What is different about the industry now, compared to a pre-pandemic year like 2019?
MEGAN PULVER: From the audience perspective, there’s a fervency to go to live events, to be in person. And internally, there’s a lot more upfront conversation about plan A, B, C, D and E, and thinking through what if we have to kill the event or have sickness, which used to kind of be in the background and not really at the forefront of any conversation. You wouldn’t have killed an event for the flu or a cold, right? Now, it’s: What’s our mask protocol? What’s our testing protocol? Do we do this with a live audience? There are so many different layers and logistics that are now in place.
TERRIE JACKSON: There are more restrictions and guidelines to stay within now. Internally, there are more protocols in place to keep people safe. Externally, vendors and agency partners want to keep themselves safe in terms of more structured SOWs, kill fees and additional measures if things don’t happen accordingly.
TARA REILLY: Everything and nothing. I think our industry had a real moment of reimagining, but also of self-reflection in terms of what it is that we do. The pressure is higher to deliver strong programming and exciting, flashy things. And it’s pressure from clients and attendees. While the industry hasn’t necessarily changed, it’s allowed us to sharpen our skills a little bit more to know what the pieces of the puzzle are that really matter.
VENITA MCLEMORE: People want events. They want experience. They want to have that feeling of being in person with other people and experiencing everything to be offered. The challenge today is the recession. We went from no events to all the events, and now people want to scale down because of the economy. We have to find the middle ground where we still produce important and influential events accessible to all without breaking the budget. This is our challenge.
LUCY CHENG: Costs of events have just ballooned to crazy levels.
RONNIE YOKED: We’re expected to do more with less. We have the same pressures to deliver in the same way, but some of the macro-economic pressures make it hard to do so. I always commend my team because what people see is the final result, but behind the scenes, there are potentially 10 instances or situations that almost could have canceled their event. Budget challenges, talent surprises, inclement weather, you name it. But they amaze me because they always persevere and find a way to pull it off.
KEIRSTEN HAMMETT: Another difference is because everybody went virtual and had the opportunity to reach audiences that they maybe hadn’t in the past, the appetite for having the live events back but adding another layer of a virtual component on top of it, we now have to manage those expectations. You need different teams that are dedicated to the experiences of two audiences, and obviously the cost associated with that and the energy and time that goes into that, so that both of them are successful.
Things are also a lot more last-minute than they used to be. I think it’s partially because in the virtual world people felt like they could do things in the shorter term—whether or not the people who were producing them agreed with that or not is another thing. But certainly, because people weren’t traveling and the logistics side of things were not there, it was believed to be possible. That has carried through.
YOKED: The buzzword of the pandemic was IVL, or in virtual life. That shifted into hybrid. We now happily have been back to IRL since the summer of 2021. And today, we make decisions based on our goals and our consumers’ needs.
Creating a virtual experience is not always economically viable. The amount of paid media that has to go in to capturing an audience in the first place is extremely challenging. In the pandemic, we were all captive and at home. We didn’t have anywhere to go, and we created these incredible experiences to entertain and bring joy. Now we can be more decisive with when we leverage digital and when we focus on IRL.
COLLEEN PENHALL: It goes back to what’s your objective, and what are you trying to achieve? And so being really specific about what that is can help you to determine where you put your budget dollars in a very difficult environment.
“I had a boss who told me, ‘Don’t be the first one to raise your hand to take notes in a meeting because they typically look for a woman to volunteer.’ I was very conscientious about that with my direct reports, who were both men and women, so we always rotated who took notes.”
VANDANA PATEL: One-hundred percent, hybrid events. The combination of live and virtual is here to stay. Businesses are enjoying the flexibility and the cost savings associated with it. For myself, working in a global tech space, we have been able to maximize vendor relationships by having more than one way of reaching our audience.
