I have somehow managed to keep my full-time job as a Special Events Manager when most of the entire industry has collapsed under the weight of Covid-19. Events were one of the first industries lost back in March, and we will be one of the last to recover from this crisis. It’s painful to see a career that I was so proud of, and worked 10 years to grow, be destroyed in a matter of months. We all know events aren’t essential. They don’t save lives, they don’t provide a necessary service, but they ARE the life-blood of so many professionals that I know, adore, and respect. 2020 has been nothing short of an epic uphill battle with no clear end in site.
I may have been lucky at the beginning of the year but now I’m beginning to feel the buckling under my feet after organizing an event that seemed safe enough for even the most drastic restrictions and mandates was cancelled. It was a drive-thru holiday parade. Guests in their cars, small performing groups spaced WAY out, masks, gloves, and nothing shared, no touching, and social distancing rules. Four months of day after day racking my brain to create something special for the community that would fit within these new rules. I managed to design a layout that I loved and couldn’t wait to get set up. It included: bright and festive floats lit up in thousands of lights stationed along the route, holiday music blasting out from local singers and bands, mixed with community displays that kids love (think fire trucks, and SWAT vehicles), giant inflatable characters, and, even local artists and actors bringing out their skills in unique ways for the kids to see. The parade would end with our traditional Santa Sleigh float complete with Santa himself waving to all the kids as they exited the route. It felt right. It was going to be perfect. Until it wasn’t.
We got the call 8 days before the parade: our county had reached purple status where the hospitals were struggling to keep up. The public health department issued a stay at home advisory, and the governor issued a state-wide curfew of 10pm. They could no long support us continuing on with the event. It was officially too dangerous. That was it. There was no consolation prize. No pat on the back. Four months of work completely wasted and gone. I was completely useless and helpless. It hung in the air over me for days.
It felt gross to be able to undo everything we planned in four months in just 2 days. However, these were not easy days. It was calling these artists, performers and event vendors knowing that they too have lost everything this year. Knowing this children’s parade was going to be their saving grace for the holiday season, even a beacon of hope that the industry was slowly returning. It was painful to hear their distress and heartache, and most of them thanked me for at least trying and giving it my best shot. It took all I had not to cry for them.
Even though I was delivering horrible news to hundreds of people, I was humbled by their kindness and appreciation for my work. It helped me remember why I do this job, with all its stress and uncertainty, I do it because it means something. Events are a positive light in this world and I am going to keep pushing and trying new things until something sticks or covid disappears. Events aren’t going anywhere. They may just be dormant while we weather this storm. I know this industry will pick itself back up, and when it does, it will be more vibrant, creative, and humble than ever before. Events don’t save lives, but they do make life just a little bit more enjoyable to live.
1. Event management is not glamorous, like at all.
My favorite saying is “it’s not a real event until your blisters are bleeding into your shoes!” Okay. Not really. But events are incredibly physical and strenuous in nature. It isn’t like what you see in David Tutera’s weddings or the Oscar after parties, at least not for the planner or manager. I have coordinated around 1000 events in my career that vary from corporate banquets, weddings, concerts, galas, and large scale festivals. ALL of them involve some serious blood, sweat, and tears. There is an incredible amount of walking, dragging rentals, tables, staging, glassware, or chairs all over the place, carrying heavy platters of food or flower arrangements, even climbing ladders or riding lifts to hang pipe & drape, signage, or ceiling swag. You will be sweaty. You will get blisters. You will occasionally smash a finger or toe. You will work 12, 14, 18 hour days. Events are not for the faint of heart. It takes a strong will to see an event all the way through from start to finish. But the feeling of accomplishment, in my opinion, is well worth the bloodied shoes.
