This Wednesday, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Alison Milgram, who is a senior meeting manager at the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) in Chicago,IL. I wanted to share this interview to help educate others as best as I can.
Q: What type of events have you planned and worked with?
A: In my career, I have mostly worked with associations, so I have planned large conferences, board meetings, galas, and dinners. I have also worked in hotels, so I have seen the catering side of events with many corporate events and weddings.
Q: What experiences would you suggest that students interested in event planning should have?
A: This isn’t really an experience, but I feel that being a social person and being well traveled can really help you in your job. When planning an event, you need to make sure that you have an interest in the details. Event planning is all about taking a blank slate and create something fantastic for others.
Q: What has been your favorite type of event to plan? Least favorite type of event?
A: I love working big galas and dinners! I enjoy taking a typical chicken dinner and making it special. I love picking out napkins, plates, a great menu, decorations, and all of the glitz and glamour.
My least favorite type of event to plan is definitely board meetings. They are a necessary evil. I love being creative with events, so having to plan a cookie cutter event is just not as much fun.
Q: What challenges do you think are the most relevant to event planners?
A: The biggest challenges today in our industry are safety and security. Ensuring participants are safe, while not freaking out your participants with a ton of security or freaking yourself out. I’ve written many emergency action plans, but trying to write an emergency action plan, while trying to keep people safe from active shooters is hard.
Q: Why did you choose to become an event planner?
A: I actually didn’t choose to become an event planner. I just fell into it. When I was in college there were no hospitality degrees. I took a part time job working on a conference and loved it. After college, I took a job as a receptionist and the HR person at that company knew the HR person for an event company that really sparked my career.
Q: What is the worst event vendor that you have worked with?
A: I have never really worked with a bad vendor. There have definitely been bad experiences. If you work with a good vendor, even if it is a bad experience, they will work to make things better on the spot. I had one luncheon that the food was ruined, but at least the final bill was discounted.
Q: What is it like working for a professional organization made for meeting planners? Do you feel a lot of pressure?
A: Yes, there is a lot of pressure and it can be intense because there are no worse critics than people in your industry. My goal is always to push boundaries, be a trendsetter, and show scalability. Our association always wants to show our creativity and how to scale it to any audience. We also always have a goal of helping educate meeting planners and helping them succeed.
Q: What was it like planning an event in a different country?
A: It was challenging, but I love it. I love travelling and learning about different countries. I definitely have a travel bug. I have planned events in Canada, Australia, and Europe. One little thing that I learned while planning an event in Canada was that when they have a tea station, they do not include honey, which is a standard here. It is not really that different, but you learn little nuances and what they call certain things.
Q: What is it like travelling for conferences that you have worked/ travelling for work?
A: I am one of those people who would hop on a plane at anytime and go anywhere. I love travelling. I am lucky at my job because we usually have more than one site for our event location. I get to check out a location and then a few months into planning, I can go back and check to see if the event still make sense in this space. Then, I can go back again and see how the event has evolved. I get to know the cities I work in well and have a good sense of the space before going into the event.
Q: Is it nerve-wracking planning something for 30,000 attendees? How do you manage your stress during these situations?
A: Not as nerve wracking as you may think. The nerves come from the type of event rather than the amount of people. It doesn’t matter if you have 30 people or 30,000 people, if an event has more moving pieces it can be more stressful. Make sure to surround yourself with good people that know what their doing and can guide and help you. Working with someone that has planned the type of event you are working on before can really decrease your stress as well.
Q: Any advice for students interested in event planning?
A: Finding a mentor is key. Mentors will share their experiences, and are willing to give you advice. I did not have mentor at the beginning of my career, so I just took advice from each manager that I worked with at an association management company. I took the good advice from good people and took notes from the bad people. I would also say to definitely get involved with associations within the industry. Networking and meeting people can really help you succeed and learn from others.
Q: I am currently looking for an internship or part-time job, where would you suggest the best places to look are?
A: Hotels are always hiring in someway, and personally I loved working for Hilton Worldwide. Hotels can give you great experiences with hospitality. Some other great places to look are Meeting Professionals International (MPI),Smith Bucklin, of course, where I work, Professional Convention Management Association(PCMA), and other job sites.
Q:What is your favorite part of event planning?
A: I love going into the convention space when it’s empty before any of the attendees get there and taking it all in. Once all of the event structures are built, you are able to see that you created something beautiful, and have other people enjoy something you spent so much time and effort on.