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The Event Experience

Last December my husband and I headed to a nearby city to enjoy the downtown Christkindl Market, a common holiday festival in many cities across the US. When we arrived, however, we were sorely disappointed. All that awaited us was a small smattering of vendors (that didn’t seem to align with the German craftsmanship we expected), and a cramped beer tent featuring bad music. We couldn’t tell what was where or how to find the big pretzel and hot beverage we’d been craving. We spent a grand total of 15 minutes poking around the event before deciding to head off to our next destination. The event experience didn’t match our expectations at all and I doubt we’ll ever go back.

How often do you think students or employers walk away with the same feeling after attending one of your career events or programs? According to a recent Gallup-Purdue Index Survey, while university career services have done a great job getting people in their door, many students report that they are disappointed with their overall experience. When you consider the percentage of students who interact with career services mainly through their special events, I think it’s safe to assume their dissatisfaction extends to this type of programming.

Given the key role that events play for career services in reaching our populations, we need to ask ourselves, are we equipping our staff with the skills and tools needed to create a successful event experience? One of NACE’s Core Professional Competencies is “Program and Event Administration,” but how to plan and implement a successful and memorable event is rarely talked about in our various professional associations. While many of us understand what a phenomenal event should look and feel like, we struggle to create that for the audiences we are trying to reach.

Shifting Your Perspective

Excellence happens when we think alongside people from related fields, and allow them to help shape our mindset. Before entering career services, I was an event manager and planned all of my community’s signature events and concerts. The lessons and skills I learned from my event planning days have proven invaluable to me in this field. I feel our field needs to draw from outside event planning expertise more often to help inform our own.

If your office is anything like mine, every single staff member has their hand in event/program planning in some capacity. In order to understand what an innovative and professional event should look like, we need to look to those who are leading edge in this realm. Mine ideas and resources from associations like International Festival and Events Association or start following publications such as Eventbrite, BizBash or Genioso Event Magazine. If we are looking for ways to create out of the box events that ignite our students’ interest and contribute to their career learning, we need to be willing to look beyond our own backyard. While we might not create events on the scale of the Macy’s Day Parade, there are best practices and new ideas that can be gleaned and transferred from the event professional’s field into our own space.

One simple example of drawing from another professional world is illustrated in my office’s annual technology networking dinner. Focused in particular upon our computer science students, we host a sit-down dinner where we intermix students, faculty and employers, and then break into open mingling over dessert. If you know anything about the typical CS student, open networking in particular can be difficult for them, which is why we set-up the event the way we did. However, we found as students were entering the dinner, they would still clump together at several tables. This year, taking a lesson from the world of fine dining, we set up a formal host/hostess station (dry erase table layout and all) where students would check in, be asked which employer they would like to meet, and then escorted to the appropriate table while staff chatted them up and helped them feel more comfortable before seating them. By taking a lesson from another ‘world’ and placing ourselves in the students’ shoes, we were able to make a simple tweak which greatly impacted how they were experiencing the event and led to much higher overall satisfaction by the students and employers involved.

The Experience Matters

Along with shifting where we find our event planning inspiration, we also need to be asking ourselves, WHO are we planning this event for? Why would they be drawn to attending? While we’d like to think that students and employers attend our programs for the sake of their futures, this frankly isn’t going to do the trick with all the other programs, events, and tasks competing for their attention. Furthermore, if they do come to an event and the experience doesn’t meet their expectations, you will have a much harder time engaging them again in the future. Specifically, Millennials and the emerging Gen Z have certain expectations of what an event will look and feel like. Generation Z in particular puts a ton of emphasis on the experience which according to a recent article on the Trade Shows News Network is the result of their constant exposure to “experiential events”. The Gallup-Purdue Index Survey reinforced this for career centers in particular when stating, “Delivering a high-quality career services experience to students is more important than getting them in the door”.

So next time you’re in the process of evaluating an event or assessing needs for a new one, move beyond the question of, “what are our goals for this event, what do we want students to learn,” and also ask yourself, “what experience do we want to create for students, how do we want them to engage in this event”? A Genioso article framed it well when stating, “Getting the logistics right is not the event professional’s main challenge anymore. It’s moving from planning another event to creating a multifaceted experience for the attendee.”

Recently, I had the privilege of co-chairing our regional association’s annual conference. The question that my fellow chair and I put forth constantly to all of our committee leads was, “How will our conference attendees experience XYZ and is it aligning with our theme of ‘Innovate, Create, Disrupt’?” We were fortunate to see the ‘multifaceted’ experience embraced through our keynotes: Attendees were dancing on stage and in the aisles with Performance Learning Concepts as they played funk and presented on legendary leadership by teaching us about the history of the bass guitar. Our closing keynote was a humorist that had us rolling with laughter but delivered a powerful message regarding embracing your “freak factor”. We recognized we were taking risks with these untraditional options, but the positive feedback we received from attendees was absolutely overwhelming. I trust this was because every aspect of the planning took the experiential question into account.

Details, Details, Details

No matter how unique or experiential an event may be, if it is poorly executed you have lost. It takes a unique combination of skills for an event to be pulled off successfully - skills such as organization and creativity, attention to detail and effective communication, the ability to create an overarching vision while keeping an eye on a million moving parts. The question for us in career services is, do the people or teams we have implementing our events have the right skills? When hiring for new staff, are we keeping these important administration needs in mind?

One of the reasons I believe my office has done well in managing events is because of the intentional team-based approach we take. Every key event that we put on consists of at least a three-member team – one person who is skilled with details and logistics, one person from the employer relations side of the house and one person from the career education side. We also have a member of our marketing team involved for at least one of two of the planning meetings. This team make-up includes a mix of full-time staff and student staff. While members for each event team vary, the process and tools that we implement do not. Each member understands what they are charged with and the ‘logistics’ person ensures that everything is being addressed and running smoothly. By utilizing this approach, we have found that our teams encompass fully the “14 Traits of Highly Effective Event Professionals” that Eventbrite details. It allows us to explore and shift our perspectives more easily in order to create a top-notch experience and it ensures that the very important details that every event has are carried out professionally and effectively.

Our field does not traditionally think of ourselves as ‘event planners’. Best case scenario, the title gets delegated to one person in the office without fully considering the ways in which all staff are instrumental in the success of our events and programs. In order to be truly successful, we need to start shifting our perspectives and ensuring our teams are equipped. In doing so, we stand a better chance of creating the engaging experience our constituents are expecting.

Katie Flint serves as the Director of Employer Connections and Career Center Operations at Colorado State University. Katie has also worked in employer relations, events and marketing at The Career Center at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Prior to entering the career services field, Katie worked for 5+ years at various organizations managing events, public relations and community outreach. During her professional tenure she has managed and led hundreds of events ranging from intimate 20-person executive board meetings to larger 3-day festivals that 20,000+ community members attend. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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