2. An event planner has to be a confident decision maker.
This is one that I really struggle with, and have struggled with throughout my career. Maybe because I started in weddings, and I really wanted to make sure the bride had her dream wedding in all aspects? Maybe it is just my personality to listen and try everything in my power to make it happen? I don’t like disappointing anyone, however, that is just not realistic in real event planning. There are budgets to contend with, structural limitations, public health considerations, and many other smaller decisions that need to made throughout the planning and execution phases of an event. Some decisions have to be made and dealt with right then, others can be brought to the stakeholders for opinions. In events, it’s important to be able to problem solve on your feet, and ask for forgiveness later. If the guests or hosts don’t notice the problem, then you have done the job you were hired to do. You can’t be afraid to make hard decisions to salvage the event. It’s the hard truth.
3. Event managers can’t fix many problems the day of the event.
It is too late to try to fix anything the day of the event. You can try to salvage things, but PLANNING is the most important tool to ensure you have a successful event. That means creating timelines, check-lists, and contingency plans. It also means that you have to communicate these plan to the host, staff, vendors, entertainers, etc. No event will ever be perfect, but trying to communicate with vendors, entertainers, and other stakeholders the day of the event will usually cause added stress and problems. You have to know inside and out, what is supposed to happen, in order to easily solve problems that do arise. For example, you don’t want to be calling around the day of the event to find a DJ you forgot to book, only to find out the wind knocked over the top-tier of the wedding cake. Effective planning would have eliminated one of these issues which would have left you in a much better situation to handle the cake. Hint: in case the wind ever does destroy the top tier of a your cake, real flowers out of the arrangements make fantastic cake toppers!
4. Communication is the most important tool you have for events.
Going along with number 3, being a solid communicator is key to success. I have pre-established timelines that outline specifically when I need to get information out to the effected parties. It is a pattern of continued communication that keeps everyone involved, informed, and helps head off any problems that you may not have anticipated. There is nothing worse than the rental company showing up with the wrong color linens because you forgot to tell them the host changed to white linens instead of black. This is also a learning process for event planners, coordinators, and managers. You have to establish a system that works for you. With my strategy, I was able to coordinate and manage 250+ events in a year with many happening on the same day. The other piece to this is being available to communicate with staff and vendors the day of the event, especially large scale events where it can be impossible to locate you in person. There have been many a-times I had my cell phone in my hand, my work phone in my pocket, and a two-way clipped to my shirt! Success comes with the ability to head off problems as soon as they come up, not an hour later or the next day.
5. Event professionals will be underappreciated.
Here’s the thing, if you do the event well, it will look incredibly easy. That leaves you with unappreciative guests, hosts, clients, and there will be those that think all you do is make things “look pretty.” I have heard that phrase numerous times over the course of my career. I used to let it bother me until I realized that it isn’t until a person gets really in to the meat of planning a large scale event, that they understand the level of patience, creativity, perseverance, and skill that it takes to accomplish a single event. Event professionals have a high rate of burnout due to stress, and I believe this feeling of being unappreciated is part of the problem. It seems easy to the untrained eye, and therefore, you get treated like events and festivals just drop out of the sky ready to enjoy. They don’t understand your stress or why you are working 15 hours that day. Event planning and management is not a career for notoriety. You have to do it because you love it, and the challenge.
Bonus! All event pros have to carve out personal time for some work/life balance!
I can tell you that it is SO easy to get into the habit of working on your events ALL THE TIME. I used to catch myself searching for decorations and rentals for a cheaper price, or messaging with different artists, or getting sucked into emails that “seemed” like an emergency when I should have been spending time with my family. With events there is a hard deadline. Most of the time the event date cannot be changed if you are not ready, so it gets to be really easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole, of worrying that it isn’t going to come together. This is where your communication skills and planning skills come in to play. Of COURSE you are going to be anxious as deadlines approach (or have nightmares about candelabras like me!), but make sure you are only taking on a work load that you AND your family can handle. Family should be number 1. Take care of yourself and your family first. Your planning skills will take care of the rest. You got this.
I want to hear from other event pros! What are some things you wish you had known before starting your career?