ANGIE SMITH: We’ve all sort of been marching to this tune of push more content out, get in front of as many people as you can, hit them on every marketing lever and channel possible. But the reality is, when you really meet people where they are and you give them the content and information that they need right now, it’s going to be much more meaningful and helpful in converting and moving the value of your marketing to dollars. The difference between 2019 and where we are today in 2022 is people’s tolerance levels are very different. They’re exhausted equally as much as you and I are. Hitting them the same way that we did then is not going to work for any of us.
And also, meeting people where they are. Thirty percent of our audience still today, of the millions of customers that we have to go after in my portfolio, don’t want to go back to a live event yet. And for me not to acknowledge that space that they’re in would be tragic. It may change as we go deeper into a recession. It probably changed this week during a national election. We have to continually be flexible.
What are the unique challenges women in this industry face today?
YOKED: I have never felt like being a woman has held me back in the event industry. I think I have been very, very personally fortunate to feel empowered to lead and make shit happen in my industry. I think the struggle is more in the corporate environment where you may not have as many women in leadership roles to look up to and you have to carve the path yourself. That said, I am so fortunate to be able to get to work in a company like A-B that puts resources behind the things that I happen to love and impact culture and people’s lives.
HAMMETT: In events work, it’s so female-dominated that it feels like how could we be talking about issues when almost every role in the events space is filled by a woman? For me, touching on more of the production side, it doesn’t really matter how many years you’ve been doing something, you can still be underestimated and asked, “Where’s your boss?” or “Are you the person?” Meeting with local companies or hotels on site visits, they scan for the man, and if there is a man on my team there, usually they’re looking at him, and he’s like, “It’s not me. It’s her.” It’s crazy that that still happens, but it happens all the time.
CHENG: Or when you’re at dinner with your team, and the waiter brings the check to the man, even if you’re paying.
REILLY: I often find that on the production side of things, there are a lot of women who do it all, but when it comes to perceived heavy lifting, you’re asked: “Do you want me to carry that for you?” And there are people who may talk down to you. Respect is something that I really would love to see change in the event industry, because not only can we do it all, we’re in this because we chose to do it. That being said, my team right now by chance is entirely women, and it is so wonderful to see such an incredibly strong, powerful and capable group of people just kill it.
DEVA KEHOE: For me, it’s the expectation to do it all and have it all. An event came down the pipeline that we have to build from the ground up for 300 people, and I’ve been working late every single night. I haven’t been coming home at my normal time. I’m also newly married, and I have never had to share so much of myself with someone else. It’s hard to keep moving at this pace and share yourself. And then there’s the pay gap. Working as hard as we do, doing the things that we do, you do wonder if your male coworker is getting paid more than you. And so, we have to be our best advocates and question the system.
PATEL: Support and leadership guidance is a big one. This one really kind of resonates with me in many ways. I feel like we all have personal mentors to some degree that help motivate us. That could be a family member, a friend, whomever, but I think what we are lacking, especially women, is career advocates to help guide us through our career path and journey. I know for me, personally, there are a handful of amazing female leaders in my organization, and I have spent a good amount of time with them. One of them has become a huge advocate for me. She helps uplift me, and she keeps me grounded at the same time. She tells me things that I need to fix and things that will continue to help me grow as an individual.
SMITH: But I think the unique challenge is in those companies and/or industries that aren’t acknowledging that it’s still difficult. We’re actually still living in a world where it’s not acknowledged that the challenges are different. So, I feel really glad to be working for a company that is doing whatever it can to ensure that my voice and others are heard, and that we have a huge ecosystem of partners that we work with to either execute our events or who help us sell our products that believe the same.
Annual reports like McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org’s Women in the Workplace 2022 again explores the invisible work women often take on in the workplace. Does this resonate with you, and what is the invisible work that women often do in events?
