Elevating Services at Very Beginning of Event Career

UNLV Hospitality Student Falls in Love with Services at ESPA Conference

Aloha! My name is Marijka Iha and I am a senior at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) Hospitality College. I was honored to earn the Donald S. Freeman Jr. ESPA Conference Scholarship to attend Elevate with ESPA 2020 in the beautiful city of Denver, Colorado.

I was immediately excited by the prospect of getting involved in an association that was focused on the services side of meetings and events. I wanted to meet people who were as excited about events as I was, and I saw the ESPA conference as a great way to connect with like-minded people. With help from my mentor and an amazing professor at UNLV, Todd Uglow and the generosity of Freeman, I was able to make it to the mile-high city.

In my classes, we skimmed over the roles of event service professionals, so at the conference I was able to gain a deeper understanding of who makes up the services industry and why they are so important to the success of events. It was a surreal experience that allowed me to interact with passionate service professionals in a well worthy industry.

The idea of networking with professionals in the industry was intimidating to me at first. I felt that I had nothing to give back in the conversation and was nervous about initiating contact. In reality, it was really easy to go up and start talking with people throughout the whole conference. I guess I should have figured that all individuals that are a part of ESPA are, first and foremost, in the hospitality industry and thus genuinely nice and enthusiastic people. It felt as if everyone was welcoming me with open arms.

The Newcomer Reception was the perfect ice breaker and introduction to the conference. With flowing wine, new attendees broke through their nerves together and got excited about the rest of the conference.

Attendees had the opportunity to chat with a board member or get to know a fellow newcomer and learn more about their city. We were given little cards with line of a popular song at the beginning of the reception that were used as a part of a networking game to find and link up with other individuals that shared lyrics to the same song.

I thought this was a fun way to get members talking with each other because it gave them a purpose to take an initiative and ask each other questions, plus who does love songs like “Rocky Mountain High” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” which fit perfectly with the aesthetic of Denver. By the time we joined the general welcoming reception, all the newcomers were having a great time and were eased into the conference.

While networking was a large part of the conference, one of the most rewarding parts was the educational opportunities. Every session and keynote were chosen in order to empower and educate the conference attendees. I definitely felt an “ah-ha” moment when listening to each and every speaker that pushed me to be better in both my personal and professional life.

Conferences are a huge part in how you can be a lifelong learner after school. It’s like a taking a specialized crash course in an industry you are passionate about, which is what I loved about the ESPA conference.

We listened to Melanie Spring, a motivational speaker who specializes in leading with confidence and Dean Savoca, Savoca Performance Group, who both specialized in self-development. They taught us that in order to be better leaders and team members, we needed to analyze ourselves and be aware of our actions and limits. With awareness comes the power to focus our attention and energy into more positive and productive outcomes.

I really appreciated how ESPA also choose individuals who could elevate attendees to a higher level of thinking regarding events. Annette Gregg, senior vice president, experience from Meeting Professionals International (MPI) and Tom Povich, divisional vice president, venues from PSAV, led general sessions on the last day of the conference that were focused on the user experience and how to engage guests in an authentic manner.

Events have become one of the last ways in this technology driven society to interact with other individuals face-to-face. As event professionals, we can increase attendance, interest, and meaning when we provide authentic and personal experiences for individuals to participate in.

I felt really engaged in the conference were during the mobile workshops and roundtable discussions.

At the mobile workshops, attendees were split into different groups and walked to a different location in order to experience a new venue. I attended the Denver Maker’s workshop and I was able to go to one of Denver’s oldest breweries to listen about how Visit Denver works with their partners. It was refreshing to be able to walk outside with a partner and experience the beauty of downtown Denver together.

For the roundtable discussions, groups were separated by hotel, convention center and convention and visitors bureau (CVB) budget where they had a guided discussions regarding attendee-submitted questions. Individuals from organizations with similar sizes were able to compare and spark ideas through sharing their own strategies and struggles. While I did not contribute to the conversations myself, it was fascinating to watch how ESPA encourages the growth of the service industry through their members.

The conference ended on the highest of notes with Judson Laipply, an inspirational comedian, hwo perfectly summed up the theme and tone of the conference.

Overall, the ESPA conference was an eye-opening experience into the services industry. I am so grateful that I was able to meet such warm and intelligent people, who were quick to offer me guidance in my future as an event professional.

