Once the booths are set up, passes distributed, security deployed, and the conference attendees have arrived, Phyllis Olson will become an anonymous face, surrounded by nearly 2,300 representatives of 200 organizations. After five years of preparations, the trade show will likely come off without a hitch. But these things don't just happen on their own. As an event planner for WorldatWork, an association of compensation, benefits, and human resources professionals, Olson is responsible for putting together the annual industry trade show. She is the woman behind the curtain - and right now things are hectic back there.
The Countdown Begins Five Years in Advance
Arranging a large conference involves its share of juggling. The process begins a whopping five years in advance, when Olson secures a site for the conference. She coordinates the design of the floor plan, the pricing of the booths, inspection of the facility, signage in the exhibit hall, distribution and allocation of booth space, and finally the delivery and set up of those booths. "Because we are in the midst of final preparations for our annual conference...there are endless last-minute details to deal with," she said.
Olson's job requires tying a lot of loose ends, but the payoff is huge. "It amazes me every year that what looks like a tornado alley in the exhibit hall as the freight is brought in, uncrated, and set up, turns into a work of art prior to the show opening," she said.
Once the venue has been secured, the actual planning of the event begins about a year in advance of the big show. Throughout the year, Olson remains in constant contact with the exhibitors, hitting them with all the details as the planning unfolds. Her work isn't made any easier by the fact that, by her estimates, nearly 40 percent of the exhibitors don't meet the necessary deadlines. Fortunately, when this happens, Olson said she can tap into her alter-ego as an "exhibition forms nag," giving her the added opportunity to get to know the exhibitors individually.
No Feedback Can Be Good Feedback
When smoothly run, these conferences help people in the same industry meet one another. Hot issues are discussed by professionals at the top of their game, and practical solutions are sought for current industry problems. The conference provides invaluable networking opportunities for everyone involved and creates a prime environment for business deals. Whether they know it or not, everyone in attendance has Olson to thank for pulling them together. It's when they don't notice her that she knows she's done a good job.
Yet, no matter how successfully a trade show comes off, Olson said she often hears only the negative feedback - even when it has nothing to do with the actual substance of the conference she organized. "[I'm] constantly amazed at the complaints of the attendees - the coffee is too hot or too cold or too strong or too weak, too much food, not enough food, stale bagels. The rooms are too hot, too cold, hotel too far from the airport, hotel too far from downtown, hotel on the wrong side of town, or hotel room too small."
Despite often being pushed into the role of concierge, Olson said she does make every effort to accommodate and often surpass expectations of the vendors. She even plans an additional reception for exhibitors, where prize drawings are held. Vendors have been known to say that they are treated better at her show then any other.
Not Every Day is Super Bowl Sunday
But the day of the big conference is just the annual glory of an event planner's life. If there isn't a big show on the horizon, Olson's less glamorous daily tasks involve attending meetings, planning the details of smaller upcoming events, communicating with team members, and answering hordes of e-mail.
Olson has been with WorldatWork - formerly the American Compensation Association and Canadian - for 22 years. She got her initial exposure to event planning when she began as an assistant to the executive director for whom she planned board meetings. After establishing the company's customer service division, she figured she enjoyed the work enough to take a job as an event manager. She has since padded her credentials by obtaining her Certification in Meeting Planning (CMP).
Make Your Own Plans to Plan Events
To get into Olson's line of mega-event planning, it wouldn't hurt to pick up a college degree in hospitality, or get your feet wet with experience in association meeting planning. While it's always helpful to learn the ropes in a classroom, Olson recommended on-the-job training as the best way to learn to be creative in decision-making. For the uninitiated, she offered a few secret tricks of the trade. "Pray a lot," she said. "Expect the unexpected, maintain a sense of humor, assume any communications you send will not be read, be flexible, and treat everyone with respect no matter what the situation."
Once a planner gets to a point where she is in charge of larger and larger events, travel becomes an essential part of the job. Olson said she enjoys seeing places she otherwise would never have visited. She's worked with people in her industry from all over the country. She loves the rush, the sense of exhilaration and satisfaction she enjoys when she has planned yet another successful event. All of the work pays off when she is able to witness an event that she has successfully arranged.
Her only complaint about the job would be the "long hours and tired, aching feet" - this is clearly not a position for clock-watchers, or for that matter, stilletto-wearers. Though the pressure can be taxing, and at times overwhelming, she said, "managing the trade show portion of their annual conference is the very best part of the job!"
So if you live for the rush of deadlines and enjoy planning people's day, book a hotel, send out some e-mails...and dream on!