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Time Out! University Event Planners Need A Break

Time out! University events planners need a break! We’ve been running full tilt since early August managing everything from back-to-school events to football tailgating, reunions, ribbon cuttings, symposia, board meetings, celebrity speakers, fund-raising events, and miscellaneous other types of entertaining. We’ve got at least seven more event-packed weeks between now and holiday break crammed with commencement, concerts, and seasonal entertaining. It’s no wonder event planning is ranked by CBS News as the fifth most stressful occupation of 2018.

We just finished one of our signature events, the award-winning Girls Science and Engineering Day (gseduah.com) a fantastic program that introduces elementary girls to STEM. The day requires months of planning and preparation, inevitable long hours and maximum stress the week of the event as we strive to placate helicopter parents and ensure that students, presenters, and volunteers are all where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there with all of the tools they need for success.  We offer 24 workshops, enroll 550 girls, and manage it with two paid staff members and 289 volunteers. It’s all over in five hours. Girls Science and Engineering Day is always high-visibility and high-pressure to perform but there is usually a euphoria that happens on the back side as we bask in our success, enjoy the happiness of the girls and the great feedback from parents, presenters, and sponsors. This year, we missed that bounce because we were too exhausted to care. This is because Girls Science and Engineering Day was back-to-back with a major week-long symposium with no time to rest and rejuvenate. We are spent from giving our all for weeks on end. A tired, cranky staff means short tempers, errors, and poor attitudes. The opposite of everything we stand for.

As much as we could use one, a 10-day vacation is definitely not an option. But that is exactly what we need—time to take care of ourselves, tend to routine needs like paying bills and going to the grocery store and dry cleaner, seeing family and friends, and most of all, having time to indulge in the luxury of not having to be “on” for other people. No matter how much you love your job or how well you are compensated, eventually, each of us needs time to stop and relax our minds and refresh our bodies. How can we do this when there’s not a vacation in sight?

Here are the things that I’ve found to be helpful:

If you are the boss, start by extending sincere thank yous to your weary staff. I’m not talking about doughnuts in a box cast on the breakroom table, rather, I mean a handwritten personal thank you note for each person recognizing specific ways that individual contributed. Next, give your staff a few “no charge” days off. Let them pick which ones. These are compensatory days that don’t have to count against vacation time. More than just about anything else, this simple acknowledgment of a person’s contributions will be remembered and appreciated.

But what about yourself? When there is only one day to refresh, here is my tonic:

Disconnect from technology. No cell phone, television, or computer allowed;

Be quiet and let quiet surround me;

Reconnect with Mother Nature by taking a walk, working in the garden, or sitting by the water;

Take a too-fast drive in my sports car with the windows down;

Put on comfy clothes and eschew make-up;

Read a book;

Meet non-work friends for brunch or supper. Talk about what theyhave been doing;

Do something with family that has no connection with work and that takes place where you are unlikely to run into people you know;

Pet the cat and concentrate on his rhythmic purr;

Exercise;

Be myself.

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Protocol Professionals Make Events Run Smoothly

People often ask me what protocol professionals do. The simple answer is we ensure that things run smoothly so that business can be accomplished and relationships can develop without the distraction of logistics.

We just finished one of my favorite events of the year, the week The University of Alabama in Huntsville hosts the annual Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium, an international gathering of the world’s space experts and next-gen space pioneers who convene to imagine, discuss, debate, and strategize the future of space. It is an excellent illustration of what protocol professionals do every day.

Presented by the American Astronautical Society, the symposium is held on our campus because of Huntsville’s storied history in the space business (this is the place where the Saturn V, the rocket that launched men to the moon, was developed) our proximity to Marshall Space Flight Center, and our status as the anchor institution to the nation’s second largest research park.

One of my favorite aspects of the week is the opportunity to work with public affairs and protocol colleagues from industry and government, many of whom are friends that I see only once a year when they arrive to escort their principals. The Von Braun Symposium brings an impressive international collection of government officials, corporate executives, astronauts (including moon walkers from the Apollo era and numerous Space Shuttle commanders, pilots, and mission specialists), researchers, academicians, and students from other universities. The week includes panels, speeches, debates, private meetings, social gatherings, tours, competitions, and recognitions. It has many moving parts, each advanced by teams of public affairs or protocol officers. We intuitively work together to help each other succeed, because we know success for one, is success for all.

