Second Acts: Four Planners Forging New Paths
A tipping point, as described in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller of the same name, is that magic moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips and spreads. The stories that follow do not describe anything particularly revolutionary except for the fact that the people who tell them found the tipping point in their lives, setting them on a path that affected them, their meetings and their organizations. The stories were told to Editor-in-Chief Christine Born and Managing Editor Libby Hoppe.
The Refocused Executive: Coming Out from Behind the Scenes
Nikole Fridenmaker, CMP
When you’re new to a company, you bring your past experiences and mold them to your new position. You want to observe and go slowly. I’m not certain how much change I will be able to enact, but I have some ideas that I hope to apply.
At Pershing, we have a fairly large team. There are nine people in our department, which is a larger team than what I’ve worked with in the past. At the moment, the roles are still gelling, but everyone is always open to collaborating. I support the broker-dealer area, helping with insights, working on our new conference Discover 2012 and our European Client Conference. I’ve also had the opportunity to participate in external conferences like Collaborate Marketplace—to actually be attending not be behind the scenes.
At Jeff Hurt’s Collaborate boot camp, we talked about innovation, and one of the things I really liked was his suggestion that we should change up our meetings about 25 percent each year, add something new and get attendees involved. I do think I can do that. When you’re in a role for a while, it’s easy to keep doing the same thing. You need a reminder to change it up. You need to ask, “Are we just taking last year’s agenda and duplicating it with a few tweaks?”
This will be my first time attending our big event [Insite 2012, Pershing’s Financial Solutions Conference, June 6-8]. I’m looking forward to sitting back and observing. Planners just keep going and going. We don’t often take the time to see if things are working from an attendee’s viewpoint. I plan to take a lot of notes.
This is my first foray into financial services. I have the corporate background, but prior to joining Pershing at the end of August, my experience was more in associations. During the economic downturn, I saw some tough numbers. With Pershing, the big corporate meetings for certain industries are doing pretty well. Seeing the different industries is fascinating.
Pershing is a solid, conservative company but we want to make sure our attendees are getting a great experience. We want top speakers, because our attendees want them. This year, we have President Bill Clinton, Deepak Chopra, Michael McKee and Dr. Fareed Zakaria. So how do you top that?
We know we have to keep using more technology. We don’t live in bubbles. Social media has been a great complement to meetings, but our industry is heavily regulated so we have to be cautious, too.
One of my strengths is streamlining processes. I’ve been very fortunate in my career that I’m not always getting into the minutiae of logistics but rather can keep the bigger picture in mind. One of the things I’ve felt very strongly about, and share with my colleagues, is the importance of educating others on SMM, especially those above you, the decision- makers. You’ve got to make sure they understand the value of meetings.
The key is to have people who are open and willing to have that conversation. Networking is important: knowing what their needs are, understanding how they measure the return on business. Ask them, “What are your needs? What are you currently doing? What would you like to be doing?”
I’m looking forward to doing what I can to add my fresh perspective to our events.
More from Nikole
Best advice for a fellow planner: Make yourself an asset. Stay educated and current and, most importantly, explore a variety of meetings and industries. I’ve been fortunate enough to plan meetings for pharmaceutical, association, academic, corporate, international and now financial services industry. It has allowed me to be very nimble in my career options.
Favorite planning tool: It’s difficult to pick a favorite tool since it’s very subjective to the company you’re with and its budgets, but even when dealing with no to low budgets, Excel is always a go-to option.
Favorite music/movie/books: Reading is one of my hobbies. I read everything I can get my hands on. If I had to pick just one book, probably “The Hobbit.” My iTunes has everything from Broadway show tunes to Apocalyptica. And I really enjoyed the new Avengers movie and love “The Ugly Truth.”
Favorite destination: Favorite travel destination is a cruise, preferably a relaxing one to somewhere in the Caribbean. Favorite meeting destination is even more difficult to choose—so many great places domestically and internationally. Portland, Ore., is a fantastic city and, of course, you can never go wrong with Orlando. Internationally, Edinburgh and Bangkok were great destinations to plan a meeting in.
How do you relax after your big event is over? Sleep and I always book a massage for as close to when I return home as possible.
