As a university special events planner, here is my confession.
In this new series we present real-life confessions from people working in the event industry. These uncensored, frank insights tell it ‘like it really is’. Some details have been changed to respect the anonymity of the confessor and ensure maximum honesty can be upheld.
I am an event planner for an academic institution in their development and fundraising office. My role involves working with fundraisers and other university staff on creating memorable events that help cultivate relationships and educate donors, alumni, and parents on the priorities of the university in hopes of creating giving opportunities.
I started at the university in an admin role with some event planning as a part of my responsibilities and then moved along from there. I am on a team of seven people that make up the Special Events Department at the university. We have one Director, four event planners (myself included) and two people who provide staff support in areas of accounting and data management.
My Role and the Event Projects I Manage
I have a portfolio of events that I manage, roughly 30 events per year, ranging from intimate dinner parties at donor’s homes to cocktail parties and larger annual galas, etc. The events I run are mostly indoors, with occasional outdoor events. We bring in outside caterers when we can. Some on campus venues have exclusive catering rights.
I have several events that I plan annually and then a variety of events that pop up throughout the year. Since we are at an academic institution we tend to follow the rhythm of the academic calendar. There is always year round planning of events but we do feel a drop around the holidays and for a short time in the summer. The Fall and Spring are jam packed.
My Average Day
On a daily basis I work with vendors on catering, floral design, venues, invitation design, etc. I collaborate with fundraisers and donors on the purpose of the event and marketing strategies, etc. I spend time creating project management timelines for myself and staff. I create production schedules for onsite execution of the events.
Universities Have Fantastic Facilities to Work With
We love showing off our facilities to donors, parents, and alums returning to campus. Our facilities are our biggest asset and we use them for a lot of events. We really love doing events in unique spaces like a seated dinner on a theater stage, or champagne toasts on the top of the Chapel, or receptions on the floor of the sports grounds, etc.
Why I Love My Job as a University Event Planner
I love the ‘content’ of what the events I plan and working with world class faculty and students who are doing incredible things to help make the world a better place. It’s important to me to believe in the message and in the goal of the events I produce.
The Biggest Barrier in My Job
One of the biggest barriers to doing my job is that sometimes our departments are siloed and so we don’t have control over some pieces like communications, marketing, etc. We collaborate with those teams, but we don’t always have full involvement.
Academic Event Planners are Undervalued
I do not feel like event planners are valued at academic institutions the same as in other areas of the event industry. That leads to low paying positions and lack of professional growth within the institution. You would think that the importance of our role would be appreciated, but we are seen as a service role.
My department, more than any other on campus is probably one of the two most valued special event teams (along with the President’s Office and University Ceremonies) but still our office values the fundraisers and prospect researchers more, even though we clearly work harder than most, with long hours, attention to detail, strategy, etc.
Looking for a New Challenge
I’ve been working in special events for the same employer for over nine years and I’m currently looking for new career opportunities. The only progression for me within the university in special events is to move to a Director role which doesn’t pay much more and isn’t much different than what I’m doing now except for having to manage a team. I’m not sure I’m interested in this, since I think it takes me away from the actual event planning part of my job.
My aspirations are to explore opportunities in the event industry outside of an academic institution in hopes of expanding my portfolio of expertise and knowledge of the industry as well as have a higher salary position and have more opportunities for growth within the industry.
Currently I am doing strategic research on the industry and trying to be thoughtful about my next step ahead. I’m happy where I am but recognize it’s time for a new challenge. I guess I’m struggling with finding the next career move.
Marketing Skills are Vital
One thing I didn’t realize is the need for marketing experience for event planners. I have collaborated with marketing and communications teams in my work as an event planner, but don’t have the actual marketing experience current positions are looking for. For so long they have been in separate silos, now companies want a candidate to have both. I am currently figuring out which specific marketing skills I need most though. I am investigating other training. I’m considering a CMP or CSEP or taking some courses in marketing or volunteering with marketing event teams.
I really enjoy my role planning special events for the university, however, after nine years I am keen to explore new challenges. Developing my event marketing skills and knowledge seems to be essential to taking the next step in my career. Watch this space!
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