Throughout months of advance planning we have sorted out agendas, routes and parking, we’ve held many phone conferences and numerous walk-throughs. We’ve negotiated what will and won’t be possible. But what do protocol and public affairs professionals actually do during the gathering? Here’s a sampling:

Stand in the cold before the sun is up to welcome a VIP;

Facilitate an important government official’s short notice request for a private meeting space with sophisticated communication capabilities, marshaling staff from across the university only to watch the meeting get cancelled at the last minute;

Find a substitute meal for the luncheon speaker who is also the highest-ranking person in the room when he surprises us all by revealing he doesn’t eat the day’s entrée;

Rearrange flags on stage moments before the conference convenes when one of us notices a serious mistake in the line-up;

Soothe the nerves of an exhausted out-of-state student suffering from 24 hours of delayed and rerouted flights to arrive minutes before her presentation at an important scientific competition that could help shape her future;

Deploy a hospitality team to feed and make her stressed travelling companion, her mother, comfortable;

Noodle together as we sort out the appropriate seating for a collection of distinguished participants who hail from very different walks of life, all of whom are accustomed to being the ranking person in their universes;

Resist the temptation to request a photo or autograph from the famous people with whom we are conversing;

Abandon the first real hot meal we’ve seen in two days because of a changing situation. Return to eat it later in the hallway when it’s cold and flavorless;

Make eight large-sized bottles of Mountain Dew appear immediately for a dignitary’s car;

Facilitate a surprise award for a retiring leader by stalling his departure without annoying him;

Diplomatically redirect important people who are nonetheless “crashers,” from seating themselves at luncheons to which they were not invited;

Work with security details and know when and how to discreetly communicate critical information;

Go home when the moon is high in the sky and return when the same moon is still up;

Understand that your principal is oblivious to most of your efforts, which is as it should be;

Enjoy a great sense of satisfaction from knowing that your behind-the-scenes efforts helped make an important gathering a success.

 

 

 

 

 

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Follow Through For Great Events

Follow through is what we are seeing when we admire the beautiful tall arced posture of a golfer whose ball is headed straight down the fairway or the powerful coiled position of a baseball player as the ball he has hit heads for the centerfield fence.

Follow through means carrying motion through until a plan or activity is concluded. It is a fundamental taught to anyone learning golf, baseball, or tennis because the momentum of continuing the swing after the ball is struck creates the force that delivers power. Follow through is also critical for events planners. It is the difference between events that are good enough and those that are great.

Solid follow through ensures attention to detail and saves time and money because we don’t have to re-do work or finish what someone else started. Follow though prevents mistakes and helps eliminate last-minute chaos caused because critical details were left unfinished.

The university opened last month for the new academic year which meant a flurry of back-to-back events for thousands of people, all compressed into a short timeline. Watching the work crews hurriedly set up tables to accommodate 1,000 picnic guests, I noticed that one man was not snapping table legs firmly into place. For him, this was a time saving short cut, but this dangerous lack of follow through meant tables would likely collapse spilling hot food and drinks on unsuspecting guests.  The consequence: We had to stop progress and recheck all tables.

Many large trash receptacles were delivered to the site to be distributed to pre-determined locations. Instead of following through and arranging them according to plan, the delivery people unloaded the containers into a massive group far from where they would be used and went home for the day. What’s worse, they delivered numerous cans that had not been emptied from a previous event! Their lack of follow through meant people had to be pulled from other jobs and deployed to solve the problem.

Follow through is everyone’s responsibility. It could be that the man setting up tables had never been shown how to lock legs or that the trash receptacle delivery personnel were never told where to put the containers. If so, it means that someone in their organizations failed to follow through with good training and complete instructions.

Here are five tips for ensuring good follow though:

  1. Do what you say you are going to do. If you accept responsibility for certain tasks, be sure they are complete, accurate, and on time. Follow through to be certain you have met your obligations by reviewing meeting minutes and checking your own notes.
  2. Handle tasks once. While events planners must be adept multi-taskers, the more times you handle a task, the more you are likely to forget details or run out of time to complete them. Whenever possible, handle things once, complete them, and move on. Don’t leave details dangling.
  3. Organize all components of an event on a spreadsheet. Check each off as completed. Follow through by double-checking the list with members of your team.
  4. Make decisions and stick to them. Ambiguous or tentative plans leave the door wide open for lack of follow through because everyone is waiting for a decision and in the meantime, moves on to service other needs. If plans must change, be certain this is communicated and that new tasks are assigned and those that are no longer needed are cancelled.
  5. Build follow through in to planning. Follow through with your team by periodically meeting to review progress, identify trouble spots, and revise plans, if necessary.
  6. Always file a debrief detailing what worked, what didn’t and why—doing so is the ultimate follow through and helps ensure mistakes won’t be repeated and that events continue to improve year after year.