ESPA is a wonderful association whose members are not just focused on their own success but also on helping each other by sharing experiences and information for the betterment of all events nationwide. I take with me the knowledge that the event service professionals are smart and welcoming individuals who are focused on successfully elevating their communities and client experiences one event at a time.

Career Choices: Why Event Services Pros Are Never Bored

If you are looking for a new career, don’t overlook the opportunity to become an event service professional.

You love meeting new people? Good.

Paying attention to the littlest detail doesn’t frustrate you? Great.

Allergic to desk jobs? Wow, you should probably join now.

But if you’d like a little more background on this exciting career choice, keep reading.

An event service professional is an in-house person at a hotel, convention center or convention and visitors bureau who works through all the logistics of an event with a meeting planner to magically bring it to life after the sales team closes the sale. They are well educated, resourceful and highly skilled problem solvers.

Many event service professionals have college degrees, Masters degrees or advanced certifications, such as the certified meeting planner (CMP). ESPA offers events industry education for students with Freeman, a leading provider of integrated services for experiential marketing, specializing in event marketing and management, with its Donald S. Freeman Jr. Conference Scholarship, which enables a hospitality student to attend its Annual Conference on a scholarship reward.

Part of the multibillion-dollar meetings industry, event services is a dynamic, ever-changing, fast-paced career.

Business events in North America generated $221.6 billion in direct GDP, representing 35.7% of global business events GDP, according to the Global Economic Significance of Business Events report compiled by the Events Industry Council. North America is also the largest market in terms of event-related employment, with 3.2 million direct jobs.

The Event Services Professionals Association recently conducted a Q&A session with top event service professionals within the field to learn what they love about the profession, how they got into it and what they wish they knew back then.

What do you love most about your job/being in event services?

Jamie Huckleberry, ESPA president and director of event services, David L. Lawrence Convention Center and Amy Cabe, immediate past president of ESPA and director of destination services, Visit Spokane.

Amy Cabe, immediate past president of ESPA and director of destination services, Visit Spokane: I have an opportunity to link convention clients with our region’s resources. Doing that well requires me to really know what’s available here. That means visiting attractions, going on tours, testing our hiking trails and talking with the people who operate businesses here. It also means following the local news and attending events. I get to be the explorer I want to be!

Jamie Huckleberry, ESPA president and director of event services, David L. Lawrence Convention Center: I am not a desk person and love that running events gets me away from my desk, allowing me to interact with many different people on many different levels. Each event is different, providing me with different experiences. This job, while it has some redundancy in the day-to-day needs of how conventions operate, is not stagnant and is truly ever-changing because each event has its own unique needs that keep things fresh and new.

Julie Brakenbury, CGSP®, ESPA first vice president and director of services, Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau: I love that my days at work are never ever boring, and no two days are alike (actually some days I wish were a little “boring” but it never happens). I’ve learned through the years that I love changes of pace, problem-solving and working with many varieties of people, planners and partners. I feel blessed to be in this profession.

Denise Reid, ESPA director and event planning manager, Hyatt Centric French Quarter New Orleans: One of the most gratifying things that I enjoy about being an event service manager is witnessing the entire program come to fruition. From the initial event ideas as listed on a sales contract all the way to the conclusion of a successful conference, it is rewarding to see my client’s satisfaction on full display once the vision outlined on event orders have been flawlessly executed. I also enjoy navigating the economic side of event planning with clients who think they cannot afford an upgraded menu or don’t have sponsorship for additional conference details. What a treasure it is to reflect with meeting planners at the conclusion of their conference that scaling back on one area provided more revenue for another which heightened the experience for the attendees.

Why did you choose event services for your career path?

Cabe: For me, it happened by chance. I moved to Spokane without a job and with a background in newspaper work, I hoped to find a job in writing or wordsmithing. The advertised position that most intrigued me was a convention sales job at the then-Spokane Regional CVB. Though I had no background in sales, this was an opportunity to market the region, which sounded fun. I’ve always been an explorer, so the idea of knowing a community’s assets and capitalizing on them appealed to me. Showing people the area sounded like a neat gig.

After three years in sales, I jumped to event services because there seemed to be an even greater potential to work with community members and connect them to the financial opportunities presented through conventions. I relish the opportunity to broker connections that generate economic prosperity.

