A Career Behind the Scenes – Reflecting on 20 years in the Meetings Industry

This is a post by our regular contributor Trish Rafferty, CMP. Trish is the Senior Meeting Manager with Meetings in Medicine in NYC. Follow her on Twitter @theFunctionista.

How did the girl with the reputation for throwing bad parties in college end up a meeting planner?  It’s been an interesting journey and I am amazed to be marking 20 years in the meetings industry. Looking back I’ve packed lots of memorable experiences into the past two decades; some good, some bad, but somehow all of them combined have kept me in the business for so many years.

First back to my aforementioned reputation; in my defense, I always had fun at my parties.  Objectively they were truly bad parties.  They started early, ended early, and were never truly memorable except maybe as being “social don’ts.” My senior year neighbors rejoiced whenever a party was announced in our apartment.  They were almost guaranteed enough beer left over to host a bigger, more successful party across the hall the following night.

Throwing good parties in college does not in any way prepare one for life as a meeting planner – college students take note.  Successful college parties (I’ve been told) are based on popularity, social skills and liberal amounts of beverages – not necessarily my strengths.  Meeting planning, on the other hand, involves organization, negotiation, a penchant for customer service and the ability to juggle myriad details, keep them straight and assemble them all into a successful event.  It’s more of a backstage discipline than a front and center kind of a profession and that works to my strengths.

I love the “behind the scenes” element and the extraordinary effort that goes into making the event seem effortless to the attendees.  I spent my high school years working behind the scenes in the drama department setting up the theatrical productions and running props to my less shy classmates who graced the stage.  Clearly the blueprint for my career was already in the making.

I worked summers in college as an usher at an outdoor amphitheater (a possible foreshadowing for manning a meeting registration desk) A still vivid memory from that job is watching Diana Ross, hands held high, dance into the audience singing “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand.”  The crowd was tickled as they strained to make hand contact with their idol and the visual on the cameras was impressive.

From my vantage point, however, I could  appreciate the lyrical irony as I watched four burly security guards crawling at the Diva’s feet – two in front and two in back – vetting each hand before it could be touched  and keeping the eager crowd at bay.   These are the little moments the attendees never get to see – the times that belie the illusion.

I did not start out as a planner, but after brief, misguided forays into advertising and marketing I fell into it with little to recommend me beyond a liberal arts degree, a sister in the business and a mentor willing to take a chance on me.  Quickly I discovered my element and my ability to multitask. A strong affinity for details and a sense of humor have sustained me for many years.

Set-up time is my favorite – I am elated by the sights and sounds of an empty meeting room with staging and materials set just before the onslaught of attendees.  I thrill to the sounds of sets being assembled, tables and chairs being placed, slides reviews and audio testing. I adore the dress rehearsal, the camaraderie between the players who put on the production.

To this day, the rush I get is from the calm (or chaos) before the doors open.  I love the opportunity to set the room, place crisp new agendas at each place and stand at the lectern looking out over a room that will soon be filled with attendees. I am long gone from the stage before the doors open (usually I’m the one opening the doors) and consider it high praise when the average attendee marvels that the meeting “runs itself” on-site.

One of the programs that always stands out when I think about the craziness of my profession and why I love it was a sales meeting at the Grand Hyatt in New York City.  As fellow meeting planners can relate, I had to wear many hats during the course of the meeting and, due to budget constraints, I was a one-man show on this one.

On the day of the Awards banquet I got the group settled into the afternoon session and got to work preparing for the evening ahead.  I maneuvered my way through the maze of Grand Central Station to the dinner venue with boxes full of decorations and awards.  I quickly displayed the awards and set out gold themed decorations on the tables; there was a brief altercation with the pastry chef, but that’s another story.  After ensuring the AV set-up was underway for the awards presentation, I made my way back through Grand Central to the hotel to greet my attendees exiting the last session of the day with reminders to meet in the lobby at 6:30 PM sharp.

At the appointed time I led the group through Grand Central to the restaurant and got them started with hors d’oeuvres and cocktails.  While they began the celebration, I traversed Grand Central back to the hotel and met the bellman to room drop gifts from Tiffany’s for the sales force.  Fortunately it was only 20 rooms so I made my way back to the restaurant in time for the main course, dessert and to cheer on the winners.

After dinner my group ventured out on their own to continue the festivities in the city  and I stayed behind to pack up the awards, dismantle the decorations (some of which now decorate my home) and taxi around the corner to the hotel for a much-needed night’s sleep.  It was an exhausting, but exhilarating day, and I was thrilled to be able to pull it all off and maintain the impression that it just happened.

After 20 years, I have (hopefully) outgrown my reputation for bad parties and replaced it with a demonstrated proficiency for strong, reliable meeting planning.   For myself, I consider it a sign of true personal growth that I hardly ever check the bar anymore at the end of the evening to reassure myself that there is not enough alcohol left over for a much better party in the ballroom across the hall!

Trish Rafferty, CMP, Meetings in Medicine. @the functionista.

Image: Alan Cleaver

Keith Johnston

Keith Johnston

Keith is the Managing Partner of i3 Events but is most widely known as the outspoken publisher of the event industry blog PlannerWire. In addition to co-hosting the Bullet List and Event Tech Pull Up Podcasts, he has been featured in Plan Your Meetings, Associations Now, Convene, Event Solutions, and has appeared on the cover of Midwest Meetings Magazine.

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