dominican Republic, to plan an ethnically genuine event. In order to create an impact that even those visiting from the represented country would find authentic, we were responsible for contracting and working with ethnically veritable food vendors, craft vendors and entertainment.
On my way to the venue at 5 a.m. on festival day, my nerves clutched at my stomach. All I could think of was how much could go wrong during the course of the day. It didn’t help that finals were just around the corner and with last-minute preparations for the festival, sleep was a luxury I couldn’t afford much of at the time. However, when I peered out on the field that morning, with the tents and stages built and the smell of freshly cut grass, I knew that everything would be OK, not only because this event has a legacy much bigger than any one planner, but because this was what I was meant to do.
After the 2007 folk festival, I went on to plan the following two festivals and launch my own university-wide health services event before graduating and procuring a job in corporate events.
Since that fateful day in April 2007, I have never looked back from planning. Although I have moved from nonprofit to corporate events, I still give all of myself when creating an event. There is no rush comparable to knowing you are responsible for one unforgettable day in someone’s life.
Closer Look: Kolleen Whitley
Best advice for a fellow planner: No event happens without some hitch. It’s important to be prepared, but the key to success in our industry is in the art of innovation and quick thinking.
Favorite planning tool: HelmsBriscoe has proven to be an invaluable resource. My contact with HelmsBriscoe takes all the guesswork out of preliminary site procurement and saves me valuable time.
Favorite music/movie/books: Music: Modern soul, like Amy Winehouse and Adele. Movie: “Pulp Fiction.” Books: Honestly, I usually don’t have much time to read, but when I do, I love classics like “Jane Eyre” and “Great Expectations.”
Favorite destination: I don’t know that I have a favorite. I’m always fixated on what is coming next. Right now, it’s Dallas.
Best way to relax after an event: I take at least one day off to decompress, no matter what. Usually a pedicure is in order, too.
Favorite quote: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Read more stories from corporate event planners about what they do and why they love their jobs in the June/July issue of Collaborate.