Huckleberry: I went into my college major thinking I would run events at a resort. While doing a job-shadow experience at Disney, I got to watch an event manager in action at the Contemporary Resort and immediately fell in love with conventions and all that goes into running one. The industry is fun; its hospitality. I like helping people and having an opportunity to help create positive experiences for others, which in turn makes me happy.

Julie Brakenbury, CGSP®, ESPA first vice president and director of services, Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau

Brakenberry: I’m not sure I chose it so much as it chose me. I was headed in a totally different direction and circumstance led me to a hospitality job. I fell in love with the events and hospitality world as a result of that first job and haven’t looked back or in another direction since.

Reid: I chose a career in event planning because my first job after college was working at the front desk of the Sheraton New Orleans. There was a convention services manager who would always come to the front desk to check on her VIPs during arrivals and she appeared to have “it all together!” She would get keys to the VIP suites, check the welcome amenities, confirm meeting planner transportation and she dressed like she was going to a fashion show every day. I admired her attention to the details that were included in her group resumes about the meeting planner’s birthday, hobbies, favorite sports team, family life, etc. One day I got the nerve to inquire about her job duties and she encouraged me to apply for a CSM opening that had become available. It was nineteen years ago when I received the promotion that would project me to a career that still challenges me to be the best event professional for my clients and I am still learning.

What piece of advice would you give your younger self about the event services business, besides comfortable, supportive shoes?

Cabe: Patience will come in handy.

Huckleberry: Everybody makes mistakes and when you do, don’t beat yourself up about it; take the opportunity to learn from it. And yes – wear comfortable shoes!

Brakenberry: To take better care of myself physically and to give myself good mental breaks.  You must love this work, otherwise, the long hours and fast pace will take its toll. I’ve been doing this almost 25 years now, and I think it took me to year 23 to realize that I actually perform better if I’m rested, healthy and (at least somewhat) in a peaceful mindset.

Reid: The one pearl of wisdom that I would tell my younger self is not to take everything in life so seriously. I would say to take time to create professional memories that allow for reflection and opportunities to grow. So what if you forgot to order the speaker’s Kosher meal or didn’t change the event order from Caesar to garden salad for a 1,000-person lunch? Oops-it’s called service recovery!

What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?

Cabe: Find people who do a good job. Watch them, talk with them and learn from them.

Huckleberry: Communication is key. I wish I would have been better about the work-life balance and communicating those needs. I missed out on a few important life events because I did not take advantage of the team I was working with and understand that if we all work together, we can all find a better-balanced life.

Brakenberry: That I can do everything for an event perfectly, but something out of my control can happen and there will be nothing I can do to change that it happened, except react to it and move on.  I can’t control everything. As event professionals we certainly try, but I’m finally realizing that part of my skill set is and has to be assessing a situation, revising and moving on. You can’t dilly dally. In football, it’s called “drop back and punt,” in the events world it’s “get a grip and move on.”

Denise Reid, ESPA director and event planning manager, Hyatt Centric French Quarter New Orleans

Reid: I wish that I had known the value of membership in a professional organization of my peers like ESPA or ACOM as it was named when I first joined the industry. The comradery developed over the years as an ESPA member has been a trajectory for the event professional that I strive to improve upon every day.



Winning Event Teams Begin with Sales, Service Synergy

So how does your event team specifically win the 2020 Republican National Convention?

The short answer: the sales team and the service team must play well together.

And that can be tricky. Let’s face it, the sales team cares about the numbers and the service team cares about delivering outstanding customer service throughout the length of the contract, which can be several years.

In other words, the event services team is the face of their properties, working with clients and rebooking business, which is why they need to be an integral part of the sales cycle from the beginning.

The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority understands. Their sales and service teams started courting the Republican National Committee years in advance to secure the 2020 national convention.

The sales and service teams assembled an epic site visit for the delegates, from scheduling greeters to meet the visitors at the airport before they got to their transportation, to custom welcome letters from elected officials, to securing an exclusive meal at Bank of America headquarters and a visit to the Charlotte Motor Speedway. From their extensive knowledge of the area, the sales and service teams together carefully crafted an agenda to showcase the city and the entire region.

“Every movement was on key.  They knew that we knew what we were doing,” said Beth Butler, director of destination services, Visit Charlotte.

