Any event planner will tell you that event day can be a bit stressful. But as the saying goes—pressure makes diamonds. Laura Duffy is an events professional with Impact XM who has seen her share of stressful moments. But it was a piece of simple advice from a tennis legend that helped her put these situations in perspective.

Duffy sat down with Catalyst to share lessons from her career on dealing with high pressure situations.

Laura Duffy, manager of meeting and event services at Impact XM

What does Impact XM do and what is your role there?

We’re a brand engagement agency. We create live events, conference exhibits, environments, digital engagements, and consumer activations that connect the client’s target audience with their brands. I’m the manager of meeting and event services, where I lead a team of fifteen dynamic, smart, adaptable, creative associates. Working with our internal business partners and clients, we help craft customized experiences, from registration to venue selection to on-site event execution. 

What was a particularly challenging event to plan?

I think each event has its own complexity because we have such high standards in this industry. But one event we managed, a cross-country music tour that was outside, was a real challenge. First, there was the weather to contend with. Second, we needed all hands-on deck for this one, with round-the-clock activity such as setting up the client area, ensuring all ran smoothly, striking the set at the conclusion of the concert, and then driving to the next city. The logistics across the board for the six cities were complex, and we needed to ensure that the service level was the same for all of them. The experience was riveting and gave us the opportunity to walk a mile in others’ shoes because we wouldn’t normally work on this type of event.

What was your favorite event to plan?

A higher education speaker series where Paul Rusesabagina spoke. He’s the Hutu luxury hotel manager in Rwanda who was the inspiration for the film Hotel Rwanda. During a wave of mass murder in the country, he risked his own life for 100 days to be able to shelter about 1,200 people and keep them alive. He is a man of sterling integrity, yet he considers himself an ordinary man.
I am captivated by his story.

Looking back, what would you tell yourself on your first day as a planner?

Right off the bat we need to be able to embrace the fact that we have to juggle deadlines, resources, and expectations, and we need to make sure we do it all within budget and on time.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about planning?

You have to do the job with grace, but you also have to be agile. It’s an interesting dance we do, trying to be graceful and juggle things at the same time.

Have you experienced a calamity before or during an event?

Once we were working on a client’s general session meeting and we needed to set up computers and other equipment when we were pushed back twelve hours. Knowing we also had our keynotes arriving in a few hours for rehearsal, I had to come up with a plan. I had an adjacent room set up next to the general session to replicate exactly what the stage would look like, with a small riser, AV, confidence monitor, and live microphones for the participants. We also noticed, as with many events, there were a number of presentation slide changes. We quickly scheduled our PowerPoint designers to work in shifts so that they could make the necessary changes in real time with the keynote speaker.

Any words of wisdom for planners?

I once worked on a program where Billie Jean King was the keynote speaker. She arrived late in the evening. I greeted her when her car pulled up, and gave her her room key, a bottle of water, and a packet of information about the program. She asked who was planning the event and I said I was one of the key planners, but that it takes a village to pull off an event like this. She asked how it was going, and I said “It’s going well, and we wanted to make sure everyone has a good time.”

Then she said something I will never forget: “Pressure is a privilege. It only comes to those who earn it.” I keep that saying on my desk now, and I have a copy at home, too. It’s so humbling because it’s correct. We are very privileged to do what we do, so we need to look at the pressure with a different mindset.

What makes an event special to you?

Knowing we’ve looked at every step in the customer journey, from the save-the-date, to the post-event, and mapped everything out so we can identify any gaps and hopefully get in front of them. That means rehearsing a check-in time and timing how long it takes someone to scan badges to enter a meeting, for example. If people will be in a room with a crescent rounds arrangement and they didn’t request that, can they still see the stage? Do we need to bring in different monitors?

I love when things come together, but whether they move flawlessly or not, I love knowing we’ve at least thought about and tested the client journey.