REILLY: I often joke that we are babysitters, magicians and therapists, and all of the things, and some days we’re anything but an event producer. But I think ultimately the true invisible work is the caring for people that we do. I find that that is core to every aspect of how we approach events is thinking about everything, from what’s going to be the best experience for our participants, whether those are attendees or speakers or vendors, to what food people are going to want to eat, and do they have dietary restrictions, and what time are people arriving, and are they going to be hungry or tired. The truly invisible work is just caring.
JACKSON: Whether it’s with internal execs who want you to kind of hold their hand through the process and let them know everything is going to be OK, or with minor details on-site—i.e., adding signage to the restrooms because you know that people need that extra sense of security. I don’t know if it’s a woman’s intuition thing, but a lot of what we do outside of problem solving and being quick on our feet is thinking about people and finding a soft spot between being an empathetic partner, but also knowing when and where to draw the line with assertiveness.
PULVER: You do end up being the person who really has to take into consideration where peoples’ minds are at, their feelings, their emotions. I always say the biggest risk to any project is the people because they are the ones working, it’s not machines, we’re not running robots—even though, yes, there’s a component of that sometimes. But people may have something else going on in their lives and they’re off focus. They don’t understand why you’re asking them to do something. You have to be the person that’s the ultimate collaborator. Getting everybody to be on schedule, moving on or toward the same path. It’s exhausting to be a motivator, an empath and a leader.
“I think our industry had a real moment of reimagining, but also of self-reflection in terms of what it is that we do. The pressure is higher to deliver strong programming and exciting, flashy things.”
PENHALL: I always tell my team or try to give them the advice—and I got this advice as I was moving up through my career—don’t raise your hand when they ask for administrative things to be done when you’re a part of a cross-functional team. I had a boss who told me, “Don’t be the first one to raise your hand to take notes in a meeting because they typically look for a woman to volunteer.” I was very conscientious about that with my direct reports, who were both men and women, so we always rotated who took notes. It’s one of those things where women want to be helpers, it’s our nature and some of our personality, but it doesn’t always advance your skills, career or how you’re perceived. You have to be thoughtful about how much you take on and make sure you’re not always raising your hand for lower-value work.
MCLEMORE: There are always people who are doing that silent work, staying up until 4 a.m. doing the spreadsheets, making sure that the caterer actually is going to be there, and still have their own workstream. That is the silent work that is always done, and people show up acknowledging how amazing everything turned out, but they don’t know what really went into making the event happen. This work is not counted into the budget and is crucial to the success of events.
One of the aftershocks of burnout has been quiet quitting. What are some of the ways organizations can overcome these issues?
SMITH: The thing that we can do is to listen to people and how they want to work and how they will work best. Because a lot of companies are not providing flexibility for new parents or flexibility for those who might have an accessibility need and just aren’t just providing a space for psychological safety. Just like we do for our customers, meeting people where they are and how they’ll work the best, companies must do the same. And as a woman, we are more empathetic than others. There’s science behind that. If we can be the ones to help evangelize and lead with that empathy, we can be a great voice and help create a better workplace.
MCLEMORE: Prioritization is the No. 1 thing you can stress with your team. Everyone who emails you feels like that’s the most important thing. You have to have the discernment to assess and rate if that email is a three, a one or a 10. I don’t care if they’ve emailed you 15 times; don’t stray from your course. You have to tell yourself and your team what is and is not important. Everyone wants to be great at their job, they want everyone to like them, they want to do the right thing, but you can’t let people distract you from what you have to do when you need to do it. And that’s how you get burned out by trying to please everyone. You can’t please everyone; you have to make choices. I live by: It’s not a “no,” but a “not right now.”
CHENG: It’s tougher for women because that relationship burden kind of falls on us, and I think it’s harder for women to say “no” and to push back because we are more concerned about maintaining the relationship. I know for me personally, that’s something that I struggle with, especially if they’re continuing to push me to say “yes.” And then I feel the need to cave. I actually read a book about it called “The Power of a Positive No,” and it’s pretty much all about how you effectively say “no” to something while still maintaining the relationship.