Favorite quote: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” —Mahatma Ghandi
From Boardrooms to Party Studios
When I was a corporate planner, I did seminars around the country for a bank consulting company. I started a membership program for bank presidents, and we went to golf resorts and five-star hotels and did about 80 meetings a year. They were the same year in and year out.
It used to be that almost everyone who was a planner fell into it by accident because at their companies somebody said, “Well, you’re organized. You plan.” When I was with that company, my boss would ask me to write cities down on the side of a piece of paper, then he’d want me to go call the Hyatt, the JW Marriott and the Four Seasons in all of those cities. And then afterward, I would hand him the spreadsheet. But the problem was the minute I hung up the phone, what they said would change.
You know, nobody wants to deal with graph paper.
Before starting my own company, there were a lot of other jobs. I worked at an incentive house, did a lot of music production, operated a nightclub. I started High Beam in 2004. At the time, I was putting together seminars in software and just decided to take advantage of options here in Austin. It gave me my first taste of self-employment, and I immediately got hooked up with South by Southwest.
In 2005, we organized 12 events over nine days and we were walking around with chests puffed out. In 2006, we planned 65 events. This year, it was 183. The biggest leap in growth was from ’05 to ’06. The party program just took off. South by Southwest is such a large event, and it’s not all in one place. That’s what’s unique about it. The Super Bowl is in one stadium; South by Southwest takes place in 80 clubs, a convention center and 10 hotels.
We typically started planning in September [for the March event], then it crept up to August, and last year it crept up to July. We’ve already started planning for 2013. High Beam plans the event’s official party program, but these have gone way beyond parties. We do everything from setting up a breakfast taco stand with energy drinks all the way up to MTV Woody Awards.
This past year, we had 17 people on staff. I bring them on seasonally, and I have a whole production crew that handles technical AV, music, etc. Those people come in as we start needing them. The full-time staff is seven including me.
My personal job this last year changed because I set up teams and everyone was reporting to me. I had two team leaders who were my senior people. Mostly, I educate my planners. What our customers pay us for is our knowledge of what can and can’t be done. During the conference, I spend a lot of time at the convention center in our command center. I try to meet with clients and make sure everyone is happy.
We’re a really creative bunch of people here and when we start brainstorming, we come up with a lot of really cool ideas. During an initial call with Nokia, they said, “We want a lounge where people can come and hang out and we want to project images onto a building.” I had heard about 360-degree projection domes and I knew they’d never been brought to Austin before. So we did. They were mind-boggling. Nobody had ever seen anything like it.
We want to think of things that are different. It’s the creative part that’s the fun.
Last year’s Skype party surprised me because I didn’t see much of the planning end of it. They came in kind of late, and we had them in a parking lot that had a 20-degree slope and we had to level it with 170 sections of staging. I just remember thinking this is so improbable because I knew the lot. But then I saw it, and we transformed this place. It was so cool because Skype skyped their own conference. We had three screens on the top of the stage, and the bands were being skyped to people in their living rooms. What was coming back was people dancing in their homes on the screens. You could go to a concert without leaving your room.
The part that I really love about my job is hitting it out of the ballpark. After it’s over and the client is satisfied and the guests are satisfied, that’s always really rewarding. I also love the creative brainstorming and the proposal. One client wanted something Halloween-related but different, and we came up with a “Thriller”-’80s-zombie theme. I remember sitting at the conference table and these people were completely stone-faced, and I thought we’re tanking so badly. And then they said, “We love it.” I love that moment of presenting the creative. At that point, I’m so passionate about it; I can’t wait to show them.
The most loathsome part is dealing with anything that’s going wrong, and in the event world, something is always going wrong. I take it very personally. There are certain things that go wrong and it jazzes you up and you know you can fix it before anybody notices, but if something is going wrong and client sees it and your solution is slow, those are the worst. I don’t want to disappoint anyone. I want every event to be perfect.
More from Sam
Favorite Austin event facility: Stage on Sixth
Best planning tool: With its customizable databases, Filemaker lets me keep track of every step of the planning process. I’ve been doing this long enough to remember when we used to write everything on paper; now Filemaker puts a date and time stamp on every action I take. I think most successful event planners keep a lot of data in their heads and that’s never going to change, but it’s great to let go of some extraneous items and put them in the database.
