Make Sure the Venue Isn’t Haunted (And Other Helpful Event Planning Advice from Christina Conway of Humanscale)
Christina Conway is an experiential marketing manager at Humanscale, which designs and manufactures ergonomic office furniture including sit/stand desks, office chairs, and task lights. Event planning is a big part of her job, such as managing trade shows and organizing product marketing events, including launch parties, pop-ups, and product experiences. “When I first started here nine years ago, the role was about 50% event planning and 50% marketing and other activities. But as the company grows, my event planning work keeps expanding,” she says.
In talking with Catalyst about her job, Conway illustrates how she occasionally deals with the unexpected, but always with the practical.
What was a particularly challenging event to plan?
NeoCon, which takes place over three days every year and is the largest and most important event for the design industry. It’s a forum for discussing trends and key industry issues and networking with other members of the commercial furnishings and design community and is held in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, where we have a showroom.
This year we had a meet and greet and a press event with Don Chadwick, a designer who created a new stool, and we also sponsored the press lounge to showcase our products to the media. Members of the press could take a break there, pick up press kits, and so forth. We also had a satellite exhibit in another part of the building and held a cocktail party for 1,300 of our closest friends.
It’s challenging because it’s a multi-day event and the setup is full-on construction. I have to hire electricians and contractors, and then everything disappears after the event. Also, the deadline doesn’t change. Monday morning the guests walk in the door no matter what has happened—if deadlines were missed or shipments didn’t arrive, for example.
What was your favorite event to plan?
The 12th and last in a series of global roadshows, which was held at Andaz, a resort in Scottsdale, AZ, last year.
The event was outdoors in a beautiful setting, and there was a great vibe. The guests really enjoyed themselves, and everything was on-brand. It all came together nicely. I had great vendors and wonderful partners, and it was a true team effort. It might have looked like it was easy, but there was a lot of experience and planning behind the scenes to get to that point and make it appear that way.
Looking back, what would you tell yourself on your first day as a planner?
Have perspective. This work can be really stressful, but we’re not saving lives. It’s extreme project management and serious problem-solving, but you have to find a balance between what you go to the ends of the earth to solve versus what you let go of and make do with.
What lesson have you learned about planning?
You can incorporate sustainability principles in this work. Humanscale is committed to sustainable manufacturing, so I work with the caterers to make sure there’s no single-use plastic, and I work with vendors to incorporate zero waste principles. For example, a caterer we hired for one event used a breadstick as a skewer, and our giveaway for that event was a reusable straw.
What was a mistake you once made in planning an event?
For an event in New Orleans, I didn’t fully vet the hotel, which was rumored to be haunted. There was a particular story about one room, perhaps the library, and someone started taking photos in some of the rooms. Supposedly you could see something otherworldly in one photo. Luckily, our guests got a kick out of it; one person told me they had a “spooktacular” time. I had checked to see that the hotel had room service and other standard amenities, but you need to really check reviews as well.
Do you have a tip you can pass on to event planners?
Join an industry association. Being a member of MPI (Meeting Professionals International) helped me connect with others doing the same thing and feel I was part of something bigger than myself. I grew personally and professionally from the education programs and networking events. I particularly like the organization’s experiential program series that includes SXSW, where I got an inside look at what goes on behind the scenes. The festival started as all music, but now it’s a mix of film, technology, interactive media, comedy, and conferences.
What’s some advice you’ve received about event planning?
SXSW legendary planner Mike Shea, their Chief Logistics Officer, advised me to “be nice to everyone.” That is so true because everyone is important and there are so many moving parts and details to make an event successful. You need a lot of cooperation to manage a project.
Do you have any words of wisdom you can pass on to event planners?
Inspiration can come from anywhere, even outside our industry. When you see or hear something, file it away and connect the dots later. For example, I’ve always wanted to do a gravity room photo booth, which produces an optical illusion so that photos come out as if the subjects are in gravity-defying poses. I could never find the right event, or the right product, to connect engaging photos like these to our company.
When CES, the Consumer Electronic Show, was coming upa couple of years ago, I realized that the crazy photos would be perfect for calling attention to our QuickStand Eco desk solution, which allows computer users to sit or stand while they work. It was a memorable demonstration of the product and really stood out to the attendees who tried it.
What makes an event special to you?
The satisfaction of knowing you have the ability to curate every single part, and then bringing it back to what you want people to know about your product or brand. It’s so much more than just choosing between blush-pink or rose \-pink napkins. You’re really selling yourself short if you stop there. I like to connect everything to the “why.” Why are we having the event, why not just show the product in a brochure, why do we need to have an in-person event? You really want to achieve your ROI and justify the resources and effort that goes into the event.