YOKED: There’s a difference between saying “no” to people who are your peers and below you, and then it’s a different skill set to know how to say “no” to those who are above you. When things come from the top and they are a No. 1 priority, an immediate need, and you’re already working on 10,000 other priorities, it’s about effectively saying, “Here’s what I’m working on right now. Here’s how I have prioritized it. Do you see this differently? If you would like for me to reprioritize, I’m happy to do so. But then X, Y and Z are not going to be done until then.” You are kind of putting the power on them. Step into my shoes. Let’s be in this together. You tell me what you want me to do, and then I’ll do it instead of just saying “yes.” That’s been effective. And I actually started sharing that technique with my team, and I’ve been seeing them actively do it.
KEHOE: I came from an age where I stayed at work almost every night till 10 o’clock in my twenties and thirties. I sat in a hallway, and I had to get my boss coffee in the morning. And I had to pick up her laundry from the dry cleaner on the lot. I had to do all these things that in a million years I would never ask anyone on my team to do now because it would just not be part of their job description. It’s different now. And what I try to do is give people a sense of ownership when I ask them to go the extra mile, to help them see the big picture. Once people feel invested, they want things to be successful in a different way, and they’re going to work harder for you as a manager and for the brand if they believe that they have a significant role to play.
Let’s turn to ambitions. How can we help define and build long-term career paths for women from events into other spheres and leadership roles within a company?
HAMMETT: Because so much of the events industry is made up of women, I think people wrongfully assume that “we’re good.” There is no ceiling for us because, obviously, it’s all women. At the end of the day, though, the people on the planning calls and the people doing the work on the events are predominantly female, but the people who are approving the budget for the events are predominantly male.
As we’re thinking about closing the gap between events and the c-suite or leadership versus the events team, it’s about finding advocates, male or female, who will help to make sure that when those presentations are being made to the executives to make a decision on something, that someone who’s actually on the events team is in the room. I’ve found so often someone who knows nothing about events is presenting the strategic plan for you. This unfortunately ends up creating more work, and creates less visibility for the collective events team and the planning that goes into it.
PULVER: I think about it from a couple of layers. The first is fighting for titles that actually signify what we’re doing. The first thing that walks into a room before you do is somebody’s title. The second is encouraging those who work above us to more deeply understand our strategic thinking. We are often very quick to answer all the questions in that moment, and walk them through every detail, as opposed to treating them as they would approach their work: If I’m going to think of myself as a product manager, what do I need to communicate to my stakeholders? We have to set up really good rituals to inform and communicate early on, that way we can control the conversation so stakeholders start seeing us differently.
“Coming back to live after virtual, there is still a default to how we did events in 2019 and following the structure that everyone knows and is comfortable with. But a big part of our job is still pushing people out of their comfort zones to do something a little bit different. And maybe you change one thing. Then maybe next year we can change another thing.”
PATEL: I think it is important to select a career and a company that will support our career goals. I am going to use two examples. At the previous companies I worked at, I loved every aspect of my job. When it came time for me to grow and have a leadership role and move up the ladder, there was no room for it. And it was because the company itself was never on a path to allow the events business to grow. Now, in my current role, I took the time to understand the company values, what the leadership team looks like, what the growth plans are, and are events and experiential marketing a big part of their company—and do they invest in it? So, I think it’s important for us to not only be interviewed when we’re going into a company, but also be an interviewer and ask them questions that will allow us to select the company that we want to work with.
SMITH: I believe so strongly about this as someone who thinks strategically and is a bit of a dreamer that actually there is a huge opportunity for us wherever we work, whatever industry we’re faced with, because we are creators of experiences that drive audiences to take action. I recently wrote a thought leadership piece called, “The Painted Picture: The Experiential Marketer’s Future,” and in that I talk about how when you think about h.r. function at any company and how difficult it is to acquire and retain employees in today’s world, that’s about creating amazing experiences, right? When you think about a technology company signing strategic partnerships that help their products land in enterprise companies and scale, that’s about creating amazing experiences.