‘They Saw Collaboration’

“The leadership could not stop talking about how impressed they were that the region and the city of Charlotte wanted their business,” said Ned Blair, senior national sales manager, Visit Charlotte. “They saw the collaboration, not just at the business level and leadership level, but within our office and within all the different components. They knew by the end of that visit that Charlotte wanted their business.”

This level of teamwork helped the city of Charlotte secure the bid for the 2020 Republican Convention., the so-called “Superbowl of meetings.”

“I call it buying confidence,” said Blair. “When a customer comes into your hotel, they are going to meet the general manager, the executive chef and housekeeping. They are meeting everyone that is going to touch that piece of business. There’s no reason you can’t do that for a destination. The more people they meet within the destination, as well as within each hotel if they are doing a city-wide, is going to make them more comfortable and confident in moving forward. That collaborative effort is what you are going to do to win [the business.] When we collaborate and work together, we will win the opportunities, or we will make it darn difficult for them not to come to Charlotte.”

Sales and service together made the case for tourism in Charlotte, which helps the service professionals. “Now there is this recognition of the value of tourism with the recruitment of major events like the RNC and many sporting events that tourism here is valuable,” said Butler. “I really think it starts with advocacy and it is something as simple as a tourism fact sheet and making sure our partners in tourism are armed with the numbers of how many tax dollars our residents saved because of tourism and how many jobs it impacts.”

Bringing Sales and Service Together

Bringing sales and service together needs to be done intentionally. At Visit KC headquarters, the sales team was on one floor and the services team was on a different one. However, they rearranged to sit next to each other so they could develop closer relationships and work together on the front end of each sale.

When selling a destination, it is critical that the sales team bring the services team in from the beginning. This way the potential client can meet their service professional at the beginning and the relationship can develop at the start of the event sale.

The services team also can be an invaluable resource for the sales team.

In hotels and convention centers, service managers know how set ups will work, can speak more thoroughly on catering, function rooms, accessibility and other questions planners may have during a site visit. At CVB’s, service professionals recommend restaurants, tours, transportation and more that will be useful to the client while they are in town. The service professional needs to have their finger on the pulse of the city and know which vendors they can recommend to the client. These recommendations all have an impact on the client’s experience and impression of the destination, which impacts return business.

Without guidance from the services team, the sales team can oversell or overpromise, which leaves the service team scrambling to figure out how they are going to meet the deliverables of the contract with the resources available to them.

When services are involved from the beginning of the sales cycle, clients meet the services team who offer education to the client at the beginning of the process to manage expectations from the start. This way, the client, sales and service are all on the same page from the start.

“You think about your relationships with your co-workers and everyone you have to work with,” said Blair. “You work to build those relationships ahead of time and you do things together ahead of time [ahead of a big event] so when you find yourself fighting on another front on another day, you’ve got a relationship to pull from. You’ve got a family.”

CSMs Work Meeting Magic

Convention Services Manager – Event visionary, Destination guru, Client Experience master, Housing specialist, Catering consultant.

All have similar job descriptions, and all are involved in working on events ensuring meeting planners needs are met. All of them are event service pros.

So, what exactly is an event service professional?

They are the in-house person at a hotel, convention center or convention and visitors bureau who works through all the logistics of an event with a meeting planner, to magically bring it to life after the sales team closes the sale. They are highly educated, resourceful and highly skilled problem solvers.

Prior to the event date, they coordinate the set-ups, the food and beverage, audio visual and outside vendors to bring together all event elements on time and on budget.

With their deep local knowledge, event service professionals also offer creative ideas and themes for events. Services may include ways to reduce waste, logistics plans with local vendors to help attendees navigate a destination and working with area resources to develop custom programs that engage and excite attendees while showcasing culture and attractions.

Event service professionals are also on-site during the event, working with the meeting planner as their partner and lifeline on daily logistics, ensuring all needs are met and assisting to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible.

Big Picture Impact

The work the event service professional does directly impacts return business to a site. They are the individual providing service to the meeting planner long-term and in contact with them regularly. They have a significant effect on meeting planner satisfaction, which ultimately impacts revenue and growth in ways other than direct sales.

In an event services survey conducted by the Event Service Professionals Association (ESPA), most meeting planners said the quality of convention/event services greatly impacts whether they would bring their business back to the venue. In addition, most indicate the quality of service provided by event service professionals greatly affects their perception of a hotel, convention center or CVB.

