One day this pandemic will be a distant memory and people will again gather. When that happens, the events industry will need people ready to create amazing experiences and moments worth remembering. From concerts to conferences and fundraising extravaganzas to sporting events, these experts have done it all and weathered many storms along the way. With collectively more than 75 years of experience, this panel will provide you with behind-the-scenes insights and advice that will help prepare you for the #NewNormal. This session is in partnership with WVU PRSSA.
What is the greatest challenge you've faced in your career and how did you overcome it?
Heidi Riffle-Nizowitz: I actually think the biggest challenge is right now. We're in the middle of this pandemic and bringing people together for face-to-face meetings has just basically been put on pause. We don’t know when we can move forward in big numbers. This has been something that has impacted us in big ways, we’ve had to adapt really quickly as things change. That is really the biggest challenge we have ever faced.
That being said, coming from Mandalay Bay, it would remiss to not mention October 1 and living through that. On October 1, 2017, a mass shooter opened fire on a concert venue across the street from Mandalay Bay creating the largest and most casualties of any mass shooting. At that time I was the Director of Conventions Services and was working. I actually had an event that was loading into kick-off and they were to have an event at the festival lot the next week.
Going through that tragedy, helping with the guests, the property and the group that was live, getting them through it, and ultimately turning the space over to another event, moving a party for 17,000 people in about seven days was a pretty amazing experience. What I learned from that is that it takes a village. Everyone in our community rallied around us. The day after the shooting I remember walking into the front desk because we had various tasks that we had to do and there were housekeepers, managers and more from every hotel in the strip standing there in uniform saying “you tell us what to do and we’ll go to work.” That is something you can take from this tragedy, when you need people they will stand up and help you, as a community, pull through.
How has the industry changed and shifted in recent years?
Candace Montgomery: When I first started in this industry, it wasn’t even really an industry. When I got my first job it was called “employee relations,” but it was really events. Events and experiential has come so far, it has become an industry with its own personality that is so popular and important to marketing mixes. In my 20-year career we went from not being able to put a title on what this industry is to everyone wanting to have an experiential division or event. There are really a lot of opportunities flooding the market because people are trying to bring ideas to life, trying to create something people want to touch. I think that is where things really change for people, they become really aligned with a brand when they can touch, feel and experience it with other people — that’s what events are really about.
I think we are all trying to figure out now how the industry can adapt in the face of COVID-19. Obviously the industry has changed a lot recently. We as industry professionals are trying to figure out how we bring pieces of the industry back into the mix along with virtual elements. I think what I would say to all of the students on this call is to have an expansive understanding of how you can deliver an event in multiple forms, including digital, is a skill set that is not going to go away. I think from a brand perspective whether you are at the brand, or a venue, virtual experiences reach more people. I think that digital will become an addition to traditional events post-COVID. I think our industry is evolving and pushing. What COVID has done is push innovation to the brink. As students, don’t count digital and virtual out of events, you should find ways to learn more about that. There are many online digital certification courses to help with that.
We have seen all types of events going virtual and utilizing innovative delivery methods like “drive-in events”, what changes like this do you think are here to stay?
Chris Williams: I think I see more cleaning and sanitizing and making sure that event spaces are pure. Just this week, we met with folks who do drone spraying and sanitization. We have spent money on electrostatic sprayers, chemicals and training to make sure our guests, employees and performers are all in the safest environment we can put them in. I work in an 18,000 seat arena, there isn’t much we can change about that. We can turn the air over several times in minutes. I think the biggest thing that is coming is spending more money on infrastructure like hand sanitizer, sticks, wayfinding and directional signage just so people know where to go for things.
What misconceptions would you like to clear up about the events industry?
Doreen Sullivan: Once misconception is that events have unlimited budgets. You will spend so much time adjusting a budget, lowering a budget, changing a budget. People have grand ideas and they get stuck on things that are really expensive to execute and they have this misconception that events just have all the money in the world, and that’s just not true. Often you have to be incredibly resourceful in making an impact on your event, especially the larger the space. With a large space you have a big footprint to cover, you can’t just paint the floor and call it a day. People also think it is easy to fill up a negative space.
There is a misconception that it is really easy to put these things together. It can be a painstaking journey through your senses and students and everyone doing events should go into the space you’re in and go through your five senses. You really have to focus on creating and increasing a sensory experience. A big misconception is just how people think it is so easy to pull off an event and it’s not. The amount of work in events is incredibly taxing, you have to be physically fit to be an event planner, you are constantly on your feet.
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