So, if at the core we are subject matter experts around that, we actually have a huge seat across the entire enterprise to be an expert, to drive experiences that drive audiences, to retain employees, to make channel partners really successful, and so on. It has landed very well at my company, so much so that I now have an h.r. function that I’m helping provide support to. I now have a seat when talking about the channel relationships and strategic partnerships, so much that I probably need to build a cross-functional team to support this. But now that we’re building that momentum, that’s the only thing on my mind: How do we scale this?
What does it mean to be a creative and innovative experiential marketer today?
YOKED: The No. 1 thing for me as an experiential marketer for a brand or for a company is know your strategic objectives as a business and know your strategic objectives for the brands. Be very clear with what those are. What is going to help you grow? Where are the consumers you’re trying to reach? Then be super informed on what’s happening in culture and in life and what’s captivating people. Find a way to make those things work together, and when you can, it’s magic.
PATEL: The landscape has changed significantly in the last few years. Today we are able to capture and engage virtually anyone, which in turn pushes the industry to be more creative. Previously it used to be only in live events, and now we have this opportunity to foster connections with our audience through different avenues such as sponsored webinar sessions and interactive virtual experiences. This has opened an immense number of opportunities that allows us to deepen our connections with our audience.
JACKSON: Knowing that good ideas need good contingency planning. Contingency is your best friend. Whenever I’m producing, I’m building against the full scope with funding at the very top of mind. Especially in today’s age, and COVID pricing being so insane, people aren’t thinking about the increase in fees, especially if something is last-minute, which it usually is. If something needs to be redone, that’s extra fees. It’s the ability to pick and choose, and find that happy medium if we don’t have budget, or to pivot. COVID was terrible, but I feel like it did open up another part for me in my flexibility and finding ways to be creative against budgets and still managing to bring things to life.
PULVER: It’s being thoughtful about what we’re trying to do and where we want to spend our energy, money, time, whatever. And then asking ourselves, “How is this making something that exists better?” On the one hand, it’s getting people to believe in the dream and the thing that you’re trying to do and considering how those things can transpire realistically, but then also saying, “Hey, we really think that this is going to be the most impactful thing that we can do, and so let’s sink all of our energies into that and here’s why.” Coming out of COVID, we all think differently about things and whether we’re doing it because we’ve always done it. Now it’s what could we really do here that gives us the most meaningful bang for our buck.
PENHALL: I get inspiration just by watching shows, other productions, the Oscars, all those other events and look at how they do things, how they design things, how they organize, how they deliver content in creative ways. How can I apply that to this experience or that event? It gives you inspiration all the time.
HAMMETT: Coming back to live after virtual, there is still a default to how we did events in 2019 and following the structure that everyone knows and is comfortable with. But a big part of our job is still pushing people out of their comfort zones to do something a little bit different. And maybe you change one thing. Then maybe next year we can change another thing.
“A lot of what we do outside of problem solving and being quick on our feet is thinking about people and finding a soft spot between being an empathetic partner, but also knowing when and where to draw the line with assertiveness.”
KEHOE: It’s about continuing to learn, first. Back in the day, we used to be able to throw down some great food, and we would have a dj and host a good “party,” and then we didn’t measure it. We’d ask ourselves, “How is the event?” And we’d say, “People had so much fun.” That was it. The entertainment landscape is changing. But one of the things that hasn’t changed, and is true of event marketers, is that we’re thoughtful. We comb through scripts, watch episodes and take notes of moments we can recreate. We think through the logistics. I was so excited by the tweets about how organized our lines were for Comic-Con. We listen and we learn, and instant responses like that are why we do what we do.
