The tight labor market is fuelling demand for freelance services in the event industry. For their part, planners are moving into freelance work for greater flexibility, relief from career burnout, and the chance to focus on aspects of the job they enjoy most.
As it has in many industries, the gig economy is having a big impact on event planning, with the services of skilled freelancers in high demand. EventMB spoke with the founders of three companies that provide freelance staffing for events to learn why the trend is finding favor with organizations and meeting planners alike and how its role is evolving.
For Tracy Judge, the impetus to found Soundings Connect stemmed from a long-held interest in the freelance economy. After observing how companies were effectively using the freelance model for innovation, Judge saw an opportunity “to help organizations scale and to provide professional freedom for talent in the events and hospitality industries.”
Along with event planning services, Soundings Connects also provides freelance support for meeting industry suppliers, including hotels and DMCs.
As a direct reflection of the demand for freelance support, Happily began over a decade ago when CEO Sarah Shewey was a TED conference producer who found she needed more than what a single production company could provide.
“What we really needed was an easy way to hire specialists from lots of companies and places in the world to form a super team,” she said.
Forage, a company founded by Benjamin Sklar, is targeting the exhibitor and buyer end of the market by providing people to attend events, not plan them. In most cases, these are experienced sales reps who attend conferences on behalf of real estate companies to generate leads. He is currently planning to expand beyond real estate into the crypto conference world.
“There’s a skill set for attending events — you need to be charismatic and well spoken,” Sklar said. “I realized there were people who would be happy to get paid for this service and that there were companies who needed help in sourcing investors.”
With the return of in-person events, the demand for skilled freelancers has mushroomed in just the last few months, according to Judge.
“There was a lot of attrition during the pandemic, so everyone is looking for support,” Judge said. “Companies are having trouble finding what they need. There’s demand for people who can handle virtual or hybrid events as well as live.”
Clients who contact Soundings Connect include corporations, associations, and meeting planning companies. With corporate clients, the initial contact is usually through procurement departments, although HR departments are starting to get more involved in the process, something Judge encourages.
“When procurement and HR departments work together on finding talent, it’s beneficial for everyone involved,” she said.
Sklar, who said Forage envisions providing “an outsourced sales team attending conferences around the world,” is also seeing growing demand.
“A lot of companies are looking at reduced costs and don’t want to hire full-time field sales reps,” he said. “If they can outsource, it’s a great savings, particularly if it’s someone already going to the conference. Not only is there a savings on travel costs, but on the conference ticket price, which can be $2,000 or more.”
The roles available for freelance event planners are growing and wide-ranging, everything from registration management to production and website building, Judge said. “As a result, people now have the opportunity to focus on the aspects of meeting planning that they like best.”
Shewey said that Happily, which focuses on show productions, has continually expanded its range of services and opportunities for freelancers.
“Going virtual has allowed us to expand beyond our experiential production studio services to strategy, creative, web, and broadcast,” she said. “Ten years ago, Happily started building day-of-coordination teams. Now, with the breadth of our experience from digital to physical events for all types of organizations, we are architecting new, multi-year event properties for worldwide organizations and governments.”
Who is drawn to freelance work? Soundings Connect is seeing a wide range of people of different ages and backgrounds, often at opposite ends of the career spectrum.
“Young professionals, many of them attracted to the digital nomad lifestyle and flexibility freelancing offers, are among our strongest sources,” Judge said. “So are retirees. Freelancing gives them the opportunity to leverage their professional experience while maintaining a healthy work-life balance.”
Women of all ages are also drawn to freelancing, she added. “Because women are predominately the main caregivers, freelancing gives them the opportunity to have flexibility and control over their careers, where they don’t have to sacrifice career progression for home life.”
Shewey is seeing a similar mix of demographics and motivations.
“On a team you’ll see Gen Z’ers working happily with moms of eight-year-olds and folks in the late stage of their career,” she said. “What seems to tie them altogether is their attraction to short, dynamic bursts of focused work versus a steady ritual of work to achieve progress.”
While initially relying on sales reps, Sklar is finding the possibilities for potential conference attendees to be broader than he initially thought.
“They can be college or grad students who want to get hired by the company doing the conference and view this as a trial run,” he said. “They can also be people who are retired or people on a job hunt.”
Into the Mainstream
While the trend toward freelancing is not new, Shewey and Judge both observed that the pandemic ushered it into the mainstream.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we had a massive influx of event professionals getting laid off and becoming freelancers for the first time,” Shewey said. “Meanwhile, digital marketers were getting burnout fast. They had to add virtual event organizer, community manager, content marketer and more to their job descriptions overnight. So the roles that were being outsourced changed entirely overnight.”
Judge believes the pandemic “broke down barriers” for the freelance workforce, while it also left many companies unprepared for the new workplace dynamic.
“Freelancers were successful and essential in this shift because they were already experts in working remotely and adapting to unique client needs,” she said.
While some meeting planners made the shift to freelancing because of furloughs or layoffs during the pandemic, Judge said many are making the move because of career burnout.
“Freelancing offers independent talent to take more control over their career and lives,” she said.
With competition for skilled event planners intensifying, Judge said many companies have become much more open to hiring freelancers.
“The talent market is so competitive now that companies know they have to give people the flexibility they need,” she said. “As they build back their businesses and event teams, we are helping them create agile talent models by leveraging freelance and full-time talent to build a flexible team with the skills needed in the post-pandemic world.”
Given current labor challenges, Judge has found a good source of new talent among college students and recent graduates in the hospitality field.
“These young people have a lot of the skills that we need for the future of events,” she said. “They’re tech savvy and used to working remotely. They can jump into projects, as long as we can provide them with opportunities to upskill and learn on the job.”
To facilitate the learning process, Soundings often pairs a new recruit with a seasoned pro to work together. The company also provides networking among students from various schools, so they can learn from each other.
“Things are happening so fast these days that there’s little time to train people, so pairing someone with a more experienced person helps them learn a lot faster,” Judge said.
Soundings Connect, which offers a community network for freelancers called Soundings Thrive, invests heavily in educational webinars and other upskilling opportunities for its over 1,400 freelancers. While most of its freelancers are currently based in the U.S., Soundings is also expanding quickly in Canada and the U.K.
With in-person meetings making a comeback during a tight labor market, companies that connect organizations with freelance event professionals are seeing unprecedented demand. For their part, many planners are seeking the flexibility and relief from career burnout that freelancing offers.