Best advice for a fellow planner: Don’t be one of those planners who’s a bully to suppliers; treat them like partners and you’ll get better results. Sure there will be times when you need to get tough, but nobody likes a bully.
Favorite music/movies/books: I tend to favor quirky and clever—Elvis Costello’s music, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and John Irving’s novels, Mel Brooks and the Coen Brothers’ movies. You get the drift.
Favorite quote: Not an especially good quote for this business, but it makes me laugh— “Failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”
Going for a CMP: Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks
Bobby Hobes, CCTE, CMP
As corporate travel and meetings analyst for Chenega Government Consulting, Bobby Hobes works on about 10 conferences a year for anywhere from 200 to 250 attendees in the fields of government, public health, academia, research and insurance. He hasn’t stopped learning and setting new goals.
As meeting planners, we tend to focus on hard logistics: How do we get people from A to B? We’re logistics gurus.
I’ve been with Chenega Government Consulting for five years, as a corporate travel and meetings analyst. Before that I was with the nonprofit CARE for 10 years, working on meeting planning and travel procurement for them. But after I got my CMP last September, I began to wonder what I could do to get people to another level.
My experience participating in the CMP study group was difficult. It’s was drill; we did anywhere from four to five practicing sets, constantly writing questions, bouncing off each other, critiquing each other and developing a real sense of process.
When I approached my work team about my desire to apply what I had learned, they said to go for it: “What do we need to do to help?” That was the green light. That was the “Aha!”moment.
I began to immerse myself in the programs, not to become a content management expert but to take a look at them and analyze what I could do to make each meeting better. What are the goals? What results do we want?
I applied my analysis skills more broadly. I looked at the content, at the people who were putting it together. Where are they coming from? What are their goals?
I want to play a more strategic role in how meetings are being managed, so we’re not just looking at how many crescent rounds or how many chairs we need, but how content can be delivered. What sessions and speakers have the most impact? Who’s going? What are the takeaways? What brings in the most ROI?
I’ve always been a real post-con person, but my perspective shifted. What are people saying? What do they want to take away with them? How can we enhance what we are doing? How are we delivering our surveys? We’re looking at multi-faceted delivery to see what’s effective. We need to understand what’s good, what’s not; what’s working, what’s not. How do you make change happen?
I don’t really look at myself as a meeting planner. I look at myself as a researcher. I put myself in role of a health-care specialist and try to think the way they would. It’s role reversal, in a sense. Then, I take that data and try to formalize it into a meeting. It’s not a logistical role. It’s figuring out how to incorporate, learn more, see how I can use it.
I know logistics well. I need to understand the program content, then meld it and create a cohesive program. Usually, I see either a program person who has meeting logistics skills or a person who has an idea of how the overall outline should look, but I haven’t seen a person who has a vast knowledge of programs they provide logistics for. That’s what I’m trying to be. It’s like teaching an old dog new tricks.
For example, a room setup can enhance the dynamics of learning. This whole adult learning thing is so real. It’s a constant progression. The time and money spent at conferences is a big investment. We have to make sure our attendees take away something solid. They need to maximize their time away from the office and take something back they can implement immediately.
For me, this process is almost like a dawning thing. It’s like going to places you haven’t gone before.
More from Bobby
Best advice for a fellow planner: Continue to think outside the box. Being able to provide ingenious approaches to your events can prove to be an invaluable tool in justifying your benefit to your organization.
Favorite planning tool: MPI CultureActive Tool—It’s a tool that improves the ability to understand and communicate with other cultures.
Favorite music/movie/books: Music—Contemporary Jazz. Movie—“The Three Faces of Eve.” Books—anything Stephen King
Favorite destination: The Florida Panhandle (meetings), South America (travel preference)
How do you relax after your big event is over? A massage and a quiet night of dinner and a movie
Favorite quote: “Perfection is an imaginary state of quality distinguished from the actual by an element known as excellence; an attribute of the critic.” —Ambrose Bierce
The Love Affair: Never Looking Back
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 alumni association and a proud volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters.
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 info 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 genuine, 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.
More from Kolleen
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 HB 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.
How do you relax after your big event is over? 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