If a planner had a wonderful experience at a destination, they will share that with their peers, which leads to referrals. Referrals are another tool to measure an event service professional’s success and contribution to business results.

Post-Event Survey – Tell us all about it!

Event service professionals use data from post-event surveys from meeting planners to improve their service.

Survey responses give a good indication of the service satisfaction level as scored by clients. For example, managers may have a goal of achieving an 85 percent or higher score to show they performed well.

This kind of feedback from meeting planners can improve service, operations and the destination overall. Hearing comments from planners is valuable to all parties – from the hotel or Convention Center to a destination’s outside partners, as it measures how effectively all aspects of a destination work together to ensure client delight and return business.

Survey responses from planners, who more often have a very powerful voice since they are the customer, are also instrumental when facilities are considering decisions such as capital improvement projects or changing staffing levels.

Opinions on elements such as transportation, restaurant and retail can be evaluated for performance and value to the planner’s attendee experience, so they know what they are doing is working—or isn’t.

The Value of Services

Services professionals in a destination or venue work hard to make a meeting planner shine.  Tap into these great resources.  Ultimately the value they bring can have an impact on a meeting planner’s own event survey as the planner / services partnership helps to ensure a well-run event.  Services professionals also bring direct value to their CVBs, Hotels and Centers, and to showcase this, ESPA recently developed ROI of the Event Service Professional: ESPA’s Guide to Showcasing the Impact and Value of Event Service.

Download a copy and learn more about ESPA.

How Do You Measure Event Services Success?

Events are expensive, time-consuming and full of to-dos. But your services team makes coordinating event details seem easy and you do it without breaking a sweat.  From corporate meetings and events to conferences and workshops—you know the small things do matter. Your energy is contagious. You thrive in a fast-paced setting. Unexpected problems are not an issue for you—you solve them with creativity and ease.

But quantifying the value of event services is difficult.  It sometimes seems like flawless events get less attention than those plagued by service issues. And can you really measure the value of making people “happy?”

The answer is a resounding YES.

It’s what led the Event Service Professionals Association (ESPA) to launch the first-of-its-kind industry guide, ROI of the Event Service Professional: ESPA’s Guide to Showcasing the Impact and Value of Event Service. The free online resource is designed to showcase your expertise and help you articulate the value of your profession in a quantitative way.

ESPA’s guide puts methods of measurement behind the hard work of event service professionals—providing a full list of ideas for curating data and analyzing metrics to raise awareness about the important role a services team plays. It also reinforces the importance of the post-event survey and the role it plays to help improve and rebook business.

“Research has shown that event service professionals have a significant impact on event success, but historically most of us struggled with how to show and prove that value,” said Julie Brakenbury, director of services at Visit Raleigh and a member of the ESPA Board.

“Services is such a critical component of the events industry,” Brakenbury continued. “Organizations, venues, hotels all spend significant money marketing and selling to book events. If those events aren’t serviced well, attendees don’t return and we spend even more money to market, sell and book more events. But if events are serviced well, groups and their attendees come back again and again. Showing the value of services so that we can have appropriate funding and resources in place is the smartest money our organizations can spend.”

ESPA’s guide offers suggestions for measuring ROI depending on whether the event service professional works for a Convention & Visitors’ Bureau (CVB) or Convention Center / Hotel. For example:

  • CVB employees can use a myriad of measurements ranging from the post-event survey, repeat bookings through the Services team, measuring the economic impact of serviced events, staffing services provided, collecting testimonials and tracking hits to business partner websites.
  • Convention center and hotel employees might similarly use client surveys, but also total room nights, contracted vs. actual food and beverage consumption, referrals from existing and repeat groups, ancillary revenue (audio visual, for example) and effective management of expense budgets.

Members of ESPA had been discussing for years the dilemma of how to showcase the value of event service professionals. Talk soon turned to action.

“Other organizations have studied event trends, ROI, metrics for event performance and event sales performance, but no other organization has created and documented metrics for event services performance,” Brakenbury said. “If it weren’t for ESPA, it would not get done. It’s one of the best advocacy efforts we could accomplish for our profession.”

For 30 years, ESPA has been the only association and voice representing event service professionals from CVBs, hotels and convention centers across North America. The organization is dedicated to elevating the event and convention services profession and to preparing members, through education and networking, for their pivotal role in innovative and successful event execution.

For more information about ESPA, visit espaonline.org.