REILLY: Listening to what our clients are actually asking for, listening to what the people really want, and understanding goals so that you are building something with a known outcome that you can measure against. There were a lot of events that we previously would do that our clients really wanted us to do, and we weren’t sure if it would work, or we weren’t sure if there was an audience for it. And I think we are much smarter now, because we are a little bit more conscious of not only our own budgets, but our clients’ budgets and making sure that we’re putting the dollars to good use, making strong recommendations, and really being consultative with our clients.
SMITH: We need to get super focused on doing activities that are going to provide the best results. We used to, as event marketers, especially in tech, think about how can we outproduce the big tech event that happened three months ago. How can ours be better? I remember looking at a Dreamforce and being like, “Oh, they had such and such, and their media package was amazing.” Or watching Adobe Max and thinking, “Oh, the design elements—how can I do that better?” We have to stop trying to do so many things and get super focused on the things that are going to provide the best results.
I can tell you there’s a single webinar in my portfolio that last year drove 23,000 conversions in one 30-minute video to expand product. So, we should do more webinars. We get tired of them, yes. But, my goodness, if there’s a segment of audiences that really like them, why aren’t we doing more of that? It was a technical deep dive on a product. People loved it. It helped them expand usage within their current business, which is exactly the purpose of what we’re trying to accomplish. So, we didn’t need to do some other sexy thing, we needed to do that thing because it worked.
What do you hope for the next generation of women who come into events and experiential?
HAMMETT: For more women to be in technical positions in the world that we live in. Most of the technical lead operational positions are still held by men. And I would just love to see more women introduced to that as an opportunity in this industry and be trained in it. The second thing I would love, and the day this happens we’ll have some expensive champagne, is to be in a planning meeting where we realize that every person that’s speaking on stage is a woman and everyone’s trying to figure out a qualified man to get on stage “for visibility.” Imagine what that would feel like.
CHENG: I think in general, there are too many people who hate their jobs in the world. I really enjoy what I do. For me personally, I kind of took a circuitous path to get to this point because I think I was trying to do what I thought people wanted me to do or what I thought was going to be more prestigious. I always enjoyed marketing, but I thought I needed to do finance because marketing was just too fluffy. I wish I had trusted my instincts more so that I could have gone into what I really wanted to do earlier on instead of taking this kind of roundabout path. I eventually got there. But I feel like a lot of people probably still struggle with that—not knowing what they want to do or second guessing themselves or going into a direction because their parents want them to or how their peers view them, versus trusting what’s within them.
PENHALL: I had younger teammates that worked in my organization, and they weren’t quite sure that they wanted to fully commit to an event role. And so, I said, “OK, why don’t we do like a little micro rotation? I will put you on this project with the event team so that you get steeped in what it takes to pull together this whole experience. Then you can feel if it’s your passion point.” It wasn’t fully committing to a role change, but it gave individuals an opportunity to try a job rotation and determine if they wanted to pursue it full time. If we can try on a dress before we buy it, why can’t we give a job a trial run?
JACKSON: That the women behind the scenes are acknowledged directly and that we continue to send the elevator down to the many women to follow for the opportunity to be recognized for their hard work and efforts. I also hope that there is a larger emphasis placed on the importance of mental health and the well-being of event professionals. Event planning is noted as the fifth most stressful job in the world and is a profession that can take a toll on you physically and mentally if you don’t make yourself a priority.
PULVER: I would love to see more women standing up for themselves and pushing for higher places in organizations. I would love to see that reciprocated from those in roles who can make it happen. And a real recognition of not only the hard work that goes into it, I think a lot of people understand that these events, especially if they go through one, are hard work—but actually valuing that and putting women in positions and giving them opportunities to do more and contribute at a higher level. This role requires us to be master problem solvers and creative thinkers. It means we can lean in at so many directions in a company.
REILLY: Everyone right now is craving something new. I hear all the time, “Show us a big idea, something never been done before—but show us an example of how it worked.” I hope the next generation finds the safe